This must be the week for me stepping into controversial topics. It’s a good thing I’m still wearing my flameproof jacket from my last post on plot vs. character. *smile*
It’s been a while since Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article at the Wall Street Journal and her contention that young adult (YA) books are too dark. I’m not going to get into whether she has a point, as others have ably covered that ground. However, one of the reaction posts triggered a thought that’s been rolling inside my head ever since.
Agent Rachelle Gardner discussed the issue from the viewpoint of a parent who also has insight into the publishing industry. As she pointed out, parents do have a role in helping their kids determine what is appropriate for them.
Parents are best able to teach their kids how to recognize the limits of what they want to be exposed to. For example, I know I don’t want to be exposed to horror stories, so I’ve learned to stay away from horror movies and most of Stephen King’s books.
Rachelle finished her post with the question of whether books should have a rating system. YA books, in particular, appeal to readers from eight years old to adult and often push boundaries. A book that’s fine for a 15-year-old might be traumatizing to a 9-year-old.
Are Rating Systems “Evil”?
Parents help guide their children, but how are they supposed to know whether a book is appropriate for their kid? A rating system would certainly help.
Those against a rating system for books tend to use one of three arguments:
- It’s censorship.
No, censorship is when an authority (usually government) suppresses speech or communication. Simply using a shorthand to describe content is not censorship.
Movies, TV shows, and video games all have a rating system, and while market forces might encourage or discourage content of a certain rating, market forces are not systematic censorship by a controlling body. Movie ratings have not prevented R movies from being made, and TV ratings have not prevented True Blood from becoming a hit show.
- Some kids will seek out the racier stuff.
True, ratings will make it easier for those kids to find the content they want, but ratings will also make it easier for parents to have conversations with their kids about what they’re reading.
Some libraries or book-banning parents might attack books with certain content, but that threat exists regardless. With the internet, once one person attacks a book, everyone hears about it—those who wish to copy them and those who line up to fight them. A rating on a book might speed up how quickly attackers learn about that book, but the battle would eventually happen anyway.
- Parents should pre-read all their kids’ books and then they’d know what was in it.
Seriously? Those who propose this must not be readers themselves. I know kids who can devour a 500-page book in a day, every day for a week, every week of summer vacation.
What are parents supposed to tell their kids? “Sorry, Johnny, you can’t read that book until I’ve finished it sometime next week. Why don’t you go play video games in the meantime.”
Um, no. Kids should never be discouraged from reading (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer). That concept is insane.
More Information Is Good
Even as adults, we sometimes want a clue about the content of a book. Many erotic romance books are labeled M/M, M/M/F, or M/F/M, or they indicate if the story includes BDSM elements. The publishers volunteer this information because they’ve learned their customers have different preferences. Imagine that.
Why is it so wrong then that kids (and their parents) might want to have the same information?
It’s time to get past the knee-jerk reaction and realize that depriving customers of important information about a product doesn’t help anyone. Who’s more likely to give a book a bad review or start a book banning campaign? Those who knew the content going in, or those who were blind-sided?
As a writer, I’d never eliminate a plot element because I was afraid of readers’ reactions. My stories go where they need to go and my characters must remain true to themselves. However, I think it’s fair to warn readers ahead of time of potential issues.
What Could a Book Rating Look Like?
I doubt we’ll ever have a comprehensive rating system like movies because there are too many titles from too many sources to have one all-seeing organization directing a coherent approach. Instead, I propose that book publishers—traditional, small press, epub, indie, self, off-planet, whatever—volunteer the information to their customers.
And I don’t think a G, PG, PG-13, R, etc. type rating system would help. The strokes are too broad and not every 15-year-old has the same sensitivities. (Just as not every 34-year-old has the same push-button issues.) Besides, books are more intimate than movies. Books invite us to live and breathe as the protagonist for a time.
I’d rather see a listing of the potentially problematic elements, like in the rating details at the bottom of the movie trailer above. A description of “Sexual Situations and Drug Use” would tell us that YA book was very different from a YA book with “Violence against Children and Rape Scene.” Heck, many adults wouldn’t want to read that second one—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And that’s my point. Some people don’t want to read stories with infidelity, or rape, or underage drinking, or what have you. Might those people miss out on some great books? Sure, but that’s their choice.
And if enough of their friends told them about what a great book such-and-such was despite those elements, they might read it anyway. Look at Hunger Games. Plenty of people knew upfront the book was about kids killing each other, but the positive buzz and reviews encouraged them to read it anyway.
Ratings aren’t about taking away choices. Ratings aren’t about forcing books to stop pushing boundaries. Ratings are about giving people enough information to help them make smarter choices, the choice that’s right for them.
*ahem* Sorry for the rant. *smile* Now I open the floor to you, and I sincerely want to hear from both sides. If you disagree with me please tell me why, as my opinions are never set in stone.
What do you think about ratings or content descriptions for books? Do you see this as censorship or otherwise dangerous? Why? (Did I miss an “against” argument above?) Do you plan to ask your publisher to include this information? If you’re self-published, do you plan to start including it (or do you already include it)? Where should this information go, the copyright page, facing the title page, the inside back cover, or…? As a reader, would you like to have this information? Are there some plot elements you prefer to avoid in books, TV shows, or movies?Pin It