This summer I picked up my yearly installment of a favorite horror series. I started reading it when I was around 12, and have faithfully bought the author’s newest book every June since I had spending money to do so.
This is the first year I haven’t finished reading the newest edition.
I still love the characters, and have more attachment to the world-building than is pretty, but about 5 pages in the author sprang some un-trigger-warned sexual violence on a beloved character. It was awful. In most (but not all) fan communities, it’s part of the culture to warn other fans when something wildly upsetting will happen in a story. Typical trigger warnings (snagged from AO3) include:
- Graphic Depictions Of Violence
- Major Character Death
While warnings evolved in part of protect survivors of violence from being re-traumatized, like sidewalk cutouts, has come to have a much wider value than just to the folks for whom it was designed. It is a rare day that I want to read a fic with a “Major Character Death,” or often most of the other warnings as well, and so I use trigger warnings to decide what to read.
Warnings also evolve: when I first started reading fanfiction, people warned for “slash” (fictional same-sex relationships)to protect the feelings of homophobes, but nearly no one I read does that anymore, evidence of the process of the gay rights movement if I ever saw it.
When the character in my book was attacked, my fingers started ghost-dancing on the keyboard they assumed was easily accessible, and my mind started drafting my comment–“Lovely writing, as always, but could you trigger-warn this chapter? Thank you, looking forward to the next one.”
But then I realized: my book had no comments section, and the author probably no interest in trigger-warning her work.
Reading fanfiction has left me spoiled. I expect authors not only to write well but also help me avoid their work if it is not my scene. This is in an online author’s best interest: it’s no fun getting comments from upset readers, so giving accurate story summaries and warnings lets similarly open-minded people find each other more efficiently.
Physical book authors don’t have the joy of writing for fans who they want to talk to (or that’s what I assume, since most of them seem to think fan clubs and rarely updated websites and harshly-moderated blogs and other forms of one-way communication are sufficient fan engagement) and so provide no easy venue for live-commenting. I prefer it when authors engage in meaningful ways, something which is normal for fans but still alien to most physical book authors.
Maybe I’ll pick my formerly-favorite series up again; but until then, there’s 100,000 new words up on a favorite series on AO3.
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” — Paul Gallico, “Confessions of a Story Writer,” 1946