Let’s start with the basics: why aren’t books rated as movies are?First things first, understand how movies are rated (from a U.S. perspective). Between 1934 and 1968, producers enforced what was basically a censorship regulation: the Motion Picture Production Code (read the no-no list—it’s freaky). Censorship sucks, so November 1, 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system took effect (source).
Through its most recent edit in 1996, the MPAA system culminated into the G through NC-17 scale we know and love today. Movie rating is completely voluntary and not mandated by law; however, most theaters do not accept unrated or NC-17 films. This makes unrated and NC-17 movies less profitable, which can be a major discouragement to their production (source).
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On that note, check out the yearly outputs. In 2014 the MPAA rated 708 movies, about 0.23% (yes, just under a fourth of a percent) of the 305,000 new titles and editions published annually in the United States alone (source, source). I’m not intimately acquainted with the movie rating process, but it costs money and takes time—so shall it be in our alternate universe. Would the rating company keep up with the overwhelming number of books? How would prices affect indie authors, fronting the cost themselves? Would books be edited (as movies are) to achieve a desired rating so as to market to a desired audience?
Without Walter Bishop’s help we can only speculate as to what might happen under other circumstances, but from economic and quantitative stances, a rating system exactly like that of the MPAA could have a negative, even censoring, impact on which books are recognized, published, and sold. It’s difficult to say what self-rating could do, but might also cause confusion and damage to a book’s integrity.
Why wouldn’t we want ratings?Start simple: movies are for everyone. They carry a social experience—whether they be for children or adults, filmmakers have to cater to a wider audience. That means despite age, maturity, experience, values, etcetera, they want everyone drawn to the box office.
Books are not for everyone. That’s why we split them into specific genres and subgenres. Where a six-year-old, sixteen-year-old, and twenty-six-year old might like Inside Out the same, perhaps only the sixteen-year-old likes The Hunger Games among them. Books cater to specific audiences with specific expectations according to genre, and ante up the mature content according to who they expect to read the books.
(Notice I use “maturity group,” not “age group.” Different people can handle different materials at different ages—and that’s why ratings are more like guidelines more than actual rules.)
Take the MPAA system—no matter how artful the movie as a whole, one scene can box the whole movie into a single category by a single value. Regardless of the improvement an “inappropriate” topic might add to a film, dividing lines are harsh, and exceptions are not made. One set of values can dominate public perception of a movie, blinding them to the rest of the value therein.
That isn’t to say you should walk into a book blind. Like the MPAA, independent book rating sites exist, highlighting value representation and content. Ana mentioned Common Sense Media, but Compass Book Ratings, Rated Reads, or Parental Book Reviews exist, too. Find a website focusing on your concerns, or a friend, librarian, contact, review, or asking site to address your questions. This is the age of the internet—the power to research is at your fingertips. Worst case scenario, you dive in anyway: you can decide not to finish, or maybe read on and into a new perspective. That is the value of freedom.
What do you think? Should books have ratings like movies, or no?
(By the way—it's definitely good to look at different points of view when it comes to this subject matter, so in addition to Ana's original post about the matter, I'd also encourage you to look at Emily's extension on why ratings might be good, as well as Aimee's arguments on context and attitude that discourage content ratings. Check out what they say, and see what you think!)