This collection of recent short fiction by Neil Gaiman contains at least one fairy-tale story that I loved, loved while reading it. It holds another story that I found perfectly charming at the time but now remember as warmly bittersweet due to the coincidental passing of its subject, casting him as a glorious and terrible space-tyrant at the end of his reign. It felt good to read Gaiman again, and to let at least some of this collection brace me with fresh and vigorous awe. It had been a long time.
I do wish I’d skipped over the latter half of its preface until after I’d read all the stories. Here Gaiman collects his notes and author’s-statements about each of the proceeding stories, in the tradition (which he explicitly calls out) of many grand SF collections, and a practice I personally tie to all the yellowed Harlan Ellison pulp I devoured in my twenties. In this book, though, they felt to me like oversharing. I found myself appreciating certain stories less knowing they were part of a promotional project for BlackBerry phones, for example, or originated from a collaboration with Amanda Palmer while in the earliest days of her real-life courtship with the author.
I put this discomfort entirely on myself, and my unavoidably entangled and somewhat childish mental model of this author in particular as a living myth, and not necessarily someone with either a professional or a personal life of his own. When I read The Sandman month-by-month as a teenager, I found it like nothing at all I’d seen before, and so it played a core role in my adolescent taste-forming, right up there with taping David Letterman every night. As I think back on it, I do believe The Sandman is the first work in any medium I sought due to the recommendation of a someone I knew only online, via the GEnie comics fourms. (And Gaiman himself the first commercial creator I ever sent an electronic fan-mail to — and received a kind reply from! — via the same channel.) My formative self, in the liminal circa-1990 transition to a digitally dependent life, forever bound to this author no matter the quality of his work.
In all Gaiman’s prose I’ve read since those days, his short stories have stuck with me with far more permanence than his longer work. I read the Smoke and Mirrors collection 15 years ago, and certain far-seeing concepts from it will today come to mind unbidden as I live my increasingly science-fictionally mundane life. He hardly invented the concept of genderfluidity, for example, but he was the first to write a near-future story speculating about its societal impact that I read and remembered. In retrospect, my reading it seems like the memory of winding up a years-long alarm clock.
On the other hand, I know I had a good time reading the epic novels American Gods and Anansi Boys, but I couldn’t tell you much about what happens in them. His revisits to The Sandman’s world in comics every decade or so have felt like pleasantly comfortable fanfiction. So when Trigger Warning bumped over some unpaved roads, I enjoyed the jolt.
Oh, the title, though. I will not lie: the title delivered the book’s first shock to me, seizing my attention from the library’s new-releases shelf before I even noticed the author’s name. The best titles do catch the eye, of course, so full marks there. It felt transgressive and dangerous, knowing as much as I do about both the author and his typical audience, and I immediately wanted to know what Gaiman was aiming at. But even having read and enjoyed the whole collection, I still wonder about that title.
I know at least one friend saw the title as mockery of — or at the very least of a dismaying lack of empathy towards — PTSD sufferers and others who request real trigger warnings before their media for mental-health reasons. It does feel like a title that would seem more at home on an Ann Coulter screed, or on some other work by a self-styled crusader against “political correctness”. To see it on the cover of a book by the author of my favorite argument for “political correctness” brings on a dose of confused vertigo, and I wonder if it distracts more than it provokes.
In the book’s preface, aside from the story-notes, Gaiman writes of his ambivalent feelings about trigger warnings as a cultural tool. It happens that I agree that creators should never feel obligated to shrink-wrap their work with “TWs”, and I do push back on social pressure to act otherwise with as much empathetically softened firmness as I can. There is no part of the IFComp’s FAQ that I’ve rewritten more often than the question over content warnings, a source of minor but ongoing tension among the IF community, and preparing this blog post has doomed me to revise it yet more for 2016’s contest. (I want authors to feel free to include warnings as their own taste dictates, but to absolutely not feel obligated to do so, but then again not feel they shouldn’t just because of the previous clause, and argh…)
I see the title as a the author’s attempt to “own” the phrase as a book’s title, taking it away from those who would use it to truly sneer, instead using it to recast an old-timey fantasy title such as Tales to Astonish in a thoroughly modern light, with a wink. But having built this generous interpretation I look again at the cover and wince anyway.
The problem, I think, comes from my understanding that trigger warnings are inherently tied to personal pain, and the desire to avoid provoking pain unnecessarily in oneself or in others. We can constructively disagree about whether and to what degree TWs present a practical tool for improving empathy and respect between creator and audience. But given that trigger warnings, when implemented, take the form of the words “Trigger Warning”, literally titling a major work that way really does look like an uninvited jab at a raw nerve, rather than an invitation to think.
And that can only distract! I do feel the book would have been better served with any other title, and every other word of its content unchanged.