Should Books Have Content Warnings?
Content warnings, in their many forms, have been getting a lot of attention lately. They’re seen as either necessary protections for the vulnerable, or an attack on freedom of speech. Books have become an especially fraught battleground, with no standardised warning system on literature currently in place.
Most other forms of media have been using content warnings for decades; films and games have both age and content warnings, while albums carry ‘explicit content’ labels on their covers. So why are books the exception?
It should be noted that content warnings are not the same as an age-restriction system. They can come in various forms, but they are generally brief indicators or descriptions of something’s content, such as whether it contains violence, sexual scenes, or other things of that nature.
There are no specific reasons why, in a media landscape filled with content warnings, books remain largely free of them. It could be because writing isn’t as widely consumed as film, games or music, with most best selling literature only going on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies as opposed to the millions sold by the other formats. There is also an argument, backed up by some scientific reports, that images have more of an effect on us than words, which may explain why there is less of a hurry to put warnings on them.
Of course, it would be naive to say that the written word has no effect on its readers, and the lack of content warnings on most books makes for a curious double-standard in the media. An interesting comparison of this can be seen with the Jay Asher novel Thirteen Reasons Why and its subsequent TV adaptation.
A Young Adult (YA) novel that deals with sensitive topics such as suicide and rape, its Netflix adaptation has proved both wildly popular and highly controversial. The series graphically depicts these themes onscreen, which some say could negatively impact its young audience, with similar criticism being levelled at the book. However, while the TV series has warnings before the start of the series and before each especially graphic episode, the book carries no such warnings on it.
There are some books that do put content warnings on covers. That being said, however, these warnings (largely on YA books) are used quite arbitrarily. Books such as Sarah J. Mass’s Throne of Glass series and Rainbow Rowell’s novel Eleanor and Park both contain warnings saying that these books are ‘not suitable for younger readers’ for their violent and sexually explicit content. While Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series and John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska both contain similarly violent and sexually explicit scenes, neither of them display any kinds of warnings.
This rather random content warning system present on some YA books is non-existent on novels aimed at adults. This is likely because, while a young child could easily stumble across and read a mature YA book, they’re less likely to with adult books that are often shelved in separate sections. However, this assumes that the only reason for content warnings is for the protection of children, which dismisses the vulnerability of adults. While some will argue that adults don’t need to be shielded in the same way as children, that ignores those who may suffer from PTSD or other mental health issues. They may then become triggered by certain content that they weren’t aware was going to be featured in a book they’re reading. Content warnings aren’t about restricting the access of certain material to the reader; they’re there to allow people to make an informed decision about what they read.
Nevertheless, content warnings do come with potential drawbacks. They could easily be weaponised by certain groups looking to ban texts in places such as libraries and schools. Important books such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which tackles the subjects of police brutality and racism in modern day America, is one of the ten most challenged books of 2017, apparently for its offensive language and drug use. Important but controversial books that tackle mature topics would be the most likely to have their content warnings used against them as ‘proof’ that they shouldn’t be allowed in certain spaces.
This could then have the impact of deterring authors from writing about certain topics for fear of lower sales, with parents perhaps not wanting to pick up certain books with those warnings on them. Certain topics to do with racism, sexuality, and mental health can sometimes be difficult to read about, but it would be a great loss to literature if they weren’t being written about. On the other hand, if a parent, or a reader in general, doesn’t want to read books on certain subject matters, then that’s also their choice as a reader.
This isn’t a question with any easy answers. The labelling of art, even with something as simple as genre or target-market, is always controversial. Content warnings are an especially disputed issue because of their political implications in the larger context of freedom of speech versus protection of the vulnerable. There is likely some sort of middle ground out there that someone much smarter than myself will come up with, but for now it’s just something to think about.
by Seren Livie