Trigger warnings are notes posted at the beginning of articles and stories to warn people that they might be offended or traumatized by something inside. Author Neil Gaiman is so obsessed with them, he named his most recent collection of short fiction and poetry Trigger Warning.
Trigger Warning is a motley assemblage of his work, from gems to duds, stories filled with monsters and tenderness, from tales inspired by Ray Bradbury and Arthur Conan Doyle to a story about Doctor Who.
The Daily Beast sat down with Gaiman to discuss Trigger Warning, Internet comments, and the “bullshit” around fantasy’s recent popularity.
Let’s talk about the title. Why did you want to call this Trigger Warning?
Mostly because I got absolutely fascinated by the discussions going on in academia about trigger warnings, and about how and whether one should prepare people for literature. It’s interesting, I found myself, rather to my surprise, dealing with people from the Internet who thought it was a title in incredibly poor taste, or that it was disrespectful of the need for trigger warnings. From an Internet point of view, I can absolutely understand the need to put out and have trigger warnings, especially when you’re confronted by a huge random mass of information. But once that reaches academia, I was absolutely just as much down with the American Association of College Professors, where they were saying that this is just wrong. We have to be able to teach the texts we have chosen to teach. People have to either be able to take the class or not. I love the fact that you’ve got this debate going on currently. It seemed to me that so much of it was about content, about where do we stand on fiction and stories that upset you deeply, and go further, that send you into a breath-clutching, heart beating faster, messed-up person plunged into your bath because of something you’ve read in a story. I think the answer has to be that it’s all about what you take on as an adult, and it’s all about choice.
From there I started thinking, it’s not going to be very long before people start slapping trigger warnings on my stuff. Then I thought, “Why don’t I just do it myself? And then use the opportunity to talk about it.”
In the introduction when you talk about reading about trigger warnings I had this image of you in front of a screen going down the rabbit hole of comment threads about trigger warnings…
On the one hand, “Do not read the comments” is always the wisest information you can pass on to anyone. Babies being born in the next few years will probably have “Do not read the comments” tattooed on the backs of their hands. On the other hand, it is always absolutely fascinating to see what people are thinking, to watch things growing into huge games of telephone. To watch somebody misunderstanding something and then explain the thing they’ve understood, and watch people get involved. The nature of people in groups on the Internet is always fascinating for me. You get to see people at their best and their worst.
In the collection, the stories range from sentimental to scary. Why do you think we enjoy being scared so much?
Actually the thing that fascinates me is the fact that it doesn’t have to be the scary or disturbing stories that need the trigger warnings. People thought I was joking in the introduction when I talk about my friend Rocky who has the thing about tentacles. This is a woman who I have seen, with some sushi going past, her diving behind the sofa. Her relationship to tentacles is visceral and screaming.
It is a very odd collection, in that you’ve got scary stuff. You’ve got funny things. You’ve got a couple romantic things, and a handful of fairy tales. You have a mess of things from me. I think the ghost stories, the scary things, are hugely important. They keep us awake. They probably go back to some of the oldest tales that were told when sitting there in a cave with the campfire flickering. When you begin to start talking about the guy who was killed in the mammoth raid last week and we’re pretty sure we’ve seen him walking around on the edge of the camp, looking in. People love being fatefully scared, just as they love being fatefully thrilled, just as they love fatefully falling in love. And then they can close the page and feel safe now.
You’ve written fantasy novels that are incredibly popular, so I was curious as to why you think over the past decade the consensus seems to be that it’s become, particularly with Game of Thrones, mainstream?
Honestly I think, the weird thing is it’s been this big and mainstream always. People just didn’t talk about it. People think about Lord of the Rings these days as being a huge sequence of films and forget that as a sequence of books they were one of the best-selling books of the 1960s and ’70s. If you looked at the films, if you look at the books, the best-selling ones tended to have elements of the fantastic in them, miraculous things, magical things happening. That may have a lot to do where we get them from. The best-selling book ever is the Bible, which has all sorts of things. People coming back from the dead. Miracles. Magical things happening. Scary things happening. Horrible things happening. I once nearly sent a Swedish publisher to prison for telling a Bible story in a comic strip. It was filled with murder and horribleness, and came very close to imprisoning my poor publisher.
Shakespeare was somebody who was not averse to his ghosts, he was not averse to his fairies. He could write fantasy, he could write historical, he could write horrific, and he could bake children in pies. I think it was always popular. Charles Dickens’s most popular story has three ghosts turning up on a Christmas Eve to scare an old miser and take him back in time. I say all that because people love to give stupid, simplistic answers. It’s so easy to say, “Why do people like fantasy? Because the world today is so complicated! People long for simpler times when you could solve everything with a sword!” You know, that’s kind of bullshit. I think people love imagining things. People love the strength of fantasy that it can show you the world you are in from a slightly different perspective. It can take you out of your own head and show you something else. But then you get to go back into your own world.
I did a signing the other night in Fort Collins, Colorado. They won me. Every independent bookshop in the U.S. could compete to win me for the one signing I did for Trigger Warning, and it turned out to be in Colorado. And I went to the Old Fire House Books, and something in the region of 2,000 people got in line. But the ones that fascinated me the most were the young women. Women in their 20s who would turn up carrying copies of Coraline that they’d had since 11. That book was the most important thing to them. You could see it had been read a hundred or a thousand times. They were battered. The covers were fraying, and they wanted their copies signed. They told me how Coraline had saved them.
Does that weigh on you?
You don’t write it for that, and you think that if the book goes out and does a wonderful thing, that’s a bonus. I always liked the idea that Coraline would teach people what bravery was and bravery wasn’t. What I love is that there are people who will say Coraline got through this, so I can get through mine. They would tell me horrific stories of abuse, of terrible, sad, awful things happening that they got through with this book. It makes me kind of proud. Mostly it reminds me that fantasy is functional. It is something that you really do use, to deal with stress, to deal with life.
This is your third collection of short fiction. What keeps bringing you back to this format?
For me, what I love doing most of all with short fiction, and that I’m proudest of at this point in time, is that I get people reading short fiction. I grew up on short stories and on novels. The short-story collection from a favorite author would be a high point of the year. Short fiction for me was absolutely an excitement. These days, it seems like fewer and fewer authors publish short fiction. A lot of it is just the weirdness of the market, it’s not that people don’t write it, it’s just hard to publish viably. In that I’m incredibly fortunate, and I know just how fortunate I am. For me, I just love the action of writing short stories. I love trying to figure out a way of solving a problem—I love making mistakes in short form. I’d much rather fuck something up in five pages or 15 than 350. So they are a great place to make healthy and interesting mistakes, to go and see if something can be done.
You write about how as a child you came across things that disturbed you, but looking back you wouldn’t change that. Where do you think that line is for healthy disturbance when it comes to adolescents?
Truthfully, I think we all find that line ourselves, and you tend to find it by going past it, and then by having to go back. There are moments for me that are pure nightmare. I remember watching the I, Claudius TV show. I was aged about 13, and the moment where Caligula played by John Hurt comes to open the door to Claudius, and his hands and face are covered with blood and you know he’s done something absolutely terrible to his pregnant sister. It was way beyond my comfort zone. On the other hand I’m so glad I saw it, and I’m glad I saw it at the point where it made an impact on me. Do I think that you can read fiction you’re not ready for? Yeah, I do. Do I think most of us are pretty good judges of our limits, are pretty good at censoring ourselves, and figuring out what we like and how we like it? Yeah, I do. But do I think it can be healthy to push those limits, just a little, and then retreat back onto the safe side? Absolutely I do.
On the other hand, you can also be stupid. For example, my daughter Holly, when she about 11, was in love with the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. She’d read them all and thought they were fantastic. I remember thinking, “Ah, if you like R.L. Stein you’ll love Stephen King!” I went down to the library and got a copy of Carrie, and proudly gave Holly a copy. Not only did she not finish reading Carrie but I don’t think she went back to Goosebumps. She spent the rest of her school years reading basically nice Little House on the Prairie stuff. It was nice about settlers who made each other cakes. She still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned. So you can absolutely fuck it up.
So one of the stories was written in honor of Ray Bradbury, one is a Sherlock Holmes story. A lot is made in the press about your literary influences. Have those changed over the years?
I think influences always change. For me a lot of the ones I wind up going back to over and over are the ones that remain—like Bradbury. You could never be sure what lasts, but there are ones you go back to as an adult. Particularly children’s books that you go back to as an adult, and realize that they’re still really good.