Trigger Warnings and JERUSALEM

Yesterday I finished Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, which I enjoyed very very much and which I recommend, sort of, with caveats.

Which is what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the book, but I want to talk about caveats, and content notes, and trigger warnings, and that sort of thing.

First, the book: It is an immersive, multi-dimensional look at the city of Northampton, where Moore was born and still lives. It sweeps back and forth across time, between life and death, through about two dozen viewpoints.* It plays with language and perception and narrative in a way that’s satisfying without being alienating. It’s a disjointed sort of collage in which the full picture, even the plot, doesn’t become clear until very near the end, and even so the individual pieces are so satisfying that it never becomes an impediment to enjoying the book. In some ways it functions as a summary and commentary on Moore’s career, and in the denouement there are even a succession of self-reflexive critical reactions to the work itself and the author, many of them unflattering.

*Relevant: of those two-dozen viewpoints, only about 1/4 are female characters.

Do I recommend reading it? That depends.

If you are fan of Moore’s work, then probably yes, although the novel is a very different animal from his comics. If you liked From Hell and the later installments of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then you’ll probably appreciate this. If you thought the horror comic subplot in Watchmen was unnecessary and distracting, you’re probably not going to like this.

If you have a tolerance for fiction that is a little bit oblique and challenging, and for play with language that can approach the frustrating (I spent three days slowly working my through one 36-page chapter), then you may well love this.

And here’s the big one: If you are someone who avoids reading male authors because of the way they tend to write about women, and if you are someone who has trauma related to rape and sexual abuse, then you should probably not read this book, because there is graphic-but-not-exploitative depiction of rape and less-graphic-and-still-not-exploitative-but-no-less-upsetting depiction of child abuse. There is also violence.

The above is a Trigger Warning.

Trigger Warnings are something that some people apparently have a big problem with.

For instance, Hannah Hart:

I’d encourage you to read the whole thread there, but the image above gets the point across. Holy shit, y’all, there aren’t many trigger warnings in real life! I never thought of it that way! OR WAIT, YES I DID, BECAUSE THE WHOLE GODDAMNED POINT OF TRIGGER WARNINGS IS TO NOT HAVE TO GO THROUGH A COMPLETELY INVOLUNTARY MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, AND PHYSICAL TRAUMA RESPONSE WHILE YOU ARE SIMPLY TRYING TO CONSUME ENTERTAINMENT OR NEWS, UNLIKE IN REAL LIFE, WHERE BAD SHIT HAPPENS THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL, BUT GUESS WHAT HANNAH HART, WE HAVE CONTROL OVER THE MEDIA WE CONSUME, AND ONCE AGAIN THAT IS THE FUCKING POINT OF A TRIGGER WARNING.

Life gives some of us trauma, and trauma is not a fucking joke. A Trigger Warning is a courtesy that we offer for those of us who experience trauma. Sure, some other people might appreciate Trigger Warnings simply because even though they don’t have PTSD from having been raped, they still don’t want to read about rape. Is there something wrong with that? Does that offend you? And if your answer to those questions is yes, then I have a third question for you: Are you a fucking asshole?

Hannah Hart (who seems like a lovely person in many ways, and who I have enjoyed on YouTube) is not the only person not to get this, of course. Neil Gaiman infamously titled one of his collections after a story called “Trigger Warning.” In the collection, he wrote: “I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?” This is the question of someone who has never been studying a piece of classic literature only to run across a casual paragraph of hateful racist caricature directed at a character of their same ethnicity; has never watched a science fiction film only to encounter a scene of sexual assault that mirrors the one they themselves have experienced; has never read a mainstream fantasy novel only to find a graphic torture scene that flips that switch, trips that trigger, and puts them back into a moment when they were physically abused so badly that even if the scars are gone, the emotional damage is something they are still struggling to heal. This is, to be blunt, an asshole question.

We don’t have Trigger Warnings because people are afraid of being made uncomfortable; it’s because PTSD means that when you get a sensory trigger you can literally re-experience the trauma over again. Unsurprisingly, most people would like to avoid this.

I doubt that Hannah Hart’s book requires a Trigger Warning. I suspect that Neil Gaiman’s might, though I haven’t read either of them. I think Jerusalem might need one as well, and when it comes to this I’m willing to err on the side of caution. There are many books that I admire that I would give a Trigger Warning for: Bastard Out of Carolina, for instance, and Beloved, and All the Pretty Horses. (Unless I have badly misremembered it, I would not give one for Fahrenheit 451.) That’s not a judgment on their quality, it is–again–a courtesy. Not all books are for everyone, and just because you enjoy or admire a book doesn’t mean that everyone will. Surely you have realized this by now. If you take intellectual offense at this, you are an asshole, full stop.

TL;DR: Jerusalem is excellent but contains some scenes of rape and sexual abuse that may be triggering, and is not something that I’d encourage someone to break a no-male-authors rule for, f’rinstance. Trigger Warnings are useful and important, particularly in helping people to navigate the entertainment they consume.

TL;TL;DR: Sorry not sorry for calling so many people assholes.