Trigger Warning (As If)

So, since last year, there has been global talk lately of instituting trigger warnings on books, ostensibly to warn people of potentially upsetting themes or scenes in a work of literature. It seems to be originating from students in the USA who are afraid of themes such as suicide, war, rape and racism in books.

To some extent, I can understand why some might see this as necessary. Rape scenes in books have their place as an exploration of the terrible act and how it affects our lives, but for a rape survivor, a warning might help avoid an unwanted recollection. But that said, we find ourselves back in the murky of arbiters. Who decides the trigger warnings? Publisher? Author? Distributor? Independent body of psychologists? Or worse, parents and schools? Considering the harm the MPAA (the ratings body in America) does to any movie more interesting or challenging than Transformers, do we really want someone deciding what is safe to read, and what isn’t? For religious readers, do we need to start putting blasphemy warnings on books? Do we really need another bullshit fatwa over a book that doesn’t deserve it?

It’s an old example, but always a useful one; consider that 90’s capsule American americanpsycho-book-coverPsycho. It is a study in ultra-violence, hyper-masculinity, the pointless excesses of yuppie life (exhibit A: the mineral water scene) and was way ahead of Wolf of Wall Street when it comes to looking at how the ultra-rich live. American Psycho would have so many trigger warnings that it would be unmarketable to anyone under the age of thirty. It is a shocking book, and remains relevant now. Sure, it is an uncomfortable read, but it has a valid point to make on how hideous excess wealth can be. Patrick Bateman buys women like other people buy steaks, and rapes and maims and kills. His wealth and position in society makes it easy for him to be utterly reprehensible. That’s a comment worth making, but it isn’t an easy one to read.

The idea of warning people about the contents of books with a neat label on the back (I really hope not the front of the book) denigrates the idea of intellectual exchange and growth. Treating every reader as an ignorant and fragile snowflake incapable of dealing with ideas in books should be unacceptable to a society that saw books being banned for just their titles less than 50 years ago. Books are already constantly challenged by supposedly well-meaning adults: Captain Underpants, Catcher in The Rye, Harry Potter and more often ignite some feeble-minded rage about what kids shouldn’t read. Adding another layer of interference in publishing bodes ill.

Let the people write whatever they want, and let the readers make decisions based on their own experience, and posterity will sort out the rest. I’m not sure that any intellectually curious reader would appreciate being told what is and isn’t safe reading. Otherwise, anything more interesting than a grade 1 reader will be emblazoned: warning: this book might upset you.

Review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I realise that this review is several months too late to capitalise on the buzz this book generated with the Man Booker award, but it still worth discussing.

The first half of this book could have been narrated by Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. It is literary in the sense that any book that doesn’t have a car chase in it has become labelled literary; it deals with the popular undergrad topics of memory and unresolved endings. Tony Webster discusses his friends, his uneventful life, his divorce and his mostly comfortable relationship with his ex-wife. The plot hook is provided by a friend’s suicide and a lawyer’s letter stating that some items of the deceased were left to him in spite of years of failed communication. The usual spiteful interactions between old enemies with shared relationships ensue, an admittedly decent twist is revealed and the novel ends with a rumbling “there is great unrest.”

Honestly, I haven’t read any of the other Man Booker candidates, as many of them are not available in South Africa and Sense was given to me as a proof copy, slipped amongst the usual crime thrillers that publishing houses give out like candy to drum up support. But if this was considered the best of the bunch, I’m not so sure that they should have given out the prize at all. I’ve discussed the Man Booker before; I’m still less than enamoured of book prizes for their refusal to admit to their subjectivity and therefore shortcomings. Many of the judges in these competitions aren’t even authors, unaware of the backbreaking work that can go into a great novel only for it to be dismissed as too mainstream or literary. I’m just a humble blogger that has minimal impact on a book, and none on the industry. But there’s a difference between myself and panel dishing out tens of thousands in Euros. I am not making and breaking careers, and I am not subject to politics.

The reason why I don’t think this book is that groundbreaking is because it reads like a pastiche of all the setworks foisted upon English literature undergrads. There’s the fallible narrator with his dodgy memory, and who is a part-time focuser for the character of suicidal Adrian. (Ian McEwan was triumphant in this with Atonement.) There are the endless literary allusions that makes people like me smug for catching them and other people bored. Its obviousness makes it ham-handed compared to Salman Rushdie’s masterful handling of intertextual allusion (see the Milton references in The Satanic Verses), or TS Eliot’s for that matter. I did enjoy the posturing of the young men as they aspired to endless wit and glamorously tragic deaths, as much as it painfully reminded me of my first year self. (I’m not entirely sure such unwarranted posturing ever stopped.)

I feel that Sense of an Ending is literary, but it is obviously so. Since literary is now a label attached to anything that isn’t crime, romance or non-fiction and has a serious topic, it fails to mean anything. What I consider literary is considered nigh unreadable by most, and my understanding of it usually excludes the general publishing perspective. Language of Flowers was marketed as the literary answer to Eat, Pray, Love; I still found it as mainstream as the latter. I will never apologise for my taste in books, but I freely admit to my strange and obscure tastes. Sense did interest me on some levels; the pretentious undergrad in me will never die, but my postgrad self found the protagonist as interesting as dried toast. Tony was surrounded by far more interesting characters, and perhaps it was the author’s point. Not everyone in the world is fascinating or charming or even mildly entertaining. Tony is a middle-aged, lonely, unambitious man who has some drama thrust upon him and some scathing altercations. By the end he is unchanged, nothing is solved and I imagine it is one of the points that has had it labelled as literary and therefore for the attention of the Man Booker panel. I know that a literary title will have an open or unclear ending and sometimes it is superbly done (consider Bee Season) but to just say ‘and he went on and nothing changed’ is boring. He contemplates what-ifs, which is more like a misery memoir than actually thought-provoking.

In short, Sense is a short, mostly pretentious read that deals with memory, suicide and human interactions. It had the potential to be something of Catcher in the Rye calibre, but ended up being a bit pretentious and boring. Like a corporate cocktail party with one or two good speeches and some nice drinks but little more than that.

For a much less forgiving review, go here to the Geoff Dyer review in the New York Times, and read the John Crace Digested Read here