Would Book Rating Systems Work?

So recently someone mentioned a topic that I’ve come across several times and so I decided to address it, which will enlighten the entire internet for now and all time, right? Hellooo? Anybody out there?

The idea is that having a book rating system similar to the one used for movies would help people looking for specific kinds of books while seeking to avoid other kinds of books.

The first thing to address is the potential hysterical attack on such an idea, because while everyone has to make choices in their reading, there sometimes arises certain parties who want the choice of discriminating in their reading (a necessary thing, I assure you) but who outright attack the attempts of others to make their own choices (which is also a necessary thing, I still assure you) in similar ways even if with different results.

It is stupid. There, got that out of the way.

So movie rating systems over the years in this country have had ratings like G, PG, PG-13, PG-17 (I think), R, X, and the unhelpful ‘unrated’, which can mean it is either two old to bother rating or it is calling itself unrated to lure in those who find R and X too tame for their addictions. Most people are pretty familiar with these ratings. They may not be aware of the changes that these ratings have undergone. For instance, G used to mean ‘general audiences’ or the entire family. Now it means ‘for toddlers’. PG-13 is a somewhat newer rating that confuses people, for this reason: some PG-13 are slightly more intense than a PG. Others might as well have an R rating. But, like too many people have assumed, since it states that PG-13 material is suitable for 13 yr olds and up, therefore all of the range of PG-13 is somehow suitable for all 13 yr olds. This is definitely the fault of the people who make such an assumption, but I can easily see how they could be deceived into making such an assumption. Personally, I do not trust ratings. Not only have the standards of the ratings sagged horribly off the side of the straighter road and into the pea green waters in the ditch alongside, but they have also become lame. Any G movie I watch is close to fifty years old. The newer ones from the last twenty years simply aim their short broad stick- like arrows at toddlers and preschoolers. Usually.

By the way, if someone does eventually require by law that preschoolers must attend preschool, will they still be pre-schoolers? Will it still be a pre-school? Or will someone come up with a magic sounding word like ‘kindergarten’ was in its heyday? Talk about advertising! Which I wasn’t, sort of.

Movie ratings are often a worm on a hook dangling out there to attract demographic groups. So they’ll make sure to add one harsh swear word so they can call themselves an R movie and get the edgy social status that those appear to have. Just try and remove that one word, however, for your own viewing pleasure, and howls of censorship rise greasily into the air. If our natural environment is so important, why is our emotional and social environment so dang polluted?

Anyway…

So, movie ratings aren’t terribly accurate, their standards shift, and they sometimes actively mislead. So how could this possibly work for books?

I’m pretty sure there are far more books published each year than there are movies released to the theaters. Far, far more books. Who’s going to read all those? Whose standards will apply in this day and age? How will those standards shift? And if nothing else, how will a comprehensive book rating system irritate the nasal passages of the ALA ? Because it would be nothing to sneeze at, I assure you.

There are simply too many variables in the world of book publishing. In fact, with more books crossing genres, that little classification system alone is having enough trouble as it is, let alone any classification that tried to assign ratings based on language, scenes, or intensity.

How would I even rate intensity? It depends on my hormones at any given time of month, for one thing. Am I in the monthly mood to cry? Then, yeah, it’s a cry worthy book of deep emotional intensity. One which wouldn’t stir me at all once I get past the last bit of the particular hormonal fluctuation I am in. What about other kinds of emotional intensity? Are the characters facing the end of the world and yelling at each other? Some days I will find this terribly stressful to read, and other days I will laugh at them in their predicament. So, intensity is out as a rating.

What about sexual scenes? How explicit is explicit, how detailed, what is its context, does it relate to the plot, is it between married people, is it some form of dominance, does it fade to black, is it something else? Who decides which get what rating?

Swear words might seem a clearer way to delineate books. But with the shifting standards already referenced, how many YA books now have F-bombs in them? Because, according to assumptions, ‘everybody swears, this is real life, etc etc’? And since YA no longer actually refers just to young adults who are out of high school, how many middle grade kids and elementary kids read YA? I mean, there is the de juro, and then there is the de facto situation. Publishers and writers are well aware of these issues.

So, swearing as a part of a rating system won’t work either. Again, too many variables, too much of a push to normalize swearing. Heck- publishers may impose upon their children’s lit section certain set vocabulary lists that rely on the latest educational curriculum, which can be bad enough, but the idea that they have to push the idea that everyone swears? How is that going to gum up any attempt to classify and rate literature? The difficulties involved simply multiply.

And finally, the people who sometimes wish there were a rating system have rather variable tastes, concerns, and standards. One person may want to avoid all swearing while another feels that any lifestyle depicted in a book needs to reflect certain belief systems. Don’t tell me this is censorship, or I will ask, why do you expect certain other lifestyles reflected in your reading? See? It is a matter of choice, based on beliefs and standards, personal life experiences, and so on. Some readers wish to avoid Christian literature expressly. Traumatized victims of crime wish to avoid specific scenes. It’s about choice, which can shift according to changing priorities of the reader. Don’t make a system out of this; let the individual work it out.

So book rating systems would have to be incredibly complicated to begin with, and then their standards would shift as soon as they became available.

So What To Do?

Trust Yourself.

1- I use the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to do some research before I choose which books to read, at least I do most of the time. Once in awhile I just admit to curiosity and pick up a book everyone is talking about because I am willing to read something a little out of my line, if its turns out to be good enough.

2- I pre-read most of the books my children are going to read, to either prepare them for a particular book, to avoid certain ones, or to have a new book to discuss. I do this as a duty, just as I decide what foods will nourish their bodies, which fun junk foods to enjoy and in what amount, etc etc. And, in fact, I rarely guide the reading of my adult child nowadays. Those are her choices to make. When she offers me books that I would not ordinarily read, I read them, so we can do a fun nerdy lit analysis and coo over characters or grouse about plot. My younger daughter I still preview for. Not for much longer!

Mistakes can be made. I read the reviews of a particular book that was targeted at my daughter’s age at the time. It seemed to fit her tastes, everyone mentioned how incredibly well written it was, and no on mentioned the rape in the first chapter of the main female character who was depicted as the same age of my daughter. There were other scenes as well, later in the book. I only found out because after letting her read the book before I read it, because I trusted the reviews of strangers, she walked around looking a little sick and disturbed for a few days before I finally found out what I had allowed to happen. I went and read the book and was horrified. Well, we used that as a growing and learning opportunity. We had to work through a series of negative feelings. Time and great literature have both helped those memories fade. The lessons remain.

3- I also look at the way a book begins: is this one of those insecure books that ‘grabs my attention’? That is a sign that the writer does not trust the reader, or has plans that will become clearer as the book goes on. How are characters described, especially the women? What level of language is used? How does it foreshadow explicit scenes or how does it signal that things might get gruesome? Does it try and infuse nihilism into every page? Books usually hint at you, they foreshadow if you can recognize it. Some also groom you, exposing you to increasingly difficult scenes to work through because boy, do they have plans for you!

4- Here is the most important aspect of judgement I use: I try and stay close to the teachings of our Savior, stay close to light and truth, and feel spiritual warnings if a book might be a bad one for me to read. Yes, I have sometimes plowed on and discovered for myself that I should have listened to the spiritual warning. Other times, no, I stop, try and listen, and then respond to the spirit and its guidance. Because I want that more than I want any particular book in my life.

5- The recommendations of friends influence me as long as I can gauge well which friends have tastes worth taking an active interest in.

6- I do not rely on Goodreads for recommendations. While the actual book reviews can be helpful, GR sometimes likes to ‘adjust’ those to help authors get better ratings. Then there are the recommendations GR makes based on computer algorithms. Since I read this clean uplifting classic historical fiction, then I will obviously enjoy this trashy bit of work just because it’s set within a couple hundred years of the first book.

So choosing books is like shopping for food. What’s on sale? Can I digest that? Will it taste good? Will it be good for my family? Does it truly feed the soul the nourishment it needs? Is it just some fluffy fun for a few laughs? Is it so processed and laden down with unhealthy chemical combinations that no one should consume it? How do I make sense of nutrition labels? That, at least, is a more reliable rating system. More reliable than the front of the food package, I’m sure!

A book rating system would not work, and it would especially not work for the very people who think that such a thing might be helpful for them in making difficult reading choices. I would also add that a book rating system would just make life more complicated. Complications in life just sprout up all by themselves, so I don’t like adding more. I want less government, uncluttered grocery stores, and comfortable clothing. I read mostly older literature to more easily avoid explicit scenes and I read newer stuff very carefully, when I do read some of it. Am I missing something? Not really. What if I can’t find an acceptable book that day? Maybe I can do something that doesn’t involve reading. Really.

 

 

 

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Can We Tolerate Clean Reads?

I’ve been an active member of Goodreads for several years now. I find it helpful for tracking books and finding more books and talking books and meeting book reading book lovers. Recently as I indulged my love of book reviews (both there and on Amazon), I have begun to sense a trend which I hope gets swallowed up in some other better trend. Not a worse trend, oh dear heavens, we don’t need anymore of those! It’s as if these days some sort of Bulk Discount Bin of Worse Trends had been upended over the continental United States!

The scenario is this: a new book comes out, or people rediscover an older book. The author may be heavily involved promoting it. Readers are enjoying discussing it. Then someone asks, quite innocently, “Is the book clean?” The author herself, and several other people who suddenly revert to their Mr. Edward Hyde personas, jump all over the very idea. They make fun of the questioner’s ‘purity’, calling such questions sheer vanity, useless, censorship, outdated, outrageous, not worthy of a response, that entire family deserves horrible Medieval ends, and much, much worse.

What is the word for the overreaction of a system to an otherwise perfectly normal and harmless irritant? An allergy attack? Antihistamine overdrive? Anaphylactic shock? Aren’t we trying to cure that sort of thing?

Because the question, while vague, has its purposes. There are growing numbers of people who acknowledge that much of our mainstream culture is slithering happily into the sewers of the world, and they don’t want to go with it. They may want to shield children. They may have sensitive history that makes them want to avoid sexual assault scenes in their reading. They may want to read about real problem solving and hopeful perspectives rather than gratuitous violence and nihilism. And why not? If a history museum fan wants to read about history, why not? I could even argue, with a bad taste in my mouth, that if a reader of gore and mayhem wants that, they need to be able to make their choice. But I ask this: if the history fan starts talking history, that’s not nearly the issue of a gore fan wanting to talk gore. And believe me, they often do. It works into every conversation. Ever have someone who wouldn’t shut up about the ‘Saw’ movies while at a picnic? Yeah. So why interfere with someone who is looking for ‘clean reads’? What’s this about choice? What did you just say about tolerance? Ok then.

The term ‘clean reads’ is vague, yes. It means various levels of clean to various people. It might mean absolutely no reference to sexual scenes, or it may mean a fade-to-black kind of approach to sex scenes. It may allow for a few of the milder swear words, or it may not. It may want to avoid the everything-is-the-same-so-nothing-really-matters philosophy that infuses so much literature with a kind of pre-soviet psychological grooming that leads to State control of culture and thought. But is it so hard to just ask: “What do you mean by ‘clean’?”

Can we suspend rash judgement anymore? Can we ask for clarification? Can we discuss?

The defensive maneuvers of those who cry- or shriek- censorship reminds me of Shakespeare: “Methinks he doth protest too much”. Censorship? Where were the cries of censorship when the publishers demanded changes? Where were the cries of outdated when the book refers to older literature forms? Why this pretense at moral superiority while trying to skewer the morality of another? Hypocrite much?

Thankfully, when I see these attacks, I am also seeing more and more responses of other bystanders who step forward and defend the simple question. Most simply see clean choices as that- choices. We all must discriminate or we would be required by circumstances to read all books in the world. Really! Just think about it: you have no choice. You can not pick one book over another. You must read them ALL.

Or: you must read the ones we demand you read. You are especially not allowed to read those ones over there.

Both are pretty ridiculous. One has been attempted at various times throughout the history of the world. (Hint: it’s the second one)

Why does this mean anything to me? because I have my own set of standards (LIKE EVERY OTHER READER) and mine happen to lean towards ‘clean’. How I define it can shift as I change as a person, because no one is still reading the books they read in first grade, or college, and only those. We all change. Nevertheless, my tendency towards ‘clean’ has stayed roughly about the same. Why do I choose that? Here’s why:

  1. I’m so tired of the sex scenes. They feel like this: the author is getting off on their own writing, and making me a voyeur; the spread of pornography with its attendant addiction, abuse, and cultural decline means we should be preventing it, not spreading it like verbal plague; and after avearge sex scenes become inadequate for an author, their readers, or their publishers, just how far are we going to go into the mire for that next fleeting jaded arousal? Or is that just a repeat of the addiction argument?
  2. I’m tired of the gore. So much of it feels, well, canned. Like extra juicy spam. You open it, it slops out, and you say, “Oh, cool! Gimme more!” Like movies that have jettisoned story for CGI gimmicks, many books have lost story for the sake of look-at-my-anatomy-research. It falls in a camp very close to just plain look-at-my-anatomy.
  3. The despair and intensity have become comical. Intense story telling that grabs you with the first paragraph and then demands your attention is an insecure kind of verbal assault. Not only does it get far too manipulative, but it’s like the guy who grabs your shirt as you try to end a conversation and he gets so in your face that you feel his spit on your cheek. He’s like “You see?? You know what I mean? Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot!!” And you just want to go have a life with not-this-man in it. Or at least, let-him-keep-some-distance.
  4. I think we’ve lost something when we lose the setting and descriptive abilities of past generations of writers. Plot heavy is more an aesthetic taste, but it often comes entangled in gore and explicit scenes of all types because so many of our generation have grown up with TV…or less than TV…I’m looking at you, video games. What if I find your ability to describe a woman’s anatomy a misplaced description when I have vague ideas of your setting?

Admittedly, that last point is not so much a moral point but it is affected by the others. So while I avoid certain kinds of books, I know everyone else avoid other kinds. I know there are books I think everyone should read, but I’m not going to get their cooperation with social pressure that involves humiliation, threats, and grotesqueries of verbal outrage. That’s not how I operate, anyway.

When people yell “JUST READ THE %^&$ BOOK!!” I wonder if they would also scream at me to “Just eat the cowpie we pried up out of this farmyard tire rut!” Because not all reading is the same, not all books have the same value, and actually, yes, what I read really needs to be as clean as the food that goes into my body. It needs to be good and clean, as wholesome as possible, and something my mind can use to build good thinking skills, healthy mind sets, and a hopefully long life of happiness and appreciation of beauty.

That doesn’t mean we never use our writing skills to address dark issues within our human experience, no, of course not. We can write about anything and still retain our humanity. Otherwise we risk descending to the level of predators or pushers who demand government support for their attempts to groom others into their hideous world. No thanks.

Not all books are the same. I repeat that. We’re not talking binary data streams here, we are talking the thoughts that influence actions which shape the character that builds or destroys civilizations. Yeah, many of those thoughts come from books. Read a book and just try not to think about it. I dare ya!