One of the most common complaints I hear as a librarian is "why don't books have a rating system?" While I always manage to nod politely at the patron's distress over sex/swearing/violence (SSV) in books, my inner state is far more agitated. This question tends to irritate my inner adolescent ire—that is, it makes me want to push back in an irrational manner (including eye rolling) because the idea of a book rating system is ridiculous to me.
People like to draw a connection between movies and books. "If movies can be rated," the argument goes, "then books can be, too." The connection isn't entirely relevant, however. There is a huge difference between reviewing and rating the roughly 500 movies released per year and the 50,000 or so books. Plus, movies make tons of money. Books, not so much. Sure, there are bestsellers, but the film industry ($479.2 billion) generates significantly more revenue than the publishing industry ($29 billion). Who is going to pay for all this book rating?
Then there is the impact between reading something and looking at something. Likely this is an individual response that is influenced by both life experience and brain chemistry, but for me, if I watch a sex scene or something violent in a movie, it stays with me far longer than if I read one in a book. Plus, there's the fact that if you don't like to read sex scenes, there is always skimming, or just flipping the page until you get past the part you don't like. It's much harder to "skim" a movie.
To me, though, the biggest difference between an offending movie and an offending book is the ease with which you can stop interacting with it. If you're at a movie theater and you don't like something, you have to physically leave the building. If you're reading a book and you don't like something, you just have to put the book down.
But books being rated because movies are rated is really not the point. Movies are rated so that parents can know what is appropriate for their families to watch, not to protect adults from adult content. In essence, where a book is shelved and how it is marketed (which is sort of the same thing) is already a rating system of a sort: novels in the adult section were written with an adult audience in mind; novels in the teen section were written for young adults (which is roughly 14-18, but sometimes 12-17). If you are an adult person browsing in the adult section, you are likely to come across many books that contain violence, sexuality, or swearing, because adult lives contain these things.
Of course, there is an enormous debate right now, as YA literature becomes more and more popular, over what makes a book one that is "good" for teenagers to read. This is based on the difference between reading level (word difficulty and word count, sentence structure, writing style) and content (who and what the story is about). You can have entirely filthy or violent novels written at a teenage reading level, but the content might keep them in the adult section. The argument centers on one's interpretation of the word "good," and there are so many levels or meanings of goodness that it is impossible to decide for an entire group. You (the parent) need to be involved in helping your teenager (the individual) with this choice. Do you really want to hand that responsibility over to someone else?
But let's put aside the YA lit discussion (as it could be an entire post itself!) and just focus on adults. (It is always adults who ask me about a book rating system anyway.) What is considered offensive varies widely between readers. The level of SSV one is sensitive to is individual. For me, the line falls between whether the SSV is included just to have some SSV in the story, or because it is inherently necessary to the plot, character development, or major themes. Let's take sex as a starting point. There are bajillions of novels written every year with a plot that is engineered to get the characters in bed so that the author can write the sex scenes. Choose any bodice-ripper novel and that will be your reading experience. There are also plenty of novels that include sex scenes, but with the purpose of exploring how it changes the character—what he or she might learn, how she might change, what was right and what was not. It's not the point of the story. It's just part of the story. (Like, you know: real life. Where people have sex, among doing other things.) The novel Atonement is one I would put in this category. Yes, it's got a fairly explicit sex scene, but it's also got explorations of war, choice, love, creativity, maturing, and regret. The sex scene is just part of it. I read it more than a decade ago and I am still thinking about it (the book, not the sex scene).
I don't read bodice rippers because I think they are emotionally lazy and entirely unrealistic. They are written with the goal of titillation, and that isn't an experience I want from reading. I do read books like Atonement because they are written with the goal of enlightenment or understanding or the sharing of a human experience I couldn't experience otherwise, and that is what I want from reading.
I can hear many of my smart, thoughtful friends objecting and saying "but you can still experience those things in books that don't have SSV." That is true, you can. But (for me), the presence of SSV doesn't negate the wisdom or truth that is also there. It entirely depends upon the author's intent. The key is knowing what level of SSV you are comfortable with—and then putting the book down if it is too much for you.
But that is the wonderful thing about books: there is a book for everyone. There are dozens and dozens of books for everyone. If you like bodice rippers, read them! If you like mystery series with 37 books about a detective, read every single one. If you like books without any SSV, there are dozens to be found. Maybe that is why there are 100 times more new books than movies every year: because reading is a myriad experience involving individual choice.
And that is why I will always be against books being rated.
Reading, even though it's usually done sitting still, is not a passive activity. It's highly active, involving thought and choice. You arrive at your reading delivery system, be it the library or Amazon or a book store, and you have to look. You have to pick up a book and read the summary. You have to look at the cover and think what can I learn about this book from those images? You have to flip through and maybe read a few sentences to get an idea of the writer's voice. Even better, you can arrive there already informed. Read the New York Times Book Review, the "Best Books of the Month" series on Amazon, or a few book blogs. Ask your friends what they read, or your mother or your sister or your neighbor. Or a librarian. Keep a list of books you want to read.
Maybe most importantly: don't be afraid. To try something new. Or to question yourself—why do books with swearing bother you? Or even to challenge yourself: can you read something with an SSV level you might not be comfortable with by looking around that to the story? On the other hand, never be afraid to say this book isn't for me. If you try something with an SSV level that makes you uncomfortable, instead of getting annoyed that a panel of book raters didn't warn you beforehand, just move on. Take the book back to the library. Take it back to the book store where you bought it and see if they'll let you do an exchange. Leave it for a stranger to find in a train station. Then move on to the next one.
Lazy readers need a rating system. Readers who want only their version of the world confirmed in books need a rating system. Readers who don't want to be actively engaged, just passively, in reading. Fearful readers. I know—that might sound harsh. But it is also true. Wanting someone else to decide what book is right for me is a fear-based decision.
I don't want someone I don't know to tell me what is "good" to read. I don't want to be responsible for telling anyone else what is "good." (Except, of course, my kids.) I do want to choose, basing my reading choices on the reading experience I enjoy best, not an arbitrary count of F words. I can say what is good only for me, and I am the only one responsible for what I put in my brain. Luckily, my brain also has the ability to choose. To consider and savor, to reject and move on.
We adult readers don't need a rating system because we ourselves are the raters of what we read, and we rate a book by whether or not we keep reading it.