Sunday, May 25, 2014

"WARNING! THE BOOK YOU'RE ABOUT TO READ MAY OFFEND EXCESSIVELY DELICATE SENSIBILITIES"


My longstanding movie post has been thoroughly derailed when I came across an article in The Guardian about a group of US students wanting to request "trigger warnings" on literature. This is a small-scale disturbance in the force, but, as we all know, fringe groups with questionable outrages and concerns over every little thing are often ones screaming the loudest. Therefore, their request should be taken with a grain of salt if not entirely dismissed, but it has been making waves, and I'd like to comment on it.

The request came from a student body in California (surprised?) and includes on its list of books potentially requiring a distress caveat one of my all time favourites, The Great Gatsby. With all the unsettling, unnecessary dime books of King, Koontz, and Patterson among others, The Great Gatsby is one that should provide a trigger warning? April Fools' Day came late this year, it seems. Twilight and 50 Shades have long been causing me sudden bouts of nausea and discomfort, yet no one has stickered them with "Warning! Awfully written, poorly structured, bad literature ahead!" Now that would be useful.

There's a lot to be said about my generation of precious wallflowers and their coddling parents living in a world where everyone is special and gets and A for effort, but come on. I agree some books are inappropriate for certain age groups in the K-12 system. Once you are old enough to vote, own firearms, drink, and drive, however - you can handle a distressing situation in a book. Not everything in this world is meant for your entertainment and pleasurable consumption. The greatest literature and cinema involve themes of struggle, suffering, war, and heartbreak. Should history classes have similar caveats about the Civil War, the Holocaust, Vietnam? Since those topics are nothing short of distressing, can we forego teaching them altogether? History is no more than a linear collection of death by manmade and natural disasters, so what are we to do about it?

The argument is grounded in the idea that the material in front of them will negatively affect those individuals, who experienced rape, abuse, suicidal thoughts, and violence. Do these people ever turn on the telly? I suppose it’s a weak argument, as all shows nowadays have ratings and warnings before every episode. I wonder if those traumatized by Gatsby ever watched Batman? Spiderman? Avengers? Godzilla? Isn't the end of the world at the hands of caricature villains and radioactive monsters a stressful affair? What about museums? Should the Louvre have a caveat before every painting and statue?

Everyone experiences some form of hardship in his or her lifetime. To say they are now so entrenched in the role of the victim they cannot even read Virginia Wolf for fear of lapsing into some sort of dark, deep well of unpleasant memories is ridiculous. I remember reading McEwan’s The Cement Garden in English 101 and the furor it caused during our discussion group. That’s not even the doozy in McEwan’s vast repertoire of unpleasant literature. I remember working as a TA in Film 101 and showing students plenty of uncomfortable material. I took classes that dealt strictly with sexual violence in cinema, watched films that made my stomach churn, saw some people walk out of screenings, throw up, and drop the course – all of it with the caveat of distressing material on the first page of the syllabus in big, bold letters. To say it caused them some form of irreparable damage is a stretch. If it did, the fault is not with the author, the artist, the director, or the professor; the fault is with the individual. The rest of the world should not have to bend over backwards for your unstable, fragile psyche. Seek help. Get well.

On that note, my novel, Damsels of June, is rated M for mature, is intended for adult audiences, contains brief situations of violent, sexual, and explicit nature and may very well offend your sensibilities. Read at your own risk.

As my favourite filmmaker once said: "I don't feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort, I don't understand why you wouldn't just go to a spa."  Substitute "watching films" with "reading books." The argument still stands.

Read the original Guardian article here.

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