by R.C. Lewis
Every so often, a hullabaloo erupts over particular books and whether or not they're fit for public consumption ... particularly by children and teens. Both sides of the argument prepare for war, comments on web articles run into the hundreds, and Twitter hashtags go viral. None of this is surprising, but amidst the fury, there is often talk of solutions.
One idea I've seen floated here and there is a book rating system similar to the systems used for films and video games. I can see the appeal—a simple label that tells parents at a glance whether a novel may have some questionable content. But the harder I look, the less appealing it seems. The analyst in me only has one thing to say about it: LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE.
Let's think about it. First, who's going to do this rating? To be remotely consistent, fair, and meaningful, it ought to be some single, independent organization doing all the rating according to some kind of set criteria. Who's going to be responsible for pulling that together? Getting publishers and retail outlets alike on-board?
What about volume? From the MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics, I gathered that the number of movies officially rated per year ranges from about 700 to nearly 1000. (Of those, around 400-600 get released in theaters annually.) The ESRB rates 1000-2000 video games annually.
It's a little trickier to get numbers for book releases, particularly since I want to narrow in on fiction. But it seems safe to say tens of thousands of new works of fiction are put out each year. To successfully rate, someone has to read. How fast can a rater read an entire novel thoroughly enough to rate the content?
That's before you consider the massive avalanche of independent e-publishing.
Oh, yeah. What about those indies?
The MPAA ratings, as I understand, are a voluntary thing, not actually required by law. But it's kind of ingrained in us now, so we expect it. I imagine indie films don't have to be rated, but how much reach do they have when they aren't? Maybe you have a local theater that does a lot of indie and art films, but you have to seek it out.
Those indie eBooks are on sale right next to their Big-Publisher counterparts on Amazon. So do we all (traditional and indie alike) submit our novels to be evaluated by the Mysterious Novel-Rating Board? I can imagine the backlog ... and you thought traditional publishing moved slowly now.
Okay, maybe instead we're all just responsible for self-rating our own novels. But wait, isn't the "problem" in the first place the fact that people so often disagree on what is or isn't appropriate for a certain age? There would be no chance for even the illusion of consistency. Even with set criteria and guidelines, you can't expect an author to objectively evaluate their own work.
When I let the logistics go, I wonder if there's really even that much value in ratings. There are plenty of PG-13 movies I find repulsive, and R-rated movies I find worthwhile. Content is so nuanced and varied, it's really hard to stick one of a handful of labels on it and believe it will mean something.
What's the answer for concerned parents and general readers, then?
One option is to read the book yourself first. That's time-consuming, though, and if your kid's a voracious reader, you're going to have a problem.
Better option: The internet is your friend. Check online reviews, especially critical ones—they're more likely to mention potentially offensive content, and you can decide for yourself if it's a deal-breaker or not. Get involved on sites like Goodreads where people talk about books all the time.
What if you're in a store or library and forgot your smartphone at home? Ask a bookseller or librarian. It's their job to know about books. If they don't know enough about a specific title, I bet they could help you find out with one of those online resources. (I've yet to find a bookstore or library that didn't have a few computers inside.)
What are your thoughts on the idea of book ratings? What alternatives do you think are the most viable?