Should Books Have Content Warnings?

If you’re a reader of fanfiction, you’re familiar with content warnings. At the start of their stories, authors will list potential triggers for readers as to why they might not want to read the story: slash, self-harm/suicide, abuse, death of a main character. It’s similar to movie ratings, when they say it’s rated R for language and violence. Video games are rated T for Teen or M for Mature. Even CDs will have a warning of explicit content. Books on the other hand, remain largely disclaimer-free. (I believe some novels that are erotica say ‘for mature audiences’ on the back, but they don’t specify the reasoning.) Which begs the question: if essentially every type of media includes content warnings, should books?

Personally, I’m torn on the idea. Many people believe that seeing and hearing explicit content is more severe than reading that same level of explicity on paper, which I tend to agree with. That being said, I recently became a big fan of Sherrilyn Kenyon and will be the first to tell you that her novels are graphic – not necessarily in terms of gore or sex, but in abuse – often toward children. I read one of her novels once that was so incredibly graphic that I was tempted on more than one occasion not to continue reading. That’s not to say that the abuse is gratuitous or doesn’t enhance the plot. In fact, it defines her characters. That doesn’t make it any less shocking to read. Should I have been warned going in that there was graphic child abuse in the story? Or does it take away from the story if we provide a warning that might give away a secret to the main character’s past and development? If we start putting warning labels on novels, how do we determine the list of potential triggers to warn people of? It really is a delicate balance that could easily be tipped either way.

Do you think we should be putting warning labels on our novels to avoid inappropriate audiences from stumbling across them? Is your mind made up one way or the other, or do you have any thoughts on this debate? I’m eager to hear your views.

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