Monday, October 10, 2011

The Following Novel has been Rated PG-13 by ... What?

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?


Riley Redgate said...

"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."

I've always thought this about movies. Like, I've found some PG-13-worthy stuff so distasteful, but some R stuff doesn't bother me at all. And of course, in the end, my parents are the final say on what I can and can't watch. And, er, they showed me my first R-rated movie when I was ... what, 8?

You're so right: the best a parent can do is SCREEN THE DARN THING THEMSELVES before showing it to their kid. Then there's no way they can be like, "But I thought it'd be appropriate because it was rated PG-13!!!" No. Just ... no.

This is an interesting topic, because of the rise of dark YA and all. I'm sure some parents would cringe at the idea of anything involving vampire romance, due to the nature of the beast, heh. And all people read differently, of course. What some kids find way too violent or intense may seem low-key for others.

All I know is that if we had 'book ratings,' I can't see any ratings corporation setting, say, Hunger Games (or Chaos Walking! best YA series evarrr) below an R rating, or the equivalent thereof. So, what, we're supposed to eliminate a series' target audience with an advisory? Meh, seems counterproductive to me.

XD Then again, maybe it'd make reading 'cool' again, to tote around books with this label on 'em:

Wow, this is a seriously rambling comment. I shall stop now.

R.C. Lewis said...

So very, very true, Riley.

And don't get me started on parents who bring kids as young as 4 (or younger!) to intense PG-13 movies in theaters.

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't think ratings would work either - as you say, too many logistical nightmares.

Plus I really don't think kids often (ever??) read above the level they can handle. All of the kids I've taught put down books that are too sexual/mature/scary/... for them and declare them boring.

Having parents read the books before - or with - their kids is the best advice. They'll probably find new books they enjoy that way! :)

Mindy McGinnis said...

I agree - logistical nightmare, to say the least. As a librarian I can tell you that I "once over" every book that crosses my desk in a 7-12 building, and I still miss things that probably should not be in the hands of a 7th grader, until some sweet pre-teen comes to me with red cheeks and her finger marking a certain page.

It's a tough call. I think, in the end, it's a question of trusting the kids to make the right decision (you'd be surprised how many voluntarily do) and trusting the parents to, you know... parent.

Alleged Author said...

I hate ratings because they are so subjective. The hubby and I watched a documentary on rating movies, and it was enlightening. So few should not hold that much power.

Leslie Rose said...

Book ratings - that's crazy talk! It will take subjectivity to a whole new level, unless there is a spreadsheet about how many curse words/body parts/ etc. I'm of the "read the book yourself first" school of thought.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

It seems like Shannon Hale did a comment on something similar to this because of a bill the UK was trying to push through. I'm loving what I'm seeing on this blog so far. Great advice for a newbie!

R.C. Lewis said...

@Jemi, I've noticed that, too. If they aren't comfortable with a book, it turns into a hot potato within a few pages. I think the issue often comes up more for families who don't want to be exposed to certain types of material as a matter of principle. That's their right, and I think it's important for them to have ways of determining what's within a book. I just don't think ratings are the answer.

@Mindy, I hear ya. I know what some of my students do and don't want in their books, so I pre-screen for them frequently. Not easy at all.

@Alleged, is that documentary called something like "This Film is Not Yet Rated"? I've heard of that, keep wanting to check it out, because I've had this issue with ratings for a long time.

R.C. Lewis said...

@Leslie, actually, the concept reminds me of grading student math work. If it's 100% right or nowhere close, it's easy to assign a score. It's all those shades of in-between that kill me.

@Tasha, that sounds familiar. And glad you're enjoying the blog!

Masako Moonshade said...

IMDB has a system that's better than ratings-- it breaks down things individually into stats like violence, gore, sexuality, drugs, language, etc, etc, etc, and rates each of those by themselves.

I know that Spoils of War by Phoenix Sullivan includes a lot of rape. Normally I can handle sex and violence, but that's a subject that would be harder for me to handle, and so it's marked on her page for those who find it hard to stomach.

I think it'd make sense for book reviewing sites like Goodreads to have sections like that, aimed at parents and sensitive readers.

Carradee said...

One of my favorite movies is the first Underworld movie. I once watched it with my best friend, which was quite illuminating. Sci-fi gore (like a vampire burning up) doesn't bother me a whit. But seeing someone's head shot off? My stomach turns. My (horror buff) friend was the other way around.

But both of us would rather hear someone swear than take any of God's names in vain. We also aren't interested in seeing sex scenes.

My parents are similar. They let me watch all sorts of movies that were R-rated for violence, while refusing to let me watch PG-13 movies that contained sensuality or nudity.

But I'm well aware that some folks don't mind their kids reading about sex but don't want them reading gore.

So I rate my own work by breaking it down into content. Right now, the content alerts are on a particular page on my website that breaks it down into everything.

I had one reader tell me that she enjoyed one short story of mine, but she was so creeped out by something that it wrecked her enjoyment of it. That "something"? Two cousins who kiss in it.

I've started adding general advisories on the book descriptions at vendors, but I've not done that for all of them yet.

I also try to make my story blurbs give the right idea bout what's coming. For example, the narrator for one of my books has incestuous parentage, which is mentioned in the blurb ("the father who really should've been her uncle").

All I can do as a writer is to try to help avoid misleading readers who want to be particular.

catwoods said...

The key, of course, is having parents parent.

My daughter reads questionable books at times--Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman--being the newest on her Kindle. However, I read them first and we discuss them before, during and after she's done.

I don't approve of gratuitous sex, violence or behavior. Niether does she. We both,however, appreciate messages inherent to teen life and how that translates into navigating her high school career. Sometimes that includes sex, violence and bad behavior.

Parents, parent. This is the only way to know what your child is reading, and why. A simple rating, imposed by someone who does not know your children and who has a different perspective on issues than you do, is worthless as a parenting tool.

R.C. Lewis said...

Masako and Carradee, great thoughts. Thanks for sharing. :)

Cat, absolutely. Whether by checking review sites, asking around, or just reading it yourself, parents need to be aware of what their kids are reading. Even more important is having that line of communication open so your kids know it's okay to discuss what they're reading and how they react to it. (Of course, a few of my students have parents who can barely communicate with them--and I don't mean they aren't comfortable discussing sticky topics. Literal language barrier. *sigh* A rant for another time and place.)