Triggering Books

There has been something on my mind ever since I wrote my discussion about needing trigger warnings in books. Well, it was more of a question I had. Are triggers always bad? Are books that contain triggering material bad? Sometimes, is it those books that can be potentially triggering the ones that are the most important and powerful? Sorry, I guess that was a few questions.

A part of me would have to say yes to the questions I posed. Some of my favourite books are triggering, but that doesn’t make me love them any less. And then again, there are some books that I’ve found really important and powerful, but didn’t ‘enjoy’ because they were quite triggering. And then there are the books that we can all agree are harmful — those that discuss mental illness and other triggering topics in such a hurtful way that it could never be twisted so that we view those novels positively. But those aren’t the books I want to focus on today.

Countless by Karen GregoryWhen Hedda discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t believe she could ever look after a baby. The numbers just don’t add up. She is young, and still in the grip of an eating disorder that controls every aspect of how she goes about her daily life. She’s even given her eating disorder a name – Nia. But as the days tick by, Hedda comes to a decision: she and Nia will call a truce, just until the baby is born. 17 weeks, 119 days, 357 meals. She can do it, if she takes it one day at a time…

There was a particular book that got my train of thought moving. That provided the metaphorical coal to this discussion in my mind. And that book was Countless, by Karen Gregory. It’s book about a teenage girl, who is struggling with an eating disorder, discovering she’s pregnant. She battles with her eating disorder and tells herself that she will let herself have the baby, and then she will go back to her usual eating regime. A lot of the books surrounding eating disorders that I’ve read have been quite triggering, as those novels allow you into the character’s mind and you hear their toxic and dangerous thoughts. But just because these novels can be ‘triggering’ — a word with mostly negative connotations — does that mean these novels shouldn’t be written?

So yes. Countless was confronting and raw, and, at times, very scary. It put you into the character’s mindset, and that was a very dark place at times. While I’m not saying that this book, or books like this one, are for everyone, what I’m trying to say is that they’re important. We need to know what people suffering from mental illnesses are going through in order to create empathy. We need to understand that these illnesses can be all-consuming and deadly, and we shouldn’t treat them lightly or with a lack of respect. Perhaps to write about mental illnesses in any ‘lighter’ way would be to minimise the severity of their impact on a person’s life and therefore disrespect all those living and battling with that illness.

Some other novels that I’ve read which can be triggering but are definitely very important and powerful books are Girl in Pieces and Under Rose-Tainted Skies. While I found both of these novels triggering, that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend them to people. Of course I believe it’s important to warn readers of potential triggers and I do think that novels should contain trigger warnings, I don’t think that these trigger warnings should come with negative connotations or discourage the general reader not to pick the book up. It’s important to convey mental illness in a realistic and genuine manner, and it’s impossible to do so sometimes without being potentially triggering to those dealing with similar things. But what’s important is that authors write both with respect and candour, and readers should aim to pick up #ownvoices novels where possible.

Sometimes those books that can be triggering are the most accurate in the portrayal of living with a mental illness.

Let's Talk

What are some novels with realistic and genuine portrayals of mental illness? Do you think triggering books should be labelled ‘bad’? Are you someone who would stay away from certain triggering books? Let’s chat below!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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Check out my discussion about trigger warnings in books!

Trigger Warning

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12 thoughts on “Triggering Books

  1. Great post! I think books that contain ‘triggers’ should still be written, because each individual is or isn’t ‘triggered’ differently, and authors shouldn’t be expected to shy away from every uncomfortable topic because a potential reader may find it upsetting.
    If anything, if the writing is powerful enough to evoke a strong emotional response from the reader, it shows the author is doing something right. 🙂
    https://readandreview2016.wordpress.com/

  2. Such an interesting discussion! I’ve wondered this myself – especially after I read so many mental health books last month.

    I struggle with depression myself, so reading books with depressed protagonists can often put me in a really down mood. On the other hand though, reading books with accurate mental health rep can go a long way in showing me that I’m not alone in thinking that way – particularly if there’s a decent “recovery narrative” within the story. Under Rose-Tainted Skies was definitely hard to read because a lot of the way the MC thinks is a more extreme way of me on my worst days – but as triggering as these stories can be, it’s worth it to see the representation.

    I do think there are books I don’t recommend to everyone. Paperweight is another ED book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone struggling, but it’s beautifully written and I think goes a long way toward helping people understand that EDs aren’t always ~just~ about food.

    • Thanks so much! I’m the same – I definitely have to be in the right headspace when reading books that contain a protagonist with certain mental illnesses. I do find them incredibly helpful however, as, like you, they allow me to see that I’m not alone in how I’m feeling and what I’m going through. I really loved PAPERWEIGHT, but I agree. It’s the kind of book that can definitely be triggering to those struggling. Thanks for reading my post! 💜

  3. Amazing post, Sara.

    If the rep is accurate I can find triggering books extremely helpful. It really helps me realise that I’m not alone in feeling the way I am. Sometimes it’s so easy to get lost in your head and not be rational and understand that there are so many people who are struggling, but whenever I see something that I connect to it does wonders for my well-being. Mostly, it’s music that does this for me, but seeing things written in books or portrayed in media definitely helps too.

    Triggering content doesn’t always mean something’s bad. It’s just trying to get the balance between poor and good rep that can be hard sometimes!

    • Thank you! That’s really interesting, and I can see how it would be helpful. I completely agree – triggering content shouldn’t automatically be considered ‘bad’. It’s often really nuanced and helps or hinders different people and their experiences with mental illness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 💕

  4. Hmm, this is really interesting! I think I’ve been lucky in that none of the books that have discussed mental health well have triggered me. I’m not sure why – maybe because I’m so happy to read good depictions? I guess it also helps when I’m reading for the blog, as I’m inclined to read critically rather than just emotionally. Its only been bad depictions that have triggered me.

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