During the dozen years my work has been published in magazines and by book publishers, I’ve become accustomed to receiving beta reader feedback and editorial criticism of my work, as well as developing a thick skin to negative reviews. It’s all part of the job to take it in your stride as writers; our books are our babies, yes, but writing is subjective. Not everyone is going to love what we write.
As an author of serious and sensitive issues in my fiction and – dare I say controversial topics, given recent reviews – over the past year I have learned about the need to include trigger warnings in promotional materials for my books. The Buddha’s Bone has numerous trigger warnings: racism; misogyny; sexual assault; domestic abuse; mental health issues; miscarriage; substance abuse. There are probably more that I have missed in that list. The trigger warnings appear on the description blurb for online retailers, but not within the book itself. Why not? Personal preference: when I’m reading a book I don’t want anything to influence my experience of that story. If a trigger warning were big enough to put me off a story, I’d prefer to know at the buying stage; once I’m settling down with a cuppa, ready to read, I don’t want anything to interfere with my suspension of disbelief. (Note: not much puts me off, with the exception of “child in peril”. As a parent of a young child, I have a thin skin when it comes to babies or kids getting hurt in fiction or movies. I recently had to stop reading a horror story when it wasn’t made clear that babies were getting sacrificed to a Cthulhu-like creature. I couldn’t read on!) In books I prefer no author note; no thank you. It’s for that reason I don’t provide any similar disclaimer in my own books.
What about at the editing stage before a book is even published? I’m talking here about the use of sensitivity readers. Did the thought to use a sensitivity reader for The Buddha’s Bone ever cross my mind? Yes, briefly. The main antagonist in my book, the abusive boyfriend of my main character Kimberly, is racially bigoted and makes offensive slurs against Japanese people when he visits her. The language is intense and the racist rhetoric is strong. Do I think such a character should have been screened by a sensitivity reader prior to publication? No. Unfortunately racism exists in modern day society. If you have not personally experienced it then please consider yourself lucky to be in a priveleged position; or maybe simply sheltered. Same difference. I myself can testify firsthand to the accuracy of the language used by my fictional character in The Buddha’s Bone, as the slurs are typical of those used in the UK today. Does it make for upsetting reading? Probably to some readers, just as the sexist treatment of Kimberly by certain characters may upset others. Although fictional, I tried to make scenarios in my novel a raw and honest reflection of situations that can arise in real life. To tone this down, or censor it, is to deny reality. If we deny reality, are we not at risk of adopting magical thinking? Fiction is not always fantasy; I write psychological literary fiction and I intend to make it as authentic as possible, even when telling a make-believe story. Hopefully my writing comes across as honest and compassionate, even if the characters in my books aren’t always the same.