Okay, Emily…when isn’t a book just a book? Oh, absolutely every time you or I read one. Why is that? Because we, as readers, bring our life experiences with us into every book we read. This means that a story is no longer words on a page, but an experience filtered through the events in life that have shaped us.
All of this means that your experience reading a story may be different from another reader’s experience, even though it is the exact same book. Consequently, when you look at reviews, even of best-sellers, there are five-star reviews proclaiming, “This is the best book I’ve ever read! It changed my life!” And then there are the one-stars saying things like, “This book didn’t speak to me at all. I have no idea what people see in it.” How can people have such different reactions to the same story? Because of the life they bring with them into the story.
I was surprised by strong reactions some readers had to the female main character in my book The Loophole in Lilies. I lost count of how many times I heard, “Kendra is way too pushy! It drove me crazy until I understood her better.” Funny thing, I never even saw her as pushy when I wrote her character. Persistent, yes. Determined, driven, slight overkill, all yes. But pushy to the point of insensitive? Nope. That was not the vibe I ever got from her, and some other reader friends were equally shocked by the pushback on Kendra. As I spoke to several people about it, I came to the conclusion that readers who struggle to say no to pushy people or have had a very pushy person close to them in life had a hard time with Kendra. Readers who, like me, are comfortable giving a firm no with a smile to overbearing individuals didn’t even see Kendra as a problem. It taught me to try to think a little more broadly when developing main characters so that readers with various personalities won’t feel alienated.
Sometimes as readers, we have endured a traumatic or difficult event and struggle to read about something similar portrayed in fiction. After I wrote The Miracle of Mistletoe, I enlisted the help of a beta reader who had read the book before it and provided highly valuable insight. I was looking forward to her feedback on the next story, but she quickly backed out after a few chapters because the struggles of the couple whose marriage is on the rocks were too much for her after having gone through her own broken marriage. I told her it got better, but she said no thanks, it was too hard for her to get through.
This is where content warnings, also known as trigger warnings, come into play. There is a lot of debate about trigger warnings in the publishing industry. How much is too much? Some readers want a trigger warning for every possible sensitivity, while others feel this gives too much away. Some readers are much more sensitive than other readers or have experienced worse trauma than others. How much of this burden falls on the author to warn potential readers so we won’t have upset readers on our hands, saying, “This book is not what I signed up for!”?
Ultimately, for The Miracle of Mistletoe, I did add a content warning, but not for the marriage issues. The blurb makes it clear that it is a marriage reconciliation story, so marriage troubles are assumed to be included. However, one of the issues between the couple stems from child abuse that happened to the husband, and this is discussed at length. Another beta reader strongly recommended I place a content warning because she said not everyone wants to face such a heavy topic in romance. I did as she suggested. Ironically, that contentious book is my second-best seller.
Sometimes something simpler than trauma keeps us from enjoying a story. It might be that our life has been lived so differently than life portrayed in a story that we don’t know quite how to relate. Here’s an example. I was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian home where we were not allowed to listen to any music with a rock tempo. I could explain why, but that’s not relevant. The point is, I was raised to think of rock music of any kind as bad. As I grew, I had to make my own choices, and while I don’t listen to secular music, I love Christian contemporary music. K-LOVE or Air-1 is always on in our vehicles or in the house when I’m cleaning, and Phil Wickham is my go-to Pandora Radio station. BUT…I can’t make myself read a rock star romance. It makes me squeamish just to think about. Such a role was considered taboo to me for so long that it has stuck with me, and I can’t bring myself to read about a rock star, even a Christian one. There is a series by one of our Inspy Romance authors that I’ve heard amazing things about, but I haven’t read it yet because… Yep, you guessed it. It’s about a rock star. Eek!
Do you see where I’m coming from? Our life experiences come right along with us into a book, just like they do into any other event or experience. Should we let this dictate our reading habits? One of my goals this year is to read that rock star romance series—even if it makes me squirm! And also, to try to separate my personal life from fiction as much as possible. I think of the verse in 2nd Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” We don’t have to let our personal experiences, even the bad ones, limit our reading options.
The next time you feel bothered or uncomfortable while reading a book, ask yourself, what in my life is impacting my reading experience? It’s okay to give up on a book—but you can also ask God what He’d like you to learn and how you can grow as you read, even if it’s outside your comfort zone.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic. Do you appreciate trigger warnings, or do you view them as spoilers? How much is too much? How do you handle sensitive or uncomfortable topics as a reader?