Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Does Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning need a trigger warning?

Neil Gaiman has a new book of short stories called Trigger Warning. Not surprisingly, some activists and feminists aren't comfortable with its title. The f-word's Sasha Garwood says:
But. I can't get past the title. I can't enjoy the bloody book because it's bothering me so much. I've been agonising over whether to write this essay for weeks, but nobody else seems to have done it and it itches inside my head worse than little bugses. It bothers me because yes, I know what he's getting at - all the stories are intended on some level to trouble or disturb or unsettle - and I can see how if you didn't spend a huge amount of time in the world of feminist discourse you might, just might, think 'oh, this thing that people use to signify potentially upsetting content would be a great way to allude to the fact that all my stories have potentially upsetting content, which is a specialism of the short story form, and make a contemporary cultural debate reference at the same time!' But even if Gaiman had that excuse - and his friendships with notable feminists like Laurie Penny and Roz Kaveney don't quite convince me that he does - that doesn't actually make the title's effect any less trivialising and, well, appropriative.
One of the greatest tools a writer has is "appropriation." Of course, some wield it more skillfully than others, and no one is suggesting that Gaiman should be above criticism for using a phrase that still holds value in activist circles, but there's a bigger discussion to be had, I think, within those circles, and not one that reverts to the "privilege" framework, but asks, what is the responsibility of the artist outside those parameters? I differ from most feminists when I say a writer's primary responsibility is to produce good work, not satisfy political goals. Writers should be able to pick and choose cultural artifacts with an eye toward responsibility without being self-censorious. At least, you do yourself a great disservice as a writer if you're solely focused on avoiding offense.

I want to stress that I don't think these things are unimportant, or should never be considered when talking about a writer's work, but privilege arguments are so easy to make they risk becoming lazy. And when they filter into the general public by way of clumsy critique, it becomes harder for writers to take risks.