Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In Which I Discourage Rating Books Like Movies

Last Tuesday, Ana argued for a book rating system like that of movies. I respect Ana’s opinion and understand avoiding certain material, but still, I found the concept dubious… and yucky.

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Admittedly, I’m eighteen. I don’t use ratings as much; I don’t need ratings as much. My parents don’t hover over my shoulder—when it comes to reading, they rarely did. With few exceptions, I’ve been free to read anything and everything during my teen years. That only adds to my skepticism.

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).

(this one was just on my computer)
Say there existed a respected counterpart to the MPAA system for books. Publishers sell books. If bookstores refused to carry certain book ratings or only sold them to specific audiences, publishers would make less money. It stands to reason they would publish fewer books exceeding a certain maturity level and focus their energies on more profitable books. Some say rating a book isn’t censorship, but considering the financial decisions a publishing company makes, rating systems could cause a form of economic censorship.

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?

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Sure, there are precedents for rated reading material, like FanFiction.Net. Writers rate their uploads according to content level; however, self-rating can lead to misrating, “just to be safe.” Publishers wouldn’t want to “be safe” and cut a portion of the paying audience. Alternately, if publishers themselves were responsible for rating books, it would be inefficient, and maybe inconsistent. That alternate universe could end up a mite confusing.

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.

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We aren’t in an alternate universe. We have gotten away from the practical matters of things. Maybe MPAA-style book ratings are implausible, but we are readers. We have concerns about content.

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.
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Movies require a rating system because they have a wide, less restricted audience. Books speak for themselves through their genres. Where movies are designed to have something for everyone, books grow to reflect the readers’ culture. Even if you don’t know a book’s contents, simply by genre you know its maturity group.

(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.)

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Parents and individuals alike want to monitor the media allowed in their homes according to their values, which may not include sex, violence, drugs, or other elements of the human condition. Sometimes those values aren’t equal to what is considered acceptable within one’s maturity group. You should get to decide what you read, but think about this: rating systems create a lens that everyone has to look through.

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.

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Your values are your own, and you are entrusted with their keeping. But remember this: everyone else is, too. It would be wrong to impose a system of universal values on books whose freedom we value so deeply, when our values are so incredibly diverse and variable. It’s not our job to put a lens on books.

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.

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As for me, I’d ask books to stay unrated. Books are things that make us free—and the thing about freedom is that it isn’t free at all. It comes with the highest of costs (source).

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!)


  1. You make good points here, Heather, and it was interesting to read this post. I had never thought of the economic effect rating books would have, and I think it is an interesting thing to bring up. That said, I do not believe that bookstores would restrict what books they sell based on rating. Perhaps they would be like movie theaters and not sell unrated books, though I'm not sure. Even then, most of the unrated movies are very old movies anyway, and at least in my experience, they are mostly clean. However, I do not think that they would refuse to sell "rated R" books because there is too much money in that for them to stop. Just look at FSoG. Most bookstores are going to sell that book because there is so much money in it, just like most movie theaters are going to show the movies. Also, movie theaters are kind of different from bookstores in that movie theaters are more an experience where bookstores are more about buying a product. Even though moviestores don't exist, movies are of course sold in stores, so I'm not sure that the argument of bookstore vs. movie theater could work out.

    I think you are right in that movies very much have a wider audience and aren't put into categories as tight as books are, and I think you made a very good argument there. Perhaps what we need is not exactly ratings, but more maturity groups. There is a huge difference in the range of YA books. While some are so clean that they could pass as MG books if it weren't for the more serious themes, others are so gritty that they could easily be meant for adult if it weren't for the age of the protagonists. I would really like to see a distinction made between types of YA books and even types of adult books so that readers don't stumble on content that they do not want to read about. I can definitely see where some people might not like putting a system of values on books, but the way I see it, the same thing is done to movies, which are also a form of free art, and they have to go under that system.

    Anyways, I truly enjoyed taking a look at your perspective, Heather. Even though I'm not sure that I agree with everything you said here, I totally respect your opinion. :D

    1. Also, I updated my post with a link to yours. It's always nice to see another perspective!

    2. Yeah... I'm an accountant's daughter. Money is always something I think about. I agree that I don't think bookstores would actually ever restrict book sales the way I described; the point of the illustration was to show what book sales would be like if we had a system EXACTLY like the one we have going for movies. There are actually quite a few recent unrated movies out there though; it just depends on where you're looking for them. But you're right, I don't think stores would be willing to stop selling books with a higher maturity content because they would lose so much profit. Although, we do have to remember that stores like Blockbuster did USED to exist... though I don't remember them well enough to know what the rules were in there. But yes, you're right—my example was just an example, nothing more.

      I like your idea of more maturity groups; that would probably make more sense than ratings. Like a New Young Adult the way there is New Adult... sort of. I don't know if that makes sense. Anyway, you're right that some young adult books are rather mature—and not everyone can handle that. Of course, in the end, you say that movies are a form of free art... and kind of like I said up above, they aren't. Movies are a restricted form of art, and in some ways I think that's to a detriment. Again, though, that's just me.

      I'm glad that we could exchange viewpoints, even if we don't agree on everything. Thanks for including me in your post!

  2. Hmm...I read Ana's post and then your post, both of which have very convincing arguments. I think I have to agree with you, though, based on the economic consequences that you listed above (you did your research well). I never really saw the economic side of things; before I read this, I only thought of the convenience of readers like Ana. Although I don't particularly mind either way, since I always get whatever book that interests me (and if there's content I don't like I simply chuck it away and give it a bad review on Goodreads). :') If it existed though, I agree they should be more like guidelines than rules, because it's not like people of the same age have the same maturity level, right?

    Anyway, really thoughtful post. :)

    1. Well, I'm glad that you decided to look at both sides of the argument before making a conclusion. My economic example is mostly to show what it would be like if book ratings were EXACTLY like what movie ratings are like, and stuff. It definitely is a convenience for readers, but I guess it seems kind of inconvenient for people who don't want that inconvenience. But, yeah, guidelines are better than rules in this regard.

      Thanks for reading, Jo!

  3. I will honestly admit I didn't think of the economic angle. But this is definitely true, and I'm even more firmly on the side of no ratings. And yes, it's really sad that a rating might tint your view on a certain set of books -- I had zero warning when a friend suggested I read A Song of Ice and Fire, so it came as a mild shock but was all the more enjoyable for subverting fantasy rules.

    1. Yeah... *puts on her "I'm an accountant's daughter" hat* But yes, I think sometimes it's better not to know what you're getting into—I know my parents have been wary of me reading ASoIF because they did get some warning, and it was not good. I think you're a little more open to things that might make you uncomfortable if you experience them first hand.

  4. Sorry, I'm commenting on some of your older posts. I hope it doesn't bother you. I agree with this. When I was younger, I wanted a little something to let me know what I might be facing in a book, because I didn't have as ready access to the internet or as much knowledge about how to go about researching stuff. So I liked it when some books put a target age range on them, because at least that gave me an idea. But I do think ratings are counterproductive, although maybe there's a potential compromise out there? However, my mom read a lot of books right after they came out and then passed them on (like Eragon and The Hunger Games), and when she started trusting me to use my own judgment, it was like an important rite of passage, like the reading world had suddenly become my own. I wonder if rating books might have stunted that, because I might have been barred from some of the more influential books in life that way. I don't know. It is a tricky topic, because I can see viable arguments on both sides, but I don't think rating books is a feasible idea, however nice it might seem. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hey, I totally support commenting on older things. Sometimes I wish people would do it more often. And yes, seeing these comments is making me realize that I'm looking at this solely from the perspective of an older person. Younger people could use more guidance. I think the general compromise has been to create a new maturity group, for younger teens who aren't ready for the more mature content yet. But, we'll see. It's good that your mom helped you grow into your own judgment, though, so that you grew into a place where you're comfortable in knowing what you want to read without being stifled by a parent's expectations. Still, you're right—most of the literature I've ever read uses a lot of sex to convey important messages, and looking back I wouldn't want to be barred from that! Thanks so much for your input, Liz! :)


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