Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Novel content redux

Nathan Bransford asked the question in September of last year, Tony Buchsbaum asked again last week, and we'll probably still be asking in the next century: should fiction for children and teens be content-rated?

I'm with Mur Lafferty on this: NO.

To me, words are different from visual images. (And, as I was discussing recently with author Gary Corby, I'm actually pretty lax on my opinion of images as well, so long as they have some artistic or historical value.) Basically, I don't think there's anything my kid can find and read on her own that I can't trust her with. If it's violent or sexual beyond her maturity level, she can put it down or discuss it with me. That's what I did when I got hold of certain books "too early."

(Oh, and as for the mature books that I read all the way through? That meant it wasn't too early. I suffered no long-term damage from the adult books I managed to pick up at my elementary school's used book sale.)

Why am I rehashing this old turf? Because yesterday I listened to an episode of the podcast Writing Excuses, on the subject of violence, and heard this awesome quote:

I think morality is more about consequences rather it is about than what you depict or choose not to depict.

Beautifully put, gentlemen. It's the consequences that befall the characters that really determine the tone and message of a story, not the sex, drugs, or violence. Does a character feel bad for hurting another person, or is s/he indifferent? Does the world around the character react to the behavior in question, or is the society indifferent? And, are those reactions and consequences (or lack thereof) ultimately portrayed as positive, negative, or neutral?

Have you ever read a work of fiction that you felt was genuinely immoral? Why?

(Hmmm. Ambiguity. I meant "what made it immoral?" not "why did you read such an immoral book?" Ha!)


  1. This has been a topic I've been maning to post about on my blog. I'll probably do a little blurb soon. I am one of those people that thinks the book industry should have some sort of rating system. We have it on most other media sources. Movies are rated, video games are rated and radio and television are monitored by FCC. I think that it is more importantly used as a tool to help people know exactly what they are getting themselves into. I, try to avoid visual sexual content and therefore appreciate knowing if a movie is rated R for that reason. As for words vs. visual/audible content, my imagination is much more powerful than a picture or video, so a good author's written suggestions can sometimes trip me up more than if I saw a billboard on the side of the road or commercial on TV.

    Sorry for the SUPER long comment.

  2. I had to read a book in high school that I found pretty immoral. One of the main characters was a serial rapist, and it included several graphic rape scenes mostly told from his perspective, so it (including the victims' terror) was portrayed as a good and necessary thing. As far as I could see, the only people that suffered ill effects were the victims.

    Plus, it was boring. The real "story," as I saw it, didn't start until chapter 11—300 pages into the book. It had plenty of violence, but it was making a historical point. (Which, other than perhaps some sort of clumsy attempt at a parallel, and the fact that he was one or more of the main characters' fathers, which they didn't really know, had nothing to do with the serial rapist).

    A rating system wouldn't mean that kids and teens couldn't get ahold of material that their parents might object to—even now, they still get ahold of porn and beer and drugs. But it might mean that parents would have forewarning if they haven't already read the book to know that there might be some content in there that they might want to read first, or at least a heads up that such-and-such discussion might be coming.

  3. This is only a little related - when I was in the 2nd grade, I picked up what I thought was Roald Dahl's book "The Witches." Unfortunately, I picked up a copy of a YA book about REAL witches.

    I was absolutely terrified. I actually hid the book in my closet, I was so upset by it. Luckily my mom found it and was very gentle in explaining that it was okay to be afraid, that I hadn't done anything wrong, and that I didn't have to finish books if I didn't feel comfortable reading them.

    Nothing like that ever bothered me again.

  4. I'm with you Carrie. NO. You enter the zone of subjectivity and WHAT is violent and immoral and who gets to determine that. Ugh. Baaaad territory for "administrative, collective, mission-based" groupthink.

    As parents it is OUR responsibility to part the waters and "go before" our eager and curious little punkins. It is a lot of work - I had two voracious readers and I was constantly reading reviews/researching/searching for opinions on the works available. The stuff that slips through the cracks is important - all kids need SOME kind of private life/adventure/struggle. And hopefully they will talk to you about the tough stuff. Or their friends. That's important, too.

    And, yes, on my own, I did some censoring. I had a little "Hunter S. Thompson" for a son, so I kept as much of Thompson's work away from my boy as possible for as long as I could, lest he completely ruin his chances for graduating from high school before he even started going to high school! :)

    Literature is a perfect world for kids to get to know the world - the good and the bad.

    As far as immoral work - I hated "The Kite Runner." It started out so good and became gratuitously violent and Hollywoody - it's immoral to write a book so you get a film contract. I felt so cheated!

  5. I don't think books can be "immoral." They can discuss or 'depict' immoral acts, but that doesn't make the book itself immoral.

    I don't think violence and sex are the same in books as on a screen. There's a big difference between the words, "Itzak's disembodied head rolled down the hill and hit the tree stump with a sickening thwack," and seeing that happen, or much less hearing it.

  6. I read plenty of books that were too, um, advanced for me when I was younger. Mainly I recall reading Stephen King and Eric Van Lustbader in 8th grade. Scarred for life, I was. :)

    As for "immoral" books? There have been books that made me feel grimy when I finished them. Chuck Palahniuk does that to me. Doesn't mean they're inherently immoral, though, just that they're intended to disturb and raise questions.

  7. I would also be against ratings on books. It's interesting what you said about "consequences," too. One of the most widely banned YA books of all time is The Chocolate War. Why? Because the good guys don't win at the end, and the bad guys don't get what they deserve. It presents an amoral, unjust world. But as as teen, I loved this book for its realism. (I want to reread it as an adult.) Yeah, sometimes bad guys get away with evil doings! And sometimes being a good person doesn't mean you'll come out on top. This book is interesting because we can't rely on the novel to depict a moral world for us . . . but that doesn't mean that readers (even children) will emerge confused about right and wrong.

  8. This is an interesting discussion. I haven't formulated a sound opinion on whether or not to put put ratings on books, but am just gathering others' opinions and thoughts right now. My first inclination is to say "maybe" on the ratings. But, then again, as a parent, I should be the gatekeeper for my daughter's books and no one else. As you can see, I'm still pondering.

  9. I don't think a rating system is appropriate for books. Words are their own world and should not be equated with things like movies, games, and music. I could go on and on about WHY if think this, but I won't. Parents, teachers, and young adult readers need to be allowed to make those judgment calls.

  10. I don't think that censorship should be enforced, but I do think a rating system could be useful. I write YA and read a lot of YA, and expect most teens would appreciate a rating system on YA novels. Most are PG13, they deal with issues that teens deal with have bad language might not be great for an eight year old but aren't to scandalous. Some YA books deal with very mature subjects like rape and probably deserve an R rating. That doesn't mean teens shouldn't be aloud to read them, but knowing what one is getting themselves into might not be bad. On the flip side, some YA books are very G rated and could easily be handled/understood by a second grader. When teens are in a light hearted mood, they may want to read these light hearted stories. And if an elementary school kid that loves to read wants to venture into the YA section a parent/teacher/librarian could point them to the G rated novels.

  11. Thanks for reminding me, Simon: HIDE ALL MY CHUCK PALAHNIUK BOOKS from my daughter until she goes to college. Or maybe late high school.

    Apparently 67 unrelated people passed out during his 2003 book tour, in which he read his short story, GUTS. Just words, read out loud... and people vomited, fainted, and had to be taken to the hospital. How insane is that? For anyone's words to carry that kind of impact?

    Y'all will note that I am NOT providing a link to the story.

    Yes, I've read it. Yes, I think it's good. HELL NO, I do not "recommend" it.

  12. Ha ha! My husband was one of the people who passed out during a reading of "Guts." He says it was because of the stuffy room rather than the disgusting subject matter of the story.

  13. No I have never read a work of fiction that was immoral. I haven't read a lot of Ya or MA though. I am with you on this one. I feel I can guide my kids as they find things and if they read all the way through something that might be a bit ahead of where they are maturity wise then I hope I am laying the ground work now for open communication.

  14. Rebecca, that is so cool! He's a part of literary urban legend now...

  15. Put me the Hell No column. Special interests would distort and exploit the system before you could say boo. It would immediately put pressure on the publishers to buy and edit books to meet specific ratings. This stuff gets out of hand way too quickly. I live in Texas, where the state school board (often refered to as the Texas Taliban) made a text book publisher change a photo of a woman with a briefcase to one removing a cake from an oven.

    If you want to know what you're getting into, google the title and read some reviews.

  16. Interesting topic. I read books all the time that I wouldn't want in my house, lying around for my children to read. They don't align with the types of words I think are okay to say, or the characters do things I don't think it's okay to do. Basically, they go against what I believe. I don't keep books like that at my house. But I do read them, and I don't think there should be a rating on books.

  17. As the writing excuses guys said, it's more about consequences than content. I can't remember reading anything I actually thought was "immoral" as such. Partly because presenting something truly heinous as a good thing to the reader is actually very difficult. If a book manages to do that, I won;t finish reading it.

    That's very different from depicting a heinous act to the reader as a terrible thing, but to a character as a good thing.That character is going to ahve to deal with the consequences of that evil act, just as the reader gets a vicarious insight into where the dark paths lead.

    I'm against content banning books. What screws kids up happens right in front of them, not in the worlds they read about.