on rating books.

| Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Today's Tune: Hands Open

You might have maybe heard that it's Banned Books Week or something? Heh.

I'm planning on posting about one of my personal favorite banned books tomorrow (actually, it's a series of three), so stay tuned for that! In the meantime, I'd like to discuss something I see bandied about a lot when the subject of book banning comes up: wouldn't it be easier/better just to impose a ratings system on books? You know, like movies?

And here's my opinion on that: no. No, it wouldn't.

It's difficult for me to explain exactly why this concept bothers me so much, other than telling you that I don't believe literature should be "kept" from anyone, or that there's any sort of blanket age when a person is "ready" to read a certain book. Some children and teens are mature enough to handle certain themes, some aren't.

Also, I feel a rating system would be fairly arbitrary. Who would decide which books are best for which ages? Do we base it on reading level, or specific content? If content, than what sort of content? Presence of sexuality? Swearing? Violence? Themes? Religious viewpoint? Age of the protagonist? What level of violence is okay for a 10-year old, and what is okay for a 15-year old?

What do we rate the Bible? There's a LOT of sex and violence in there. How about Shakespeare? I mean, you've READ Shakespeare's plays, right? That stuff is LOADED. And also taught in nearly every pubic school in America.

What if a book doesn't contain sex, but the characters briefly mention it? Does that need to be noted along with a "contains sexuality" tag? How specific are we going to get here?

Not to mention the monumental nature of this task. First, a universal rating system would need to be put in place. Then, every book (EVERY. BOOK.) would need to be read and ran through this rating system to determine the appropriate rating. That's approximately 170,000 books a year in this country alone. And boy, do we have a serious backlog of previously published work to get through. Compare that to the approximately 600 films released a year. Yeah. Yeah.

And what of self-publishing? Who rates those? And if a book is rated Teen, does that mean a kid has to produce identification to prove that they're X number of years old before they're allowed to check out or purchase a book?

I have kind of a bucking bronto reaction to the implication that literature is something that shouldn't be accessible to a portion of the population, even if that population is children. I like to think that a novel is about the overall theme of the work, not a scene or two. I want people to decide for themselves what literature suits them and what doesn't.

To be fair, I think a parent has the right to decide if they don't think a certain novel is appropriate for their kids. I just balk at the idea of some arbitrary rating system deciding for everyone which books are "okay" for which people. You just can't pigeonhole literature that way. The themes of fiction can resonate for any age group, and who am I to say otherwise?

What are your thoughts on rating books?


{ Lisa Potts } at: September 29, 2010 at 8:40 AM said...

I view rating books the same way I view banning books. Ridiculous.

{ aspiring_x } at: September 29, 2010 at 9:26 AM said...

we disagree again, maybe! (why do we always do that!?!?) you bring up great points!

i don't think rating is the right word... or assigning an age. what a person can handle at any certain age is subjective. even between my sons, there is a lot of difference about what they can handle.

what i think would be helpful in guiding people of all ages to the books they would enjoy the most is some kind of system that just makes the reader aware. maybe not even printed on the book- but available in the store or library.

something that says contains explicit sexual scenes or contains sexual innuendo, language, violence, etc. i think it should be the publishers' responsibility to "rate" the books. and i don't think that "rating" retroactively would be a necessity.

i think books could be rated "not rated" is self-published, or for whatever reasons some movies are NR.

here's a terrible comparison. it's like when movies went from vhs to dvd. not every movie was converted, but the ones being sold anew were. if that makes sense.

i don't want a system telling my kids what they can read and what they can't. i know i got royally pissed at my son's teacher last year because she told him he was too young to read goosebumps books even though his reading comprehension skills were high enough. she thought the books were too scary and told him to put them back in the library. i was totally pissed. that decision belongs to him to make... and me. as a parent i have a right to tell my sons i think they aren't ready for a book... but... where was i?

oh yeah! a system that let us know what content that might offend SOME inside a book would be helpful. if it was used as a tool and not a shackle "rating" could really be helpful to parents.

especially those parents and groups that stand behind most attempts to ban books. i think "rating" could be a happy medium in a wildy varied culture.

who knows though? i could be wrong!! we both know that happens alot!

{ Liz } at: September 29, 2010 at 9:27 AM said...

It's funny, I never really gave thought to the fact that books are essentially the last entertainment media that has not been rated. Remember the days before TV shows were rated? Not too long ago...

Anyway, I'm with you on this one. I'm not sure I would want to live in a world where every book was rated.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: September 29, 2010 at 9:43 AM said...

aspiring_x - Do you mean essentially like "warnings" placed on books? Like they have on video games? "Contains mild violence, alcohol reference, brief sexuality." That sort of thing? Or accompanied by an actual rating, e.g. "General Public," "10 and under," "Teen," "Mature," etc.?

I don't know how I feel about that, either. I understand that some people don't want to read about certain themes. But at the same time, I feel like those types of warnings are distilling a book down into their baser parts. I mean, I wonder how many parents would have thought Twilight was a "book with good morals" if the warning on the back had just read, "Contains violence, sexuality, and swearing."

I feel like that sort of arbitrary system ignores the overall theme of a book. And it makes me sad to think that people are discounting beautiful, moving, amazing books because they go, "Wait, teens reference alcohol in this book? NO WAY."

And I think it's really a small portion of the population that feels that way, you know?

Richard N at: September 29, 2010 at 10:09 AM said...

I think I'm pretty much 100% in agreement with Steph - there's no viable way to either rate or add advisories to a book without either excluding certain people up front... which I strongly object to in principle, or alternatively placing what amounts to a spoiler on the cover - which detracts from the book for everybody.

As for cultural issues - if another culture has issues with the content of a book, then that isn't my problem. If somebody objects to the content within the context of their culture, then it's up to them how they choose to deal with it... I'm not about to compromise *my* culture.
I don't subscribe to the theory "when in Rome, tell the Romans how to live their lives".

Books aren't broken, and they don't need fixing. :-)

{ aspiring_x } at: September 29, 2010 at 10:10 AM said...

something more along the lines of the warnings. but i hate the word warning, because it implies that there is something shameful or harmful about the content. when that isn't the point.

the point is that some people aren't ready for- or can't handle certain themes. or for religious/ political/ moral purposes avoid certain content. although i do not agree with the lines they draw, i can understand why they draw those lines.

i can understand the teen who doesn't want to read a book where alcohol is treated as a joke, because their alcoholic dad beats them at night. or the woman who doesn't want to relive the rape that is still a fresh wound upon her heart.

and those things aren't always evident by back blurbs or covers or word of mouth.

especially by word of mouth. a lot of the tougher subjects are not spoken about. people just say "wow that was moving" but they don't say what "that" was... if that makes sense.

i'm not sure about placing the "warning" (i hate that word) actually ON the book, because of the reasons you said. it makes the book (or movie, music, etc.) about the basest elements... if you'd even say that. it reduces it. and that isn't the purpose.

so, some kind of tool. a computer site available at the store or library... something to make the purchase easier for the customer (or parent). could be really helpful.

but branding a book with a big scarlet A isn't what i mean.

i think there are ways we could make it work for everyone.

and even if the sect of people who have difficulty with content is a minority (i'd argue regionally they could be a majority- especially here in kansas) i think the minority's opinions should be taken into consideration along with the majority's. just as a general rule. :)

and only those concerned enough about content to look at the "tool" would use it. and that's sort of the point of the whole idea.

i don't know. maybe it could work?

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: September 29, 2010 at 10:33 AM said...

aspiring - You do have a point, and I don't mean to discount the will of the minority. I just feel that even within the minority, there are those who don't want to read about certain themes, but they're not as... militant? about it. Like maybe they're not especially fond of books containing sex, but they won't completely discount a book that contains it.

I don't know if I'm quite understanding what you mean - not a warning and not a rating, but information about the content of a book? Something more like describing relevant scenes? I actually think books reviews almost always touch on that stuff. If you go on Amazon or Goodreads and look up reviews for a book, there are almost always a few that delve into the "hard" stuff in a book, or let people get a general feel for it.

I could be wrong, but I actually think there are a few websites out there already that act as a sort of guide for parents when purchasing entertainment for their kids. Only problem is they're obviously biased by whatever organization or individual is running them.

I think I might have sort of a different point of view than you (obviously, hahaha), because I feel even if something's difficult to read, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be read. And if someone is having a really hard time getting through a scene, then I think they have every right to put the book down and not continue reading.

I feel a lot of the more "triggering" books (like SPEAK) are pretty clear upfront that they have heavy content, even if it's not spelled out.

I dunno, I guess I feel like the responsibility is on the consuemer to do their own research prior to their purchase. Does that make sense?

I love that we're having this discussion, btw :)

{ aspiring_x } at: September 29, 2010 at 12:25 PM said...

oh yes! i wouldn't have spoken up on almost anyone else's blog. but i know you don't freak at people who disagree! :)

and i totally agree that it can be helpful to read books that deal with difficult themes... actually i think that it is helpful for everyone to read books with difficult themes... because reading leads to understanding which banishes ignorance which addresses all kinds of problems. but not everyone is ready for or wants to read about everything. we can't rush people.

and i know there are reviews at amazon and other places. but they are opinions. that's not what i mean. and sure a consumer could really research everything they buy- but that doesn't happen all that often.

ok, now for another really bad example to try to clarify myself, but probably murky it up a bit more! :)

you go to walmart. you're looking for a toaster. there is a whole aisle full of toasters, but helpfully they have these tags underneath. this one has fifteen different settings, that one is genuine stainless steel, the other has a built in clock/radio, etc. (toasters in vic world are deluxe!) the point is the tags help us know which toaster best fits our needs.

with toasters you can look at them and pretty much see what's going on. with books, it involves reading the entire thing- sometimes a couple of times- before understanding many of the nuances worked in by the authors.

so. i guess what i'm saying is that sure, we could go online research what 30 different people have to say about each kind of toaster, choose which person we're going to agree with, then go into the store and take their recommendation.

or we could have the tags. put out there by the manufacturer, who has the responsibility and accountability for his product. who will fight for the integrity and viability of his product and the sweet engineer whose blood, sweat, and tears (yucky for a toaster!) went into the product.

i'm saying something available in stores. as objective as the publisher can be. simply stating. yes, this book has sexual innuendo- or whatever.

make the shopping simple.

informed buyers tend to complain less about their products. buyers who feel like the manufacturer has been upfront and honest aren't as likely to complain. let's make it simpler for buyers to be informed.

and let the publisher deal with the fall out of a book.

there are sites (biased ones) that dole out recommendation and condemnation about books according to different world views. but they aren't going to fight for the viability of the book. they aren't standing by the authors. they ARE the ones attacking the authors (in general) and the ones inciting people to boycott, ban (and eventually burn) books.

i don't see why the militants should have all this power over all the people who are just in the minority.

and i don't understand (from a trying to sell a product view) why things aren't more buyer friendly.

still, though- slapping a scarlet A on a book would be a terrible thing. but making the (as) unbiased "warnings" (as they can be) readily available just makes things easier for the consumer and the author.... maybe not fot the publisher though... that's probably where the rub comes in.

i'm sorry! i've been "talking" too long! i hope i'm not annoying you! (just let me know and i'll shut up) :)

i just wish there was a middle ground. a way that we could make everyone happy. :)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: September 29, 2010 at 12:34 PM said...

Not at all, I love the discussion :D

I wish there were a way to make everyone happy, too, but unfortunately I don't think there's a way to make that happen.

Here's my issue with the "unbiased" nature of publishers: they really aren't unbiased. I mean, ultimately, they want to sell a book. They become emotionally and economically invested in the works they produce. Editors LOVE the books they edit. That's not going to provide a very unbiased opinion, unfortunately.

I kind of see where you're going with the toaster analogy, but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately!), a toaster is an objective piece of equipment. There's really no room for interpretation - it either has a digital clock, or it doesn't. It either has eight settings, or it doesn't.

Literature is so, so subjective. I mean, you and I could read the exact same book, and I could see a metaphor for sex and you could see a metaphor for death. You know?

It would have to be boiled down to: this book literally contains a sex scene. This book literally contains alcoholism. How do we deal with the implied, or the metaphors, or any of the other subjective natures of books?

{ aspiring_x } at: September 29, 2010 at 1:03 PM said...

screw the metaphors! LOL! :)

really- all the interpretive stuff is that. it's like trying to catch a handful of air.

the stuff you can quantify. that's what could be labeled.

nothing else.

there is no shame in saying, "this book has a sex scene." so, let the biased-for-the-author publisher say what actually happens in the book. and defend said book with all the venom they have!

that's it. nothing more.
easy peasy! :)

Shelby at: September 29, 2010 at 2:12 PM said...

Not at all easy. What qualifies as a sex scene? Kissing? French kissing? Feeling up? Removal of clothes? Oral sex? Masturbation? Intercourse? Kissing but not removal of clothes? Removal of clothes but not intercourse? Rape? Same-sex attraction? Same-sex kissing but not oral sex? Same-sex fantasizing? Holding hands before marriage?

What constitutes profanity? The f-word? All four-letter words? Damn? Taking the Lord's name in vain? Stereotyped epithets?

Say for example, that the publisher considers only intercourse to be sexually explicit. If I'm a parent who doesn't want my child reading about oral sex, then the sexually explicit label is totally useless because a book with oral sex but not intercourse would still get the seal of approval and I'd be duped into thinking it was okay when it wasn't.

Not easy peasy at all.

There's no such thing as unbiased warnings. Even movie ratings are a big bunch of bull. For an eye-opening look at how movies are rated, watch the documentary "This Movie is Not Yet Rated."

Additionally, the information is out there as to what is inside these books. Parents who care and want to restrict what their children read should care enough to take the time to do their own research. If they don't want 30 peoples' opinions, they can read the book themselves. It's a cop-out to say that you don't want your children to read certain content but you don't have the time or the inclination to actually read the book or do the research yourself, so you want someone else to do all of that pesky reading for you. If it's important enough to you to restrict books, then you should care enough to take the effort and educate yourself about what your child has available to read. Where's the parental responsibility in this equation?

There is nothing buyer-friendly about generalized, arbitrary labels. You are never going to get everyone to agree on what a sexual innuendo is, or what a sexually explicit scene is. That will always be subjective. It's that whole "I can't define art, but I know it when I see it." You have to actually see it.

So rather than argue endlessly about what consitutes sex, why not just let people read the books themselves and then decide for themselves?

Bottom line--parents who care should take the time to care. Don't expect someone else to do all that work because you don't have the time and inclination to care ENOUGH to be that involved. If you don't trust other peoples' opinions or biased websites, then read the book yourself. If it's important, you'll find time to do it.

{ aspiring_x } at: September 29, 2010 at 3:01 PM said...

ok. this is getting ugly. so i'm going to back out! it was nice talking with you maybe! :)

it's not because i don't have anything to say, but i get mad when people are mean, and i don't trust myself to not get mean back! :)

if you want to continue the discussion maybe, you can e-mail me for sure! :)

{ Old Kitty } at: September 29, 2010 at 3:18 PM said...

Rating books like in films? And who decides what ratings are and why? What would be the criteria?

no, no, no. Please no. There are books labelled as "suitable for 0-5"years old" "6+" "12+" already. There are YA books, Crime books, Thriller books, non-fiction, fiction, literary, sci-fi, fantasy, erotic, etc, etc, etc, - labels abound aplenty already so why rate them even more, what's the point?

Take care

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: September 29, 2010 at 4:52 PM said...

Woo discussion! Sorry you feel the need to bow out, aspiring, but I understand.

Shelby - I definitely agree that rating systems in general are pretty goofy. I've seen PG-13 movies that were far raunchier/violent than R-rated flicks. It seems pretty easy for the film industry to dodge an adult rating if they tweak it in just the right way. I need to watch that documentary.

Trying to pigeonhole art is just... well, impossible. Even film. Content means different things to different people, and as you mentioned, where do we draw that line? I'm not sure anyone could figure it out.

Kitty - Good point about books being shelved separately relating to content already.

{ mysteryguy } at: September 29, 2010 at 11:48 PM said...

Have no fear. I'll rate the children's books and you just handle the rest. Mmmk?


Interesting post and comment trail. Keep up the good work!!!

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