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.
Photo Credit: Filmcritic.com