Do We Need Content Warnings For Books?

Earlier this year I saw a discussion online about whether or not we need content warnings for books in the same way we have ratings or warnings for movies, television shows, and video games. At first I thought I didn’t have an opinion, but the question followed me around for a bit. In May, I read a book that left me wishing I’d had some sort of warning before I began.

The thing is, I don’t love the idea of throwing some label on the cover. What I want is the blurb to accurately represent the book.

During the pandemic, I’ve been turning to romance and middle grade books to escape a bit. That’s not to say either are fluff. But they both have historically, in what I’ve read, carried a sense of hope. Recently, I’ve read some darker middle grade novels, so it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Still, most of the adult and YA books on my TBR list are darker, brooding, or just plain rough for the mind-set I find myself in.

Of the romance books I read in the first half of the year, only three left me feeling satisfied and happy. The others were perfectly fine books, but in my opinion they were marketed wrong. A few hardly seemed like romances to me. Others covered such heavy topics, that even though I was rooting for the characters to get together, all the other drama in the book made the happy-for-now ending feel fleeting and, as a result, left me blue and blah about the whole thing.

I am not saying these books were not good. I am saying they were not what I needed, and that based upon the blurb, I thought they’d be something else.

Reader expectation can tank a book.

I read a lot. I come across books that are not for me, but I still recommend them to friends who I know will love them. At the end of the day, just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean it’s not a good book.

The problem had earlier this year is that I felt like I’d been set-up by bad blurbs. I read the blurb and see a story about two people who are fighting falling in love, or helplessly in love but have real-life obsticles, or whatever the setup may be. What I’m not told is that the main character survived sexual assault, or domestic abuse, or a manipulative parent that left them anxiety-ridden and trying to learn what a healthy relationship is. If I were told this up-front, I could go into it ready. As it is, these very real-life issues and problems (which I love to see romance novels depicting something real and raw) are not even hinted to in the back-cover blurb.

Why does this matter?

Let me take a step back and talk about that darker middle grade. I read the fabulous Fran Wilde’s Riverland earlier this year. It’s a phenomenal book. I read it because I wanted to read Fran’s work before attending Futurescapes, and when I’d read the blurb I knew that this work was tackling domestic abuse and using magic to do so. I knew this going into it, and so I was able to pace myself. I was able to take breaks and talk myself through my own anxiety. I could coach myself through it because I knew ahead of time what I was getting into. If you’re not someone who has experience with childhood emotional and/or physical abuse, I can tell you that Riverland, for me, did a wonderful job of showing how children try to cope and how they try to protect themselves. How they create ‘magic’ to survive. Because Fran did such a terrific job, I also struggled with the book. But to my point here, I knew what I was picking up and getting into. I willingly took on that emotional turmoil.

I wasn’t afforded this opportunity in several of the romance novels I read this spring/early summer. And that’s a problem. big reveal would have been ruined in any of these books with simple but honest descriptions that let the reader know sensitive topics are presented and addressed in the pages that come. One of the books could have, when describing both characters, given some idea as to what their desires or goals were that let me know anxiety and depression was in the book. Same with the sexual assault book.

Survivors aren’t defined by what happened to them, but these books are about struggling to recover and that’s a huge element of their character. It’s defining for the story being told. Thus, I believe, it should be included in the blurb.

Is that a content warning? I don’t think so. It’s a more honest approach to what the books are about, and it sets up reader expectations.

Honest and descriptive blurbs also allow the reader to know before they’re half-way through a book that there might be some tough content in there, so if they’re not ready for it, maybe they should pick up the book at a later time.

I’ve seen this done in a forward from the author in some fantasy books as well, and that was great too. It doesn’t have to be in the blurb. The reason I’m fixated on the blurb for these romance novels, whereas I didn’t see a problem with the fantasy novel blurbs, is that the fantasy novels already sounded like they were going to be heavy from the blurb itself. The additional warning was a great secondary caution, but I knew from the synopsis that the book wasn’t going to be light.

Mental health is a tricky, ever-evolving and changing thing. I believe that books should tackle hard issues in part because representation matters. Having books reflect real people and their struggles helps people to realize they’re not alone. I do not advocate that any of these books should remove these topics or situations.

Rather, I would like to be able to choose when I read something that is going to take me on a journey that might hit too close to home in a way that could be damaging to my mental health.

In the same way that I avoid reading thrillers too close to bed (thanks over-active imagination), I would like to be able to avoid reading about emotional/physical abuse when I am in a ‘low’ moment or not feeling 100% mentally capable of processing that experience.

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