Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Parental Guidance Suggested

Over at Dystel & Goderich’s website, my agent John Rudolph ran a post about the WSJ fallout over an article that attacked YA fiction as being too dark, too depraved.  John posed an interesting question as to whom amongst the gatekeepers bear the responsibility for disseminating such material to the children and young adults – the publishers or the bookstores?

Personally, I sort of have a stake in this discussion as I expect my series, The Revelation Saga, to garner a certain amount of attention for being controversial on its take on certain religious subjects. 

I remember the late 80s when some pop groups began to surface that used explicit lyrics in their songs.  There was the inevitable, and perhaps even justified, response from parental groups that objected to the sale of these records to children under a certain age.  They demanded labels be placed on packaging and that selling the explicit material to a minor become a criminal offense.  In fact, I believe here in Alabama a sales clerk was actually charged for selling one of these records to a minor.

Is this where we’re heading with YA books?  Admittedly, even experts remain muddled on the definition on what is YA and what isn’t.  Heck, you’re lucky if YA gets separated from other children’s books in certain bookstores.  Truthfully, I’m of two minds on ratings.  On one hand, I want to help parents know what they are putting in their kid’s hands when they buy my book. But this concern assumes that the parent is still the gatekeeper on what their children read.  With digital access and every kid with a smart phone in their pocket, is this even possible? 

On the other hand, and I’m almost hesitant to admit this, but getting a Parental Advisory label slapped on my book practically ensures a greater interest from some consumers.  Going back to the 80s, my friends and I, teenagers at the time, flocked to the record store to grab 2 Live Crew’s album the minute it became parental contraband.  And yet, having my work reduced to a short list of warning descriptors on a label gives me a very uneasy feeling and no doubt diminishes the value of the work as a whole.

To see the possible future of book ratings, one only has to look at the video game market.  Mass Effect, a wildly successful game, fell into the crosshairs of parental groups when it was labeled as having sexual content.  Examination of the content in question would reveal that it was arguably no worse than situations found in many primetime network television programs, and hardly even rose to the level of soft core, yet outrage ensued.  But the game sold millions.  Did the outrage hurt sales?  Not likely.  It seems to have perhaps enhanced them.

So, what is the answer when it comes to adult content in YA books?  Publishers I believe should be free to publish, without the oversight of censorship shadowing their efforts.  And shelf space is a finite resource in bookstores.  It may not be feasible to categorize for content. 

Is a rating system the answer?  What are your thoughts?


  1. I don't think a rating system is the answer (and I wish I could find the link of either a librarian or agent who blogged about why the other day). I think the answer is simpler. If parents want to be aware of what's in the books their kids want to read, they should find out and make informed decisions. With book blogs, Amazon reviews, and the like, it's not like it's difficult to come by this information--not like they have to read the book front to back before their kid can.

    That also doesn't mean it's reviewers' responsibility to say this is or isn't appropriate. I would just encourage people writing reviews to make a factual mention of the types of content that show up in the book. From there, parents (or the teens themselves) can decide.

  2. I think a rating system will defeat their purpose. Then again if they're that foolish, let them slap a parental advisory on the cover. Your right, it will encourage even more sales.

    The question is, do we want to get noticed for upsetting a few tightly strung individuals or for our writing? (Hugs) Indigo

  3. My dad traveled alot when I was growing up. He'd come home with a stack of paperbacks and I'd read almost all of them. Harold Robbins was the only author he wouldn't let me read. I loved Sidney Sheldon and the early Andrew Greeley's.

    Much of what I read would have probably been considered inappropriate for a junior high / high school student. I think my parents figured that if I was reading it was okay. It's the same reason my eleven-year-old son can read the Harry Potter books, but can't see the movies past year three. With books, the images aren't being forced into your mind. It's different than visual media.

  4. Great comments, all! Very interesting point about visual media, Jennifer.

    In regards to ratings, they make me uncomfortable and I think open the door to censorship. But I wonder if it is, in fact, a likely scenario. It comes down to power and control. Obviously, parents want the power to exert control over what their kids are exposed to, or at the least, the opportunity. Technology, where ebooks are becoming more popular, and every kid has a smart phone, is removing that opportunity. A kid can be through a book, cover to cover, before the parent gets the bill.

    I can totally see a cry for some sort of checks and balances system to be erected to address this. Hopefully not, though.

  5. At the expense of sounding like a total douche, I'm pro-advisory. It has it's flaws due to changing standards over time (who hasn't seen a G-rated 80s or 90s movie with cuss words?), but you have to admit that it's become one of the foremost defenses for video games. Parents can't blame the creators anymore because there's that little rating on the box--no matter how anal--which creates an at-a-glance table of contents. It allows parents to make semi-informed choices without needing to play the entire game themselves. Since books can be just as much of a time investment, I really don't understand why they haven't been rated in the past.

    And when it comes to electronic download, games aren't much different than e-books. It can be finished before a parent gets a bill. Yet, that's the parent's problem... not the author's.

    I say this as an adult with a teenage little sister and a toddler son. I say this as a writer of LGBT Dark Fantasy.

    Every book has an intended audience. I see no reason why that information (MG, YA, Adult) can't be more visible on book covers alongside genre (fantasy, horror, crime) and content warning labels for profanity, violence, sex, etc. It'd take pressure off authors and publishers... and put it right back on the parents who are looking for a scapegoat.

  6. On ratings:

    1. They can be confusing, specially in our modern multimedia markets. A movie rating does not translate well to a game rating or a music advisory so that parents may not know all the ins and out of the language.

    2. Labels are more of a CYA for the producers of the media than anything else. Again, in a multimedia environment, many media producers circumvent their self-imposed ratings by marketing in other branches, such as action figures/fast food toys, comic books or even video games.

    3. Every child is different. I am not advocating drowning 11 year olds in swearing, bloodshed and graphic sex, but not everyone has the same taste or level of maturity.

    4. Parents need to be aware of this "back door advertising" designed to hook kids on the franchise (the way Joe Camel hooked kids with towels and other freebies).

    Now this is more common in movies and video games (and lampshaded/mocked by Rockstar, the makers of the GTA, who themselves got lambasted for adult themes).

    The solution is twofold:

    Creators have to step up and take responsibility for their works and their marketing.

    Parents have to be educated in the ratings systems and how the work across genres/media.

  7. Without a doubt, there is no easy answer. But it's food for thought. I expect to see this debated more in the future. Though, maybe it won't. After all, at the end of the day, the kids are still reading. And it's not like publishers are out there putting Mein Kampf on shelves. Great comments, one and all!