The Buzzing Bumblebee


Angry bee tattoo
There is a buzz going around the internet about content in writing. There are things some people are either offended by, or are so emotionally moved by that it becomes unhealthy for them to experience reading about it. Some psychologists actually encourage people to face their fears and pains, processing through them. But some people may not be ready to do that. Some writing stings.




Writers write for a variety of reason: to entertain, to educate, to share opinions, to share news.





In memoirs, most often people write to provide inspiration. Sometimes they write to share a story that does not necessarily directly offer hope, but indirectly shares how that person processed through a difficult life situation…it may not be a pretty story, but the hope is that you will see the writer’s triumph over a bad situation. The growth experience, and in the end, the hope.

downloadLuanne shared a review of such a story: “I find it so hard to write a review of this book that I can’t help but wonder how Kathryn Harrison wrote it. It was a New York Times bestseller when it was originally published in 1997 and has been read by many. The Kiss is a very disturbing story. It’s about incest. And betrayal. And mental illness. And a “man of God” who was anything but. But mainly it’s Kathryn’s story* and how she negotiated growing up and learning how to be a woman.” But read the full review.

Incest is not a pretty topic. It’s not entertaining. I don’t know if this book is promoted with “trigger warnings” or not, but it is an example of what exactly disturbs me about this current BUZZ.

When you read the book description, I am certain that you will have some idea on what this memoir is about.

And then there is fiction.

Fiction is most often designed to be entertaining. But different people are entertained by different forms of fiction.

Some people prefer light reading. Others want to delve deeply into recesses of the mind and soul.

There is a current trend to avoid certain subjects that a number of people find offensive in fiction. I am not talking about murder, blood, guts, and gore. We tend to accept those things. Not only in crime fiction, but in mysteries, fantasy, vampire novels and horror.

But as  mystery writer tells us here:

Certain subjects are considered absolute taboos, even in crime fiction. Mysteries should be about murder. Detectives should not be dealing less serious crimes. Or those crimes that are emotionally sensitive.

Rape, child molestation/incest, animal cruelty are subjects that even the most horrific writers are cautioned to avoid. These things are not “entertaining”. And in her point of view, these things can, in no way, be entertaining. They are not only politically incorrect, but they are emotionally incorrect. So now, we have to concern ourselves with emotional correctedness.

Crime is supposed to be bad. It is what sends people to jail. It is what makes law enforcers have to kill over. It is not supposed to be pretty.

Kirsten Lamb recently did a post about how we have begun to expect writers to show sensitivity.

Educators being expected to coddle the feelings of students so that nobody feels unimportant, left out, or harmed in any emotional way. University students objecting to being expected to read material that they might find offensive.

What?! University students should not have to learn about the atrocities of man/women in our society?

Another author blogger, C.S. McClellan, shares his opinions on trigger warnings and content here:

Red Clay and Roses is a roman à clef. It is a fictionalized true story, like a biography of everyday ordinary peopleRed Clay and Roses who lived during a time period of political upheaval in this country. Bad things happened. Progress was made. But it is not a pretty story. I did not set out to entertain when I wrote it. It does have a satisfying ending, but the subject matter could be painful to some. Someone is raped. Should it have been published? There is more than one abortion. It also deals with adoption. Should it have a trigger warning?

knots_mb_crime_preventionThe crime novel that I am writing now deals with subject matter that could be painful to some. It has a villain, and although you don’t see a lot of her directly, you see the terrible things she does. I’m not talking graphic images, but allusions to terrible crimes. It’s a reality in our society. I want her to be bad, really bad, and horrible, worthy of death by dynamite! It’s crime. I don’t want her to get a slap on the wrist by the legal system. I want her to die. I want you to want her to die.



Do you think it should come with a trigger warning to spare potential crime novel readers the likely agony they just might feel if they are exposed to a distasteful subject?
How do you feel about trigger warnings? Is it censorship? Are there subjects so taboo that no genre should touch them?

download (2)
If Lolita, written in 1955 and still listed at #785 on Amazon’s Top Sellers list,had been written today, would it have been published? The story of a girl repeatedly raped. A child. Would Vladimir Nabokov not written it because it is taboo?


So what are your thoughts?

(My apologies about the formatting…never could get it to behave!)


44 thoughts on “The Buzzing Bumblebee

  1. Personally I have written over the years about many contentious subjects.. I don’t think we should bury them under the carpet. There is a lot about these days that seems to glorify or romanticise many of the appalling things mankind… and womankind… is capable of inflicting upon others. That is do disagree with. But to take things out of the closet, allow… not force… people to look at the extensive consequences these hidden crimes cana and do have on others, as well as on their victims.. that can only lead to greater understanding, arming people against the warning signs and allowing them to help in real life. That isn’t entertainment… it is learning about a reality that isn’t rose coloured and doesn’t always have happy endings.


  2. I think trigger warnings have a lot more to do with nonfiction. Typically, if someone picks up a book they read the back, get the gist, and either read it or put it down. Trigger warnings are not about coddling. They are about keeping people safe from themselves.
    I don’t think writers should stop writing about hard subjects in fiction. It helps some people. I didn’t think fiction needs trigger warnings. But people do need to understand why trigger warnings are important, and why they should be used. A lot of mental health blogs use trigger warnings to keep their readers safe. But readers have a responsibility as well, to put something down if they don’t think they can handle it.
    Trigger warnings are a good thing, but they don’t need to be everywhere.


    1. Thanks for your comments. Having worked in psychiatry, with PTSD and others, I understand the purpose of trigger warnings and people wanting to stay “safe”.

      I don’t believe that writers should restrict themselves to “safe” material. I was advised to put a trigger warning on my book. I didn’t and won’t on the next one. I agree with you that it does become a matter of personal responsibility.

      A reader of fiction should be able to read a book description and decide if it’s going to be something they personally can “handle.”


      1. Yes, exactly. I read a good post (I can’t remember where) about a teacher putting trigger warnings on class material so that students could arrange their reading schedules in a way that they would feel safest while reading. I thought it was a brilliant post. And I completely respect you for not putting warnings on your books. It is a choice to read a book, our to put it down. As an author, your responsibility is to write.


      2. That would be cool. If I know something is likely to disturb me to the point of shedding tears, or retching, and I am required to read it. I would like to do so privately and not in the library or cafeteria.


  3. Well, I think it [CENSORED] sucks, and is a completely asinine example of what really boils down to [REMOVED FOR POLITICAL REASONS] of an almost Orwellian nature. I think it’s nice of people to put trigger warnings on their writing — if they feel the need to — but for [EDITED FOR CONTENT] sake nobody’s forcing anyone to read anything. I don’t remember being tied to a chair and [GRAPHIC CONTENT] until I was screaming for them to take the roto-router out of my [EXPLICIT CONTENT] until I finally gave in and read some article about being [DELETED] by a prison guard hung like a [INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT] while giving [SEXUALLY EXPLICIT] to everyone on the cell block until the writer was covered in [PARENTAL GUIDANCE ADVISED].
    Let people decide what is entertaining or not, and [EXPLETIVE DELETED] the censors.


    1. LOL! Thank you Helena, well said. Or well NOT said.

      I hate the thought of censorship.

      I don’t think my responsibilities as a writer include protecting other’s sensitivities.


      1. This all goes back to the same nut-bars that get all up in arms when some kid kills themselves (or does whatever) and then tries to blame it on Marilyn Manson or AC/DC or U2 or The Beatles (but that’s another Manson, Helter Skelter!)
        I want to write a story where some kid goes and kills a bunch of people because he wanted to impress Justin Beiber, and maybe that’ll get his music banned. Censorship is truly fascist — my favourite book in the whole world is Fahrenheit 451 — did you really think I was going to be in favour of censorship or thought police? HA!


      2. Please get Justin banned.

        People see and read about atrocities every day on the news. I don’t believe in censorship of any kind. Writing changes the world.

        I also don’t think that I should avoid writing about something because I might hurt somebody’s feelings.

        People are responsible for their own behavior. That includes abortion, suicide, etc…
        And I am truly sorry for people who have been victims of heinous crimes. But I am not going to stop or not write about them.


  4. One thing, “University students objecting to being expected to read material that they might find offensive.” isn’t what I had read earlier. The students weren’t objecting to having to read the material, they wanted trigger warnings listed so that when they do read the material they can do it in a safe environment and be mentally prepared. I believe they were asking for the warnings to be printed on the books, which is a bit odd. The course syllabus or reading list would be appropriate, imo. To be honest, I think educators should do that. It does not seem like an unreasonable request.

    I think part of it is the writer can still write about these things, but they do have to be sensitive to them. They need to make sure that they portray serious events appropriately, not to glorify them, or victim blame. It’s not something easy to do.

    Honestly though, I wouldn’t want to write about such things. It hurts my brain too much just trying to imagine how that would feel like, not very comfortable for me. 😦


    1. Thanks for your comment GE. I too feel that people should be allowed to be prepared before subjected to reading material that is uncomfortable for them if it is required reading in school. A syllabus that explains that would be great.

      Should they be exempt? I don’t think so.

      I also wonder how something like murder/killing is so well accepted by our society, and so called lessor crimes aren’t.


  5. I think it’s important for writers (and film makers and artists etc etc etc) to treat these subjects with sensitivity. I’m not the first person to make this point, so I’ll be brief, but incest, rape, abuse, and murder are real, albeit awful, events that take place every day. I don’t think they should be taboo in writing or discussion but they have to be handled carefully. I think the tricky thing with things like rape and incest and prostitution is not to glorify it. We can have empathy for the characters–see George RR Martin–but there has to be a separation between having flawed characters and romanticizing what those characters are doing as something that’s “okay.” I don’t think people should be forced to put trigger warnings on their books–as several people have said, you can often tell by the description what you’re getting into.


    1. There are ways to touch on topics that make a point. I am not talking about graphically illustrating with words describing the details of child pornography or rape. But if that’s what my criminal needs to do to be worthy of death by electric chair, then that’s what I’ll have her do.
      There are tactful ways to allude to it. And it won’t have a trigger warning. It’s crime. If you can’t handle crimes don’t read crime fiction. It sort of a given.


  6. This is such an interesting debate Susan and I am struggling with both sides of this. My books include subjects and content that are not always going to be nice to read about. The things that are really taboo are referred to rather than described, however it is still obvious that bad things happened – things that we maybe don’t want to read about. I have no idea whether trigger warnings should be added or not and indeed, I had second thoughts about publishing Twelve Days – The Beginning with the full abuse scene in purely for these reasons. In the end, I re-wrote it and published a tamer version but many critics cried out for the original version, even going as far as reducing the ratings until I added the original scene. They felt that it needed to be there otherwise the story lost its power. It’s a tricky one but the responses that you have had so far seem to suggest that we shouldn’t shy away from what we write. Maybe we just need to get it right? I don’t know. Great post Susan, thanks so much for writing this. 🙂


    1. I couldn’t see the full value in The Beginning without the abuse scene. I do believe, for the most part alluding to things is quite effective. But sometimes it is much more effective to show it. I would not draw you a word picture of an incestuous child rape…but I might tell you it happened. I am certainly not going to shy away from sensitive topics writing crime fiction.


  7. I really believe writers should write what they want to write and readers should read what they want to read. The politically correct sanitization of everything we do in life is very dangerous. It is the first step in censorship which is to make certain subjects off limits and then if those subjects are treated to ban the writing. I am against all kinds of abnormal human behaviors, but would exercise my right to not read what some ass has written about them. I would not deny the ass the right to write it.


    1. Thanks for the comments John. I fully 100% whole heartedly agree. How it is written might make me decide if I want to continue reading. There are ways to handle sensitive topics.

      The right to write I don’t even question. Trigger warnings, I’ll never use. Abnormal human behaviors…that’s tricky. The manner and context of writing about such topics I’d have to consider. I want you to beta read my first crime novel. I truly want to know if you think it is readable.


      1. Let’s hope you are. Are you okay? Hopefully we won’t BOTH die of old age before this gets accomplished.

        I want to get some beta readers’ eyes on this first book. Then I want two or three more books ready before I publish the first. They really won’t need to be in any order. I could tweak Brandi’s introduction so that the sidekick is brought into the first book as a known person rather than an unknown. But I will say that one underlying theme is that Richard doesn’t really like working with a partner, but he needs to. Brandi is bright.


  8. Agree with John. If you don’t like the content, don’t read the book. Change the proverbial channel. I didn’t want to put myself through American Psycho, for instance, so I simply didn’t read it.

    I think Lolita was probably 1955, though, not ’85.


    1. I took that off Amazon. Might be the date someone last published.

      My curiosity though, is it actually marketing suicide to write books with taboo subjects.


  9. The bumblebee (both the image and the buzzing sound) is a good metaphor for this post.

    You’ve broached a sensitive topic, and I’ve read many comments so far. Only one observation: I think readers are discerning when it comes to a writer’s INTENT. They can tell the difference between what is presented as salacious and what is salutatory. That should count for something when it comes allowable topics and content in writing even in this permissive age.


    1. Thanks for commenting Marina and I agree, readers can make up their own minds, and certainly should be allowed to. Whether the right to do so results in offending others or not.


  10. Writers should write, Is that not one of the reasons we have PEN? If someone doesn’t like the subject matter, s.t.o.p. reading. Think Harry Potter for a sec. Remember the hoopla? Harry Potter? Please. Someone somewhere is going to be ‘sensitive’ to SOMEthing. Stop reading in that case.


    1. It is not always not liking the subject matter that poses the problem. I think what some are getting at is these days is that for some individuals the “trigger” of seeing the material can cause mental health issues…but that’s true for smells, sight, sounds, anything can be a trigger and these people have to live in a real world.


      1. I understand and do not. I may have too simple an outlook–too long to go into here but, I do wish anyone who reads keeps and open mind. You never know what new vistas will open up for you…


  11. I think writers should write what they want to write, and readers can choose to read it or not. People are sensitive to many different things, and how can anyone possibly know what might upset someone or trigger PTSD flashbacks in a particular individual? People should be able to tell by a book’s synopsis if it is going to them more than they can take. Some topics are horrible and upsetting for anyone, but they need to be discussed. Should we not have studies of genocide or rape, for example, or fictional stories that deal with such subjects? That’s ridiculous. It’s important that people learn about these topics. [Full disclosure–I wrote/edited an Encyclopedia of Rape. There were days when I couldn’t work on it.] And college students (and advanced high school students, for that matter) should be going to be school to be educated and challenged. OK. I’ll stop my rant now. 🙂


    1. I appreciate everything you ranted. And so much more eloquently that I could have. Totally agree with every point you made.

      I have empathy for the mentally disturbed. I’m bipolar myself and pretty disturbed by a lot that has gone on in my life, but if I had not been open to exploring those things I don’t think I would have ever made it to the well side of the illness:wellness continuum.


  12. S.K., thanks so much for sharing my review on this great post. Very thought-provoking. I do think it’s very likely that Lolita would not be published today. We have become sensitive about this issue, which is a good thing for real children, but a bad thing for art. And boy is that a huge disconnect that I am going to need to think about for a long time!


    1. With memoir writing, there has to be a certain depth to the untoward experience for it to have any true value. The synopsis/blurb usually touches on the content enclosed. People go into it knowing what to expect for the most part.

      With fiction, it’s a bit different. The subject matter might be part of a plot that the author does not want to disclose in the book description or on the back cover. The genre will tell you a lot. You would not expect certain topics to come up in a chick-lit or fantasy novel. Some literary fiction and most definitely crime novels, I could see it as a possibility. Mainstream fiction by traditional publishers may avoid it. That’s their agent’s and editor’s prerogative. That’s also why it becomes formulaic and stale. It doesn’t challenge the limits, step beyond the boundaries. I don’t believe in putting trigger warnings on fiction. Part of an author’s responsibility is to make people think. I’m talking adults here. Sometimes those thoughts are not going to be pretty.


  13. If people know that certain things are likely to upset them, then it’s up to them to watch what gets under their eyeballs – I do – it’s not hard to see that you’re not going to like a book before you read it. I’m not liking all this political correctness thing going around at the moment either, and I won’t conform my writing to it. It’s the same with the internet – people don’t want to see disturbing things. I don’t know why, because not looking at a thing doesn’t make it unhappen, and at this rate everything that touches on the harsh realities of life will be taboo. Totally agree with you.


    1. Thanks Jo for ringing in. I value the creative concept. Much of our creativity comes from our real life experiences. The shocking ones are the ones that inspire us to write. Otherwise, reading would be dull.

      Even in fantasy, if you imagined a dragon to be not much more than an overgrown lizard with wings he wouldn’t be much of a dragon, but have him torch a few villages, spread his dark wings across a battlefield and he becomes so much more.

      I am done with this politically correct thing as well. Stereotypes are called stereotypes for a reason. I believe in being kind, but we need to lighten up and laugh a little.


  14. Great post! You’ve certainly hit a hot topic. Literature and other forms of good writing should reflect the world honestly. I have every right to put down a book if I don’t like it, but I hate the thought of someone making that judgment for me.


    1. I so agree, and I think the *trigger warning* that some are suggesting is totally ridiculous. I could smell cotton candy and be reminded of being raped at a circus or fair. Should cotton candy carry a *trigger warning*. That’s how absurd.


  15. I wish that books had ratings like movies. I get nightmares if i read something with too much gore in it however i love a good mystery and/or crime novel. There are plenty of those without any gore however a lot of the time you have no idea unless you research it and even then if I’m not sure i tend to just not read the book to be safe. If there was a rating then it wouldn’t be such an issue. So really what i am saying is, i think that all books should have ratings, not just trigger warnings for ones containing certain issues.


    1. Someone suggested that on Kristen’s blog, but I don’t know who would do that or if it would be a voluntary thing. How consistent it would be would also come into question. Some rated PG horror flicks show a lot gore.


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