Warning! The Book You Are About to Read Contains… Everything Wrong With the World
A long time ago, when the dinosaurs still roamed the Earth… Okay, not so far back, I am exaggerating. Years ago, a decade, give or take, all you had to base your book-buying decision on was the small synopsis on the back cover (or the inside jacket). If you were lucky, you might have read a review somewhere, or you had some quotes from some other reviewers or authors. Or a friend might have recommended that particular read.
You don’t remember those times well? Me neither, it’s quite fuzzy. You had that scrap of information, you could browse through it and check the section of the book store where the volume in your hand had come from. No super-niche category, no horde of contradictory reviews from readers, reviewers, and shady people that haven’t even read the book. More importantly, no warnings!
The Age of the Warnings Empire
Have you noticed how books come with tons of warnings and disclaimers and explanations these days? It’s so common, we don’t even stop to think about it. The only reason this even registered was a post that popped up on my Facebook timeline. An author friend was about to release a new book, a paranormal one that included some witchcraft and Wiccan/pagan elements. The writer in question asked if there should be a warning about this, you know, to make sure they didn’t offend anyone.
There were pro and con opinions. Those of a pagan persuasion said Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist elements were never mentioned in warnings, so why bother? Plus, if you read paranormal or fantasy, you kind of expect the magical and supernatural aspects. Sound logic, you’d think. I’d have said so too, but then I started mulling over the warnings my friends or myself or publishers have started to put on their books.
If you write gay fiction or gay romance or anything in the LGBTQ genre—which, if you did not know, has its own special section, because just science fiction or paranormal or romance is not enough—you have warnings that say the book contains gay characters. Or sex between people of the same gender. Because the gay romance category wasn’t warning enough!
Religion is an even touchier subject for some. Still, I personally chose to ignore it. I chose not to warn everyone that the divine being in my angel stories (loosely based on the Christian lore) swore or was perfectly okay with his winged soldiers being gay. I did, however, go above and beyond to warn readers that one of my books ended on a cliffhanger. Try to keep this in mind if you’re an aspiring writer: there is nothing readers hate more than a cliffhanger. They will not forgive you for it, especially if you take too long to release the sequel.
Readers have pet peeves. Beyond preference for a genre and author, they have certain things that might put them off: they might not like to read about cheating, abuse, lying, fear, cowardice, characters that don’t fit in a certain box, endings that don’t comply with the rules… The list can go on forever. That’s perfectly normal and understandable. What’s a little scary is that many of these make it into warnings. You go to buy a book, read the blurb, and then a list of warnings and recommendations.
What’s the best choice?
I once told an author friend they should do whatever makes them feel more comfortable: add a warning if you think one’s needed. Or don’t, if you think that goes against what you believe in. But is it really okay to learn not to trust readers to know what they like and how to choose their books? Is there really anyone there who reads paranormal and does not expect supernatural elements? Is there a romance lover that does not expect situations of a sexual nature in a book of their favorite genre? Do spaceships surprise science fiction fanatics? Logically, I’d say no to all of this. Yet, logically, I’d say no one would think to microwave a cat, but we’ve all seen those headlines. Also, even if that particular assumption turned into disaster, lawsuit, and a warning for microwave users, books are different. Right?
Books sometimes do contain unspeakable horrors. And I’m not talking about the horror genre here! Thrillers, mysteries, detective stories, fantasy books, and even romance plots can contain elements that make you angry or terribly sad. Everything that’s wrong with the world has probably been covered in one book or another. Is it okay to put a warning on them?
When being safe ruins the reading experience
There’s a fine line between making sure you don’t offend or anger anyone and completely ruining the reading experience for everyone else. If you tell people from the start what the book is about, what kind of situations and misfortunes it contains, more so, how it ends (when there is no cliffhanger or tragic ending warning), what’s the point in reading it?
Don’t worry, there’s a killer, but he’s caught and the hero saves the day. Hey, relax! They will be together in the end. Someone is kidnapped, but the police save them in the end. Would you still want to read? Or would it put a damp on your enthusiasm?
Then there’s another worrisome aspect: if we treat readers with kiddie gloves, won’t we still end up annoying book lovers who loathe being so sheltered?
The conclusion is simple (or simply stated). No matter what you do and what you choose, you can’t please everyone. Just check the reviews on any book, you’ll see I am right. What a reader or reviewer loves most about a story is often the very reason the next one will loathe it.