Reader Beware

by | June 21, 2022 | General | 11 comments

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To what extent are we authors responsible for protecting our readers from negative emotional experiences? Any fiction runs the risk that it will make readers uncomfortable. Indeed, some books do so intentionally. (Have you ever read anything by Chuck Palahniuk?)

Can we assume that readers are mature enough to walk away from books that offend or upset them? Or do we need to provide warnings when some content we write might trigger unpleasant memories, cause emotional distress or violate personal norms or expectations?

Society at the moment is so hypersensitive, politically correct and litigious that some publishers bend over backwards to avoid ruffling reader feathers. My publisher tacked the following warning onto the blurb for my 2014 erotic romance novel The Ingredients of Bliss:

Reader Advisory: This book contains female dominance and submission, anal sex, public sex, ethnic slurs, threats of violence and a scene of attempted rape.

Actually, the book also includes M/f D&S – wonder why they didn’t mention that?

Personally, I felt this warning was excessive. I wouldn’t have objected to mentioning the attempted rape (by a criminal character, also responsible for the “ethnic slurs” – the heroine is Chinese), but lumping that together with anal sex? This is clearly identified as erotic romance, folks! You get what you pay for.

I just finished reading a humorous MM erotic romance from the same publisher that has the following warnings:

Reader advisory: This book contains mention of physical abuse and a racist comment.

I saw this when I started the book, and I tried to notice these supposed red flags. The only “racist comment” involves a character who’s deliberately trying to seem like a nasty person asking an Australian citizen of Turkish ancestry where he’s “really” from. If there was any mention of physical abuse, it flew right by me.

The question of racist language in literature is particularly thorny right now, in midst of Black Lives Matter anger. I take very seriously the notion that language has power, that it shapes our perspectives and prejudices (as well as reflecting them). On the other hand, I believe we need to distinguish between the prejudices of the author and those of her characters.

I have a speculative fiction story I wrote not long after Trump was elected, envisioning deliberate attempts to foment hatred between ethnic groups. One of the main characters is a young Vietnamese woman, the other a Black man. They live in their respective ghettos, in a near-perpetual state of war. The story uses some very strong negative language, with each character hurling racist epithets at the other. This is important to the narrative. It illustrates how the two have been taught to view one another.

When I posted an excerpt from this work, I received some ferociously critical comments about the language. Without the racial slurs, however, the story wouldn’t work. It would be neither genuine nor effective.

Then there’s the recent movement to ban historical classics like Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird because of their racist content. The racism in these books probably does reflect the authors’ own attitudes. One has to remember, however, that these views in turn mirror the beliefs and assumptions of their times. It makes no sense at all to castigate an author for racial prejudice when she was embedded in a society where racial inequity was an unquestioned norm.

Far better to use such books as examples that illustrate how much more aware we have become. Language perpetuates belief which in turn influences language. Banning these books in an attempt to insulate people from offensive content throws away an opportunity to observe, analyze and learn about this dynamic.

Besides, these books are not mere racist polemics. They’re powerful, engaging stories with memorable characters. They have enduring value which I believe is not negated by their admittedly racist elements.

Would I object to a reader advisory mentioning the racism in Gone with the Wind? Probably not, though I’d wonder if a brief warning is in fact too superficial. Far better, perhaps, to include a preface discussing the issue in greater depth, including its historical aspects.

Of course, most people don’t read prefaces.

Do they pay attention to reader advisories?

One reason I dislike advisories is that they prime the reader to look for certain story elements. In some cases this can interfere with suspense or surprise. In The Ingredients of Bliss, I wanted the reader to be shocked when Le Requin attacks Emily Wong. The reader advisory spoils that.

Very occasionally, though, I will include an advisory on the books I self-publish. If the book is a reprint, I want to be upfront about that. No reason to aggravate people who’ve read a previous edition. And for my most recent release, Incognito, I included a rather extensive reader advisory, because the novel is marketed as an erotic romance but severely strains some of the genre’s conventions.

Reader Advisory: This novel is an erotic romance featuring a committed relationship and culminating in a wedding. Nevertheless, the main characters participate in a wide range of taboo sexual activities, both together and separately.

I felt it necessary to include this because I’ve experienced the ire of some romance readers when they come across any behavior they consider to be “cheating”. If readers consider monogamy or fidelity to be a fundamental requirement for their romance, they should definitely steer clear of this book!

So this warning is more about marketing than anything else. I really don’t want to offend readers or make them unhappy. (And I don’t want them leaving bad reviews!)

On the other hand, I also believe that the people who read my books are adults who won’t be permanently traumatized if they encounter something that’s personally objectionable or sensitive. If something squicks or triggers them, I hope they’ll simply stop reading. Close the book. Turn off the app. They are, after all, ultimately in control.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Larry archer

    My initial knee-jerk reaction is, “Give me a break!”

    While I’ve gotten used to TV shows that warn of poor language, glimpses of nudity, etc. I wish they would warn me, “This is a complete waste of time for most normal individuals.” or “Change the channel now.”

    Stepping back, I can see both sides of this argument but can’t offer a suggestion to cure the angst of the reader. If I search for erotica, should I be warned that I might have to read four letter words or encounter bodily fluids? The reader has to share some responsibility when he or she decides to read some fucking story about perverts.

    • LIsabet Sarai

      I mostly agree, Larry. I wonder if this is generational.

      I posted a chapter in Storytime the week before last which included a racist character insulting a Black character. Many of the crits mentioned that the language made them cringe.

      • Larry archer

        I often think that sometimes people forget that it is simply a story and not an opinion.

  2. Anarie Brady

    Well stated!

  3. Jean Roberta

    Lisabet, I doubt whether anything you’ve written would endorse a racist world-view! Blaming authors who show various kinds of group hatred in their fiction is a form of shooting the messenger. If you get to write your own trigger warnings, you could include warnings about: grammatical mistakes in dialogue (spoken by relatively uneducated characters), generation-gap conflict (parents of children who sometimes find them exasperating, teenagers who resent their parents), religious conflict, political conflict, fashion faux pas (characters who wear white after Labour Day), swearing caused by weather (“Damn! It’s raining again.”) The list could go on. I agree that prefaces are needed for some historical works which are now widely misunderstood (e.g. Huckleberry Finn, which is widely considered problematic for mentioning slavery. Why does no one seem to notice the anti-Irish bigotry embodied in the depiction of Huck’s drunken father, or the anti-Indigenous basis of “Injun Joe,” who is apparently evil by nature?).
    If you include a preface in your next novel, no reader could claim they weren’t warned. 🙂

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hello, Jean,

      Thanks for your vote of confidence. But in fact some people reacted really negatively to the story in question, because of the language. We’ve become very sensitized, to the point that it seems a knee-jerk reaction to bash any author who (for instance) uses the N-word.

      I love the idea of warning the reader about grammar errors!

  4. Mandy India

    Absolutely agree with you! The reader advisory does spoil the suspense and surprise. A preface with detailed discussion would always be better. (I read prefaces, although most readers don’t!) Thanks for this thoughtful piece of writing. And yes, if something triggers me as a reader, I can simply stop reading and close the book.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thank you, Mandy! I am not surprised that readers of this blog are more open-minded than some romance editors!

  5. Ro

    Totally agree with having a preface, if the author wants to explain the context of the story, but pretty much with Larry on this. i.e. Give me a break.

    Perhaps it is a generational thing, but, quite frankly, that leads me to believe strongly that people in my age group (i.e. over 65) are made of tougher stuff and — dare I say it? — more of the stuff that makes up critical thinking.

    I’m not some snowflake that will melt if I read the word “fire.” I sincerely believe that art reflects life and life is full of surprises, some pleasant, some not so pleasant, and some downright worthy of a passing, “Well, fuck me, I wasn’t expecting this shit at all.”

    I rather suspect that not too many people have reached adulthood without having experienced at least some kind of trauma, of a physical, mental, or emotional nature, or any combination thereof. I’m not minimizing the effects of trauma. The effects can be pretty nasty and stay with us a long, long time. On the other hand, if we’ve survived enough to go to a book store (either virtual or bricks and mortar) and browse the titles listed under any particular genre, then surely we, as adults, can survive whatever an author, also an adult, chooses to put between the covers of a book. We aren’t toddlers or kindergartners. If you can’t handle the adult surprises between the covers of a book written for adults by adults, then go back to Nancy Drew or Peter Rabbit, or something that isn’t going to reduce you to a gelatinous, emotional mess. Or just put the book down, if it’s squicking you. It’s no different than if you don’t the TV show, change the channel.

    You don’t win the battle with your demons by running away from them.

    I just started reading a book this morning, titled “Hinton Hollow Death Trip,” by Will Carver. There are no warnings on either the front or back cover. The warning comes as part of the story, to wit: “DON’T READ THIS. You can leave now, if you want to. Don’t even bother finishing this page. Forget you were ever here. There must be something else you could be doing. Get away Go on.”

    There, I’ve been warned. Did I leave? Hell, no! What a fantastic opening paragraph. And only a few pages in, there were elements that *did* make me cringe. I could have put down the book after any one of the cringeworthy elements, but no way I’m putting that book down now. (Well, figuratively speaking…I finished my first coffee and wake-up read in bed — a great way to start a Sunday morning — and got up to do others things, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting back into it.)

    The point is that I’m adult. I’ve faced a small number of demons in my life, and I’ll probably face a few more before I die. There, I said it. Die. Not pass away. Not gone. I shall die, at some point, as yet unknown, but I’m adult, so I expect to do that. The only surprise will be how and when, but then, life is full of surprises, some pleasant, some not so pleasant. But that’s one of the reasons I do read books.

    (And speaking of books…sorry this response was so long.)

    Rose 😉

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Rose,

      I know what you mean about younger people. Somehow they seem so fragile. Or maybe it’s a question not of what they can endure, but what they are willing to endure.

      Every day I become more of a geezer, shaking my head at today’s young-uns…

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