I love Neil Gaiman’s books and style of writing, I think it is quite an unusual style and his stories are never predictable for me. I picked this up from the library on my cruise for short stories, and decided to read it despite having an sense of unease about the title. If you do not want to read about trigger or content warnings in general please do skip this post and go and do something nice for yourself, like make a cup of tea or cuddle a cat.
I’m glad he decided to explain the title in the introduction to the book, but I have to say I disagree with his conclusion about trigger warnings in general. His opinion is that good writing should or can make people feel uncomfortable and uneasy, exploring very important facets of our experience which are not altogether pleasant for the reader. In particular he mentions educational institutions putting trigger warnings on set texts for students. He acknowledges the tension between not wanting to distress people and wanting them to stray from their comfort zones so they can learn and grow, and appears to have decided that the latter is more important. That being made uncomfortable is an important part of life and by extension literature. And because life does not come with trigger warnings, neither should books.
My problem with this is; it is entirely missing the point of trigger warnings. This is something I have often found frustrating in discussions around trigger warnings and safe spaces, which come hand in hand to some extent. Trigger or content warnings are not for people who don’t know about a particularly unpleasant or traumatic human experience; they are for those who have already experienced trauma and do not want to be re-traumatised. So here are my questions. Does that sound unreasonable? Is it fair for people in positions of power to presume what their students have or have not experienced and therefore decide what they need to read to learn and grow as people?
Often this issue is confused with censorship of sorts, whereby people who have not experienced a particular trauma do not want to learn about it, or sometimes concern about children learning about something distressing in an effort to preserve their perceived innocence. And I cannot stress this enough; that is not the same issue. It also particularly appears as point of difference in educational institutions whereby students are required to read and partake in classes about a set text with set themes. Imagine having to read about one of the most difficult experiences of your life represented in a book, and then spending possibly weeks, months or a year, having it dissected in a public space, and then graded on your ability to analyse it academically. Perhaps you don’t have to and this has happened to you, as it has happened to me throughout my education.
I think that a lot of this is to do with privilege, assumptions about people’s life experiences, and unfortunately, a lack of resources in education. I was lucky in my experience at university where my tutors on the whole took mental health issues very seriously, put their students well-being first and did not usually presume to know what we had or had not experienced. My experiences and my feelings were treated as valid and with respect and kindness by the majority of staff and students. I was given the option to engage with a different subject matter if I needed to and my tutors went above and beyond in terms of support. Had they not been so understanding, I know I would not have been able to finish my degrees.
So my opinion is that because life does not come with warnings, books should. Life can be difficult enough as it is, so I’m in favour of doing any small but considerate things to make it less so where possible. Ironically, Neil Gaiman has effectively created a book with lots of content warnings despite seeming to be conflicted about them (which I am sure is deliberate.) The stories are exactly what you would expect from him; lyrical prose, creepy, disturbing, weird, complex, nuanced and full of light and shadow. I still recommend the book in itself, but I also recommend doing your own research about books and their subject matter to keep yourself safe and healthy, being kind to yourself and others, and not presuming to know what any other person is or is not dealing with.
I want to reiterate; Your feelings are valid
Your experiences are valid
You have the right to choose
You are good enough as you are
You deserve self-care.
With the biggest of squishes