Should books for adults have content warnings?

image by digitalspy.co.uk

image by digitalspy.co.uk

I told my mother to skip reading my latest book, The Bone Wall. She’s in her 80’s, and I know for a fact that she would find it gruesome and offensive. She thought my other fantasy books were “horror” and wondered why I was so “angry.”

I’m actually a pretty happy-go-lucky person: a loyal friend, loving wife and grandmother, and active volunteer. I like babies and puppies. I’m “nice.”

image from pixshark.com

image from pixshark.com

At the same time, I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, and Anthony Ryan, to name a few. I like gritty realism in my fantasy favorites, and my writing tends to reflect my preferences. I have this “thing” about not sugarcoating brutality.

Yet, as a “nice” person, I also have an aversion to giving offense. I want to move my readers emotionally and perhaps make them ponder choices for a moment of two, but my preference isn’t to trigger outrage or upset. My books are meant to entertain.

image by kaleveradaily.com

image by kaleveradaily.com

The Bone Wall pushed my own limits. Living inside these characters’ heads took its toll. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and stressed out. My heart was forgetting to beat, and when I went to bed at night, I wasn’t convinced I’d wake up in the morning. I ended up at the cardiologist with an exacerbated heart arrhythmia.

Oddly enough, after I finished the first draft, all my symptoms vanished. I wanted to warn my readers: DON’T READ THIS! BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH!

Well, as you might guess, I didn’t put that on the cover. I wrote an Author’s Note and tried to make the blurb reflect the content. Why did I stop there? Or go that far?

image by ethicsalarms.com

image by ethicsalarms.com

As I struggled over whether to warn readers about violence, sex, profanity, and religious content, I wondered if I was over-reacting. Will some readers say, “Gosh, Diana, what’s the big deal? You are such a wimpy drama queen.”

And books are supposed to trigger our emotions to an extent, aren’t they? The struggles our character’s endure and choices they make in the face of physical, moral, or psychic danger is part of what draws us in and engrosses us in the story.

The Bone Wall is not a YA novel. As a parent, I understand the desire to monitor content. Back in the olden days, I would have appreciated a rating on the books my daughter read, if only to engage with her regarding controversial subject matter. Though many YA authors seem to agree that content warnings have a place, differences of opinion continue to exist as to what should be included.

image from blogs.kcrw.com

image from blogs.kcrw.com

Adult readers have years of experience and wisdom to draw on. Our tastes and tolerances vary greatly. My husband likes Mad Max and I like Forest Gump. We have the choice to walk out of a movie or put a book down. I’ve done it, more often because it’s boring or vapid rather than too graphic. I chalk it up in the “oh, well” column and move on.

The Bone Wall is out now. I still muse over this topic and wonder what reader/reviewer reactions will be. I’d love to hear your thoughts about content warnings on adult books. Good idea? Bad idea? What’s your experience as a writer, reader, or both?

Thank you, and hugs from the “nice” me.

49 thoughts on “Should books for adults have content warnings?

  1. Most book readers are genre selective. I enjoy historical fiction of pre and post Roman Europe historical fiction so I know what I am getting into first. I also write and read reviews on amazonbooks so know ahead of time. I think a quick blurb on book jacket/cover re content respects the reader/buyer, however.

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    • Hi, Carl. Thanks for stopping by. That seems to be the consensus. Most readers are astute enough to figure out what they’re getting into, and reviews should give a broad impression of the work, even it the blurb doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty. Though a few authors seem to be completely against any kind of content warnings, most seem sensitive to alerting readers to triggers. I ended up adding a brief trigger warning to this book after hearing from a recent victim of sexual violence. I’m glad I did even if it will scare some readers away.

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  2. Dan Antion says:

    I’m not sure that I would care if there was a disclaimer or not. I think I would take my cue from the section of the store I was in or the tagging on the online store. I do prefer buying books face-to-book so I can flip it open and skim a few pages (I guess you can do that online, I just never bother). I don’t read this genre but in the books I read, the violence, language, sexual and religious content varies quite a lot from author to author. If it adds to the story, I’m fine with it. If it’s gratuitous or for shock value, I’m done reading. Not sure if I answered your question.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Dan. I’m very thick-skinned (and it sounds like you are too). If I find a book isn’t to my liking, I just put it down and move on. And for me it usually comes down to the quality of the writing rather than level of grittiness. As I think back, I’m much more likely to abandon a book because it’s boring, not because it’s too intense.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Janice Wald says:

    Hi,
    It sounds like you and I agree, perhaps they should have content warnings. I like love stories but I certainly don’t want to read porn.
    Thanks for visiting my site today. I’m glad you liked my post “Blog Growth…A Cheat Sheet.”
    Nice to meet you.
    Janice

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not so much a problem for me. When I am hungry to read, I usually go to the library and grab a stack of books to munch on and just set aside the ones which don’t suit. I only buy if I am looking for something specific- and then I know what I am getting. But I think that is probably hard on the author trying to make a living.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Heartafire says:

    I got quite a kick out of the repulsed faces here, thank you for that. Yes, sure , why not put a disclaimer there, a little warning for the faint hearted.
    Lovely text, enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I made the decision yesterday to add a trigger warning. I want parts of the book to make people uncomfortable and consider their choices, but I don’t want to trigger anyone who has suffered violence. I added “Trigger Warning” to my description and feel relieved that it’s there.

      Oh, yeah, the faces. They were so fun to pick out.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with you. I’m not a fan of sugarcoating, not even in my YA books. There’s foul language, sex, and other content that could be considered offensive. That being said, I think it’s “nice” to add a warning if your book contains certain triggers. You don’t need to put up a big, red flag, but the blurb should let readers know what to expect, particularly when there are graphic depictions of abuse or sexual assault. I know trigger warnings aren’t popular with some readers and authors, but for readers who suffer from PTSD, trigger warnings are extremely helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting that your symptoms disappeared. Am happy your characters have seen light. =)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I guess it’s all about expectations. I’m reminded here of Rayne Hall’s “Storm Dancer.” When I bought it, I’d noticed under the blurb the following notice:

    “Storm Dancer is a dark epic fantasy novel. It deals with dark issues and is not recommended for readers under 16. How dark is Storm Dancer? A few readers find it so disturbing that they can’t bring themselves to read on. Others find it not dark enough for their taste, and wonder what the fuss is about. It depends on your sensitivity to the issues. You may want to download the free sample pages (click on the right) or use the ‘look inside’ feature (top left) to get a feel. As a general guideline, if you’re ok with A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin, you’ll probably be ok with Storm Dancer.”

    When I read it, I had to shrug. The book was actually quite lighter than Game of Thrones, and I was one of those who wondered what the fuss was all about. Then, I read the following reviews (which, presumably, led to the warning):

    “The writing itself sometimes made me feel unwell, and I would have to put the book away until the feeling subsided and I felt strong enough to have another go…”
    “…the major offenses in my opinion were the extensive glorifications of rape…”

    I can only remember of one mention of rape: the hero was once a celebrated general, who had left his post in disgust over all the raping and pillaging that went with warfare (there were no descriptions of either; just of his feelings over past sins). To see this as a major offence surprises me to no end. Also, it tells me that there’s no accounting for sensitivity. What is rather innocent to one, is terribly offensive to another.

    So, what are we to do? I can really see two possible scenarios: One, that we write nothing but iodine children’s stories (not of the Grimm brothers’ variety, though, as these were rather dark for today’s sensitivities). Or, we put up with the odd one-star review.

    The only reason why we should include content warnings is to have less of the latter. If you don’t mind the occasional flame (read Rayne’s one-star reviews to see what flaming really looks like), though, then the blurb itself should be enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Nicholas for the thoughtful comment. The “warning” regarding Storm Dancer is a pretty effective one. It doesn’t attempt to qualify each area of potential sensitivity, but definitely tells the reader to “know thyself.” (Now, I want to read that book). I tried to do something similar in the Author’s Note, but that probably isn’t the best spot, since most readers don’t give it a glance. And I certainly wasn’t as direct in my statement.

      I was thinking about this great book I read that was made into a movie. A warning might say: Violence, murder, domestic violence, racism, and cannibalism. I might not have picked it up. The book was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, which was made into the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, a classic that I just loved.

      I expect a few less than stellar reviews based on the content – though so far so good. It was a risk I was willing to take to tell my story the way I needed to tell it. I’ll see how it goes and I may add a generic warning to the back cover if it seems to become an issue. Thanks again for the feedback.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Lol – what a great analogy! I loved Fried Green Tomatoes (one of my favorite movies), and you’re absolutely right – I wouldn’t have watched it, had I read such a warning. Oh, and you forgot ageism and chauvinism there 🙂

        If you’re really interested in reading Storm Dancer, why not email me your Amazon email and I’ll lend it to you? That way, you can properly check it out and if you enjoy Rayne’s style you can buy it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • See! I couldn’t remember if there was some child-abuse as well. I’ll purchase Storm Dancer. I trust your judgment and I like dark reads. First, I have to finish the trilogy I just started. It will be next on the list.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, I wasn’t afraid you might be put off by the darkness in Storm Dancer. I was afraid you might go, “so… where was all that promised darkness” once you read it 😀

            But thanks for your trust, it’s much appreciated 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  9. I doubt that I’d pay attention to warnings, they seem contrived to me.It’s okay to skip over passages that you don’t appreciate, as long as the story holds up and keeps my interest. I’ve abandoned quite a few books after a few chapters if I’m not drawn in to the plot. I’m loving the images you used above to illustrate your post… ☺ Van

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ocean Bream says:

    I remember being violently affected by the content of certain ‘adult’ books as a child, but that was because I was a child, and keen to put my hands on any print. I agree with your notion that our (as adults) ‘tastes and tolerances vary greatly’, I think we can make our own decisions on whether or not to read a book or watch a film. At the same time, however, ratings and warnings about content are quite helpful. It’s hard to discern what a film contains by the title alone, and having an idea of what it might contain is helpful to make those judgements. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback. I think warnings are helpful, but sometimes the material is really nuanced and it’s hard to capture that in a few words. I think perhaps my biggest fear about warnings is that books with violence or other objectionable material can be very different from each other, and they end up getting lumped together.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Dawn D says:

    I would think that’s what a good lubrarian would do. Or whatever you call a bookshop keeper.
    They would read the books, and advise you based on your preferences.
    Or that’s why I always read at least a few sentences inside the book to see if I like the style of writing.
    I guess my point of view is: “if you buy the book online, accept the consequences” which are the fact you have neither advice nor a peek into the book… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. grandmalin says:

    I think warnings on coffee cups saying the contents could be hot are ridiculous, so I guess my answer is a big fat no. Skip over the parts that offend you and get over yourself. Okay, that sounded a little harsh. Sorry I didn’t warn anyone 😄
    I have your book and it is next on my list to read! Now I’m looking forward to it even more.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ana says:

    Hi, Diana!

    Yes, that’s I can imagine that is quite a connundrum for a writer.

    Personally, I do prefer a heads up. If only because, even if I get the book, I may like the synopsis but not be in a mood for something too graphic.

    On the other hand, I imagine parents might not want their kids of a certain age to read such contents, if it’s classified as YA.

    And also, there are those people who might go as far as finding not posting such warnings misleading. You see, a person may be craving all the things they see on the cover (the blurb) but strongly dislike swearing and extreme violence. So if they spend money on a book where they didn’t get that heads up, I would imagine they would be highly disappointed.

    At the end of the day, people have different tastes. You can’t please everyone. To each their own.
    I do think that it’s best to inform; at least you will be giving the reader a choice before they actually or pick it up.

    Just my two cents ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly why I ask the question, Ana. There is also gratuitous violence, etc. and violence that informs the story. I don’t enjoy reading sex scenes, for example, if the whole point is to have a sex scene, but if it is integral to the characters and plot, I don’t mind it. Thanks for the feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ana says:

        Thank you for wanting to know what I think!
        Yep, if it complements the storyline I don’t mind it, most often. However, too many authors use swearing and violence and sex seemingly just for the sake of using it, and maybe to shock the reader. I don’t appreciate that at all.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m with you on that! I want a interesting cohesive story with rich characters that are thoroughly believable to me.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ana says:

            In that case those things should not matter.

            Hmm judging by other comments I am probably the only one who wants to read every single word in a book and does not skim through any sections… I feel like I would not be making a proper or fair judgement when reviewing it. On the other hand, it does take me forever to go through some books. But I wouldn’t feel ok with myself if I didn’t do it that way. Weird, huh?

            Liked by 1 person

            • Not weird at all. I’m an every-word reader too. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reviews where I can tell that the reviewer actually read it versus skimmed it for the sake of a review. THANK YOU.

              Liked by 2 people

              • Ana says:

                Yep, I do my best. I am very appreciative of authors and publishers who share their work with me for free, so it is the least I can do. I especially try to be specific when I did not like the book, or something about it. I hate the thought of making an author sad or upset with what I write, so the least I can do is be as detailed as possible instead of just going ‘this sucked!!’, know what I mean?

                Regardless, writing negative comments is so, so hard, particularly when you have communicated with the author in the past. I have to admit I find it hard not to try and be nicer than I would normally, and then I end up feeling bad anyway because it’s not fair to the other authors…

                So yes, like the subject of your post, one can never please everyone!! All we can do is our best 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

                • I think most authors recognize that there are different tastes out there. If a reviewer is specific it’s helpful to the writer AND reader. I don’t envy what you do because it must be really hard. That said, I’m immensely appreciate of all the reviewers out there who give our books a chance at a broader audience. Keep it up!

                  Liked by 1 person

  14. You mean like the time I went to read Game of Thrones, expecting a reasonably fun romp through a fantasy land, and ended up with penises thrown in my face? That’s why I like what my current publisher does. The serials they release have a suggested age on them!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting, Riley, the difference in perceptions. I don’t remember that much sex in the books, but the TV series seems unnecessarily loaded to me. I keep saying to my husband, “That didn’t happen in the book!”

      Liked by 2 people

      • It happened in the books, it’s just much more vivid a picture in the shows. I mean, it’s one thing to write about a whore house and all the deplorable things that go on inside, but quite another to show it in a movie. Admittedly, I am a bit of a prude when it comes to books. I tend to skip people having sex, because I’d much rather have my own that read about others!

        Liked by 2 people

  15. iamaslutgirl says:

    No, adults should be astute enough to determine if something written is something they would like to read or not.

    No matter their age or spirituality, they have the ability to make their own choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback. I do think a well done blurb should give a sense of the book. At the same time, it’s a pain to sit down with a book and find its not at all to your taste. That’s not limited to violence either. I’M not a fan of teenage romances, for example.

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