August 2, 2011

A Rating System for Books, Part Two: How Can We Include Context?

Harry Potter Half Blood Prince movie poster vs. book cover

Thanks once again to all who responded to my last blog post about whether books should have a rating system.  And I say that not just because I didn’t need my flame-proof jacket.  *smile*

Many shared thoughtful ideas here on my blog, Google+, and Twitter that helped me refine my opinion.  If you haven’t read that article already, please check it out to better understand the issues here.

When a book is turned into a movie or TV show, we understand the director will adapt the source material.  Books and movies aren’t the same.  For one thing, screenplays can’t include a character’s thoughts unless they use voice-over narration, which often comes off as cheesy.

Likewise, we experience books and movies differently.  Reading about a subject is different from watching it.  No matter how graphically described, reading an action scene about violence will be less likely to cause wincing than seeing Saw 3D on the big screen.

The Effect of POV, Emotional Level, and Relatability

Movies generally have a point-of-view (POV) outside any of the characters.  The camera can follow various characters around without anyone grumbling about head-hopping.  The most intimate POV a movie can have is the hand-held camera technique of Blair Witch or Cloverfield.

In contrast, books can have POVs ranging from distant (omniscient) to extremely intimate (deep 3rd-person or 1st-person).  As I said in my last post:

Books invite us to live and breathe as the protagonist for a time.

Authors can also vary the emotional level in books.  I know I’ve written scenes that felt “flat” to beta readers (and me).  A few word choice changes here, a bit of interiority there, and a scene can go from unemotional to heart-breaking.

In addition, how closely readers identify with characters affects their perception of events.  A villain can perform almost any act of violence in a book, and we’ll nod our head and say, “Yep, that’s the villain all right.”  But if the protagonist acts more violently than we’re comfortable with, we might throw the book against the wall.

Are Standards Impossible?

These variables make it impossible to have a standard threshold for labels like “Graphic Violence” on books.  An action-only hack-and-slash scene filled with gore in omniscient POV wouldn’t have the same impact on the reader as an emotional 1st person (or deep 3rd person) description of the same events as they watched the murder of their family.

The same goes with sex and nudity.  Nudity by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot in books.  The effect depends more on the context of the scene around it.  Many romance writers struggle to write sex scenes “hot” enough, rather than just a rote description of tab-A-slot-B.

Even scenes with hot-button issues like rape can vary how deeply they affect readers.  In the deep POV of a victim, readers suffer along with the character.  In the POV of a disinterested observer, readers might feel more disgust.

In a great conversation I had with Clifton Hill on Twitter, we talked about Game of Thrones and the level of violence in that series.  He mentioned the rape scene with the peaceful Lhazareen by the Dothraki (edited for text-speak):

“Without that fairly graphic scene, we don’t fully grasp the Dothraki brutality or a character’s motivations for later.”

Subtext and witnessed behavior can be more important in books because readers might not learn things about non-POV characters any other way.

Context Is Everything

With the exception of “Language” (whether we read or hear profanity, our reaction will probably be similar), we simply can’t describe issues in books the same way we do with movies.  The emotions of a scene, POV, and how much the reader relates to the characters all play a huge part in how events in books are processed by a reader.

Context affects movies as well (look at the “violence” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but the intimacy of books greatly increases that affect.  In short, context is everything in books.

So where am I going with all this?  Honestly, I don’t have any easy answers to this problem of how to inform readers of potential content issues while still giving that all-important context.  So I’m going to turn to you, my awesome and intelligent blog readers, for your thoughts.

How can content disclosures include the necessary context?  What kind of qualifiers would be most helpful—graphic vs. mild or hints of the POV/emotional context (or both)?  Would books for kids need a different kind of disclosure than adult fiction?  What disclosures would you use (or have you used) for your stories?

I’ll start with an example for one of my stories:  This book includes occasional profanity, a vague reference to involuntary infidelity, and a self-sacrificial attempted suicide.

Would something like that be helpful, would it add too much confusion, or does it just sound stupid?  Share your examples and thoughts in the comments.

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Comments — What do you think?

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Tami Veldura

Oh, I get to jump in at the top of the conversation, this time. Goodie! I’ll admit I’ve never once considered context in how it relates to the content warnings of the stories I write. If there’s a rape scene in my story, I will warn about a rape scene, but it will be a single word in a list of warnings. eg. violence, rape, abuse, hurt/comfort, hfn But since you’re making me think about it I’d say the list of warnings are limited to single words because the context really -doesn’t- matter that much. Someone disinterested in a rape scene will not read it, regardless of context. Now, an excellent writer may be able to portray a rape scene that does not offend said reader, but that kind of specificity is not possible to portray in the content warning, that only comes, as you say, with the full context. “This book includes occasional profanity, a vague reference to involuntary infidelity, and a self-sacrificial attempted suicide.” Your warning works, it includes all the necessary detail, but I would be equally satisfied with: language, involuntary infidelity, attempted suicide. The fact that there’s only a vague reference to the cheating isn’t any more likely to get me to read the book. Ditto the fact that the suicide attempt is a martyrdom event. And the reverse: a stripped down warning list isn’t any less likely for me to read it. You’re not loosing my readership because you’ve left out the context. I think…  — Read More »

Susan Sipal

I don’t know, Jami. You have a great way of bringing up and summarizing all the important issues, but your example at the ends seems a bit TMI for me as far as any guidelines or rating system would go. Unless it was the detail followed behind a very clear, very simple PG-13 type of rating. And maybe that’s what you meant.

I think that level of detail might be hard to do w/out giving spoilers. Plus would have to consider what the author considers worthy of highlighting as opposed to parents/kids.

To me, any system is going to be flawed, but the simpler the better. Let the cover and back blurb give the hint for context.

Melinda Collins

Hi Jami – I agree to the point on including a hint at the context, and maybe we need to think about possibly including those hints in the backcover blurb so they are intertwined with the blurb in some way, shape or form (similar to Susan’s idea above). Your post got me thinking <–I know, right?!? Are we in trouble here? LOL! Anyway, so I was thinking that including the context in a warning is a great idea, so I started to think of a disclosure for my own stories….but I ran into a problem when I did: If there's violence: Well what kind of violence? Is it war violence, person on person violence, mild violence against property or mild fighting scenes? If there's profanity: Some readers can take a little profanity, which I understand is referred to as 'mild', but what if *my* definition of mild is different from a reader's definition of mild when it comes to language? I think we can all agree that there definitely are different opinions out there on this topic alone (Just ask the FCC! Ha!) *And I know, most people don't really do this with movies when they read those disclosures, but after they see the movie, they're either happy that it was a wonderful movie, or they're really upset and possibly disturbed. This is why I lov ereading my Entertainment Weekly 🙂 It's tricky when we get down to the disclosures because there's such a fine line between giving some readers…  — Read More »

Tiffany A White

I just don’t know how this could be done, but I am on board. How do you rate context? Eveyrone reads everything differently. A non-sexual but extremly controversial example is Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. I remember all the people boycotting the book because of the religious (or anti, however one wants to look at it) under tones and suggestive plots, but all I could repeat over and over was that it was fiction.

Lisa Phillips (@nataliagortova)
Lisa Phillips (@nataliagortova)

I think simpler would be better.
i.e. “Contains strong violence/coarse language/brief nudity”
That kind of thing. Such as appears for TV shows. (I get it in the info part of my guide on cable). Or even a basic rating system, such as with computer games.
E for everyone
T for Teen
M for Mature

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

I agree that simplicity is key. If you have to explain it too much, then it’s probably not the right system. I think the main thing is to warn parents about potential problems for children. Adults should take the time to read a review or two, or know that certain genres are apt to have certain language and/or violence. My mother reads Christian romance, like Jody Hedlund’s “The Preacher’s Bride” so she’ll know the F-word won’t be there. BTW, my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that we needed to talk with her about not saying the F-word in class. My wife was shocked…until she found out the F-word in question was fart. Go figure. Anyway, keep it simple and it might work.

Laura Pauling

I think it will be really hard to change a system or add a system of rating to books. If a book on the spine said upper YA or +17 that would tell me I might not want my 11 year old reading it. I agree it all comes down to context and how it’s done, how graphic the images are, how intense the emotion are. And everyone might rate things differently. Who’s going to judge? What’s the standard?

Gene Lempp

Simplicity is the key, without a doubt. I agree that saying too much could lead to spoilers so the line to walk is fairly thin. However, I believe that the movie ratings system is fairly effective without giving up anything. “includes profanity (mild or severe)”, sexual situations, violence (self or others, what degree), etc. The overall rating, say a small stamp in the bottom corner of the back cover, like Lisa suggested and the “blurb” at the bottom of the inside back cover. Easy to find without being obtrusive or damaging.

Interesting discussion, Jami 🙂

Delphine Dryden

I like the approach that the movie review site Kids in Mind takes. Their ratings are a three-part scale based on 1) Sex and Nudity, 2) Violence and Gore, and 3) Profanity. Each of those factors is rated 1-10, then a very detailed and neutral description of each incident in the movie is provided. It’s not judgmental, just stating things like “a man punches another man in the face” or “a female character appears topless with her breasts visible”. In the case of violence it will tell you whether or not the victim is okay, and whether the harm is seen on-screen, etc. But again, it just provides the information then a set of numbers. As a parent I really appreciate this because the numbers make it easier to knock certain candidates out of the running for viewing right off the top, see which things are automatically okay, and that way I don’t mind spending a little time reading the review or even previewing the few “iffy” cases where I’m just not sure. The key is the neutrality. A lot of people make fun of the site, and it’s true sometimes it reads like Joe-Bob Briggs…three breasts, five buttocks and one shooting! But different parents, different kids, different people have different standards and just having the facts is very useful in my opinion. Of course that sort of breakdown of the story takes time and any review along those lines will tend to be spoilery. It’s always a balancing act.

Dan Bowen

Fortunately, for the consumer in all of us, analytical tools *do* exist to observe thematic content in context and perspective (pov) as you require here. The sort of ratings we all are speaking of are not censorship (I think you made that clear in the first post)… they are simply information to better inform a consumer about their purchase. Of course, there are ancillary effects, such as kids seeking out the “R-rated” books because they can be easily identified and they want a quick thrill. However, the long and short is that a more informed market is a healthier one… I believe the benefits well-outweigh the costs of such a system.

All ratings systems will be criticized to some extent (always) because rating systems draw a line in the sand where, in all reality, a society’s distributed tolerance for various content can vary widely from one individual to the next (i.e., mormons are going to have a very different tolerance than atheists will).

The most critical paragraphs of these two posts seem to be getting at issues of subjectivity and interpreting observed context…

Solution: be objective… problem solved.

I rate this blog comment, “Z”, for ZAPPY! 🙂


This would be where subjective come into play. What I deem raunchy you may not…so it’s that age old question that I hate. Who gets to decide?



[…] Gold explores one of the much debated topics of publishing in A Rating System for Books, Part Two: How Can We Include Context? Also from Jami this week an interesting look at How Do You React When Strangers Read Your […]

Ellie Ann

Hi Jami!
Great great post! I think this is an important topic, one I find interesting and worth talking about.
I don’t see why MG/YA books don’t have a rating system yet. Maybe it’s because it’s only been in then past 10 yrs or so that some really racy material has been published for kids.
I desperately wish for a rating system. Why? Because it might unite the ABA and the CBA. I worked as a book review editing for a Christian Library Journal, and it was basically a rating system for Christian parents to look at and see if certain books were appropriate. However, a lot of Christian parents won’t let their child read a “non-Christian” book if they don’t know what’s in it. That makes me sad, ’cause kids could miss a lot of great literature…and also crappy Christian books won’t sell as well (it’s a million dollar market).
So…from my POV I see it as a good thing, something that might give parents more confidence when they enter a book store. And then they’d buy more books…which is just what we authors want, aye?! 😀

Deri Ross
Deri Ross

Hi, I’m a little behind on commenting due to moving and all. First of all, I almost chocked on my coffee at the “tab A slot B” line. That was priceless. XD The more you write about this, the more I’m liking the idea of SOME kind of rating system on books, at least for children. Maybe adult fiction doesn’t need it, but as more and more people jump on the writing bandwagon and, more importantly, self-publish, it seems books for young people are pushing the boundaries of what is appropriate. Parents have a right to know what their kids are consuming into their brains, end of story. I read a YA book recently, self-published, that was fine until I came across the F word (the real one, not fart 🙂 ). It was out of context, and it seemed just slapped in there for shock value. Would I have a problem if my 16 year old read that? Probably not, but I would have been less put-off if it had been necessary (yes, sometimes that word is totally necessary…j/k). If it had been more gratuitous, like constant bad language, then no, she would not have been allowed to read it. And just because kids are exposed to more things today than we were, doesn’t make it ok to contribute to that. I hear that argument all the time when it comes to sex or bad language. Ok, just because it’s everywhere, doesn’t mean I want my kids to be…  — Read More »

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