Waterstone’s Book of The Month March 2020: Why I won’t be reading The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal + a discussion on trigger warnings/age ratings

Note: In this post I discuss trigger warnings and whilst I don’t go into any great detail about any kind of trigger, I do discuss them within the context of books and literature.

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth Macneal was Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of The Month’ in March, the book is set in London, 1850, and Silas meets Iris at The Great Exhibition and and a dark obsession grows. It currently has an average rating of 3.78 on Goodreads. I have unfortunately DNF’d this book, not because it is poorly written, the little I did read showcased some beautiful writing, but because I can’t read this.

‘He likes to talk to his creatures, to make up histories which have landed them on his slab.’

I remember being very excited for this one when I read the synopsis, as it sounded like something I wouldn’t pick up on my own but interesting nonetheless. However, as I was reading the first chapter I realised one of the main characters, Silas, was a taxidermist, and at first this wasn’t a problem – just a bit disturbing to read about; until I remembered Silas was meant to become obsessed over a women: and then it became a problem. I’m assume you all know where the plot is going to go, I thought it was going there too so I flicked ahead to skim read to double check and my assumptions were correct. Unfortunately I can’t stomach reading about something like that.

I won’t be reading this book for that reason, as that plot point and concept is too disturbing for me to be able to read about. I know some of you may think it’s my own fault, after all it’s a book sold about a man obsessing over a woman and it’s called ‘The Doll Factory’, I just didn’t clock that, I thought it’d be about stalking and obsession – not taxidermy.

However, for me, it raised an important question: should books have trigger warnings or age ratings like film or TV shows do? Or do we as readers believe this is some form of censorship? All films and TV shows have some kind of age rating to warn you of what’s included in them, and if there’s swearing or graphic violence or anything else like that they have to state it with the age rating, but books don’t do that- should they?

Should this book be warning readers it’s not just about stalking and obsession but includes a disturbing and dark concept surrounding taxidermy also? Would we expect that from a film or TV show? Probably. It would probably be labelled with graphic violence, but because this is a book we don’t get the same warning and it’s making me think we probably should.

Perahps some one would argue we already do, we have genres like middle-grade, YA, NA and adult – that’s true; however literature is so diverse and so is every genre these days, I don’t think these act as age ratings anymore. Think of the YA genre for example, you have books that are clearly written and targeted at 13 year olds, but also books that suit a far more mature YA audience – like Sarah. J. Maas’ books, and maybe we should be included some kind of age recommendation in the blurb to help YA readers naviagte the shelves and realise what’s appropriate for them or not; because I’d hate to think of a young YA reader picking up ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’.

It’s the same with adult books, I’m sure plenty of young readers could pick up ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman and really enjoy and understand the story, but then what would stop them from picking up an Angela Carter book, which is definitely not appropriate for a younger reader.

It’s not just age ratings I’m concerned over, it’s also trigger warnings. I know people like to joke about being ‘triggered’ and sometimes we forget how serious triggers are – I don’t, I have triggers. I suffer from post-traumatic stress and several mental illnesses, one of them being an anxiety disorder, and I have multiple triggers for both of those, but I’m very fortunate most of those triggers don’t exist within literature. Yet, I don’t know what I would do if they did, because there aren’t many books that have triggers warnings. Sure, you may be able to understand sexual assualt or rape is included in a book from the blurb – but not always. There are so many things included in books that could be harmful for people to read about that readers aren’t warned about in the blurbs.

Perhaps the solution would be for the publishing industry to create some kind of key, so under the blurb there would be symbols listed, each one meaning a different thing. There could be one for domestic abuse, rape, suicide etc. and it wouldn’t impact our reading experience at all, but it would help people with triggers navigate bookshelves.

I’m sorry if this came off like a rant, but it’s something I’ve been think about for the last week and would love to hear everyone’s opinions on!

The Series:

2 thoughts on “Waterstone’s Book of The Month March 2020: Why I won’t be reading The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal + a discussion on trigger warnings/age ratings

  1. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I haven’t heard of this book but the way you describe it, it sounds like something similar to Patrick Süskind’s Perfum.

    The things about trigger warnings on books – I’m not sure if that would work. I think the problem would be one one hand, that it would be hard to generalize it. There are so many different authors with so many different writing styles but also readers out there. Reading about a character getting a slap in the face might be nothing to one person or already a trigger for physical violence to the next. “Graphic” can mean too many different things.
    Another point is that going further into detail in the trigger warnings might spoil the plot for the reader and is therefore counterproductive. Would you still buy a book where the blurb hints too strongly at the twist?

    I feel like I’m not explaining this very well. Although I like your idea with the symbols. (That might still mean spoiler people though.) For what kind of books do you have that in mind? Would different genres mean different warnings? Or something more general?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You raise some really interesting points here.

      I agree with the ‘slapping’ example because you’re right, some people even with bad experiences may view that as next to nothing and would be fine with it, whilst others may find that very difficult to read about. I think my problem comes with issues that are easier to define like sexual assault, rape, suicide, domestic abuse etc.

      I think with issues surrounding rape or domestic abuse there should be trigger warnings as people can find that really harrowing, recently the British Board of Film Classification announced changes to their warnings regarding domestic abuse (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/british-board-film-classification-rules-domestic-abuse-a9377771.html) and I think maybe we should have something like that in place.

      Whilst I wouldn’t word it as ‘spoiling’ the book I understand what you’re trying to say. However, with movies and TV shows that warn about things that can be triggering such as suicide, rape etc. people rarely complain it’s ‘spoiled’ the plot. I think we could include symbols/warnings at the end of the blurb with little complaints.

      I would hope for a set of symbols with a key to explain what they mean that were commonplace throughout the publishing market, just like age ratings are with films are in separate countries. So every publishing house had to use the same symbols with the same key so you knew what they meant, and it would be the same symbols and keys for every genre and every book they printed. Whilst I doubt that would ever happen, it’s much more likely for publishing houses to come up with their own symbols for trigger warnings then have a common key across the marketplace, it would be very useful. Also if they were at the end of the blurb if people didn’t need any warnings and wanted to be surprised by the plot they could easily ignore them, and if not then you could still easily find them.

      I hope I explain everything right, it’s such a complex issue it’s hard to make sure I’ve voiced it in the way I wanted to.

      Like

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