Saturday, September 3, 2011

Rating Systems, Censorship, and I CAN'T SHUT UP

I've been participating in a discussion online regarding teen books and profanity. I believed the premise of the discussion was based on a false dichotomy, and therefore, a lot of things that were said started to make my spidey senses tingle that censorship lurking was lurking somewhere in between the lines.

The question posed at the beginning of the discussion was this:

Profanity in Books? Necessary or Bothersome?

A false dichotomy is when someone is presented with an idea and only two choices on how to act or think.

Now while the original poster (who I much appreciate for starting this discussion) commented that she did indeed find some profanity in books as "necessary." However, I disagree. For instance, from my point of view, to have a book, it isn't NECESSARY to have profanity.

Required to be done, achieved, or present; needed; essential

Sure, a book could artistically be better off or a character could be better developed with profanity, but it isn't ESSENTIAL to a book. The book could still stand on its own. This doesn't mean a book would be as good, or even more insightful, but I believe "necessary" has the connotations of ABSOLUTELY CANNOT DO WITHOUT.

So a lot of posters began buying in to the original premise, and since most people consider the same thing I did, that profanity wasn't "necessary" that therefore, it must be "bothersome" as that is the only other choice presented.

And since I can't shut up, I will just share some of my postings in that thread, am replying to a comment saying "I don't think profanity is necessary in any book":

My First Attempt at the Soapbox

"I disagree. Wait. Let me clarify:

I think some of the disagreement I'm having with some of the comments in the group come from the headline:

Profanity in Books? Necessary or Bothersome?

To me, it is giving a false dichotomy. As if books with profanity have profanity because it is NECESSARY, which implies that the book could not do without it. Of course any book could do without profanity, so essentially to have a book it isn't "necessary" to have profanity. But the other choice given is "bothersome." Since it is obviously not necessary, therefore profanity of any kind should be considered "bothersome."

Yes. Profanity is bothersome to many, and it isn't always an indicator of sunshine and roses. But the way this discussion is framed, from the very premise and because of the nature in which the question is asked, things are said that make me a little leery

And truth is, many kids do talk like that. Where I grew up kids swore left and right. And it wasn't because we were reading dangerous books. It was because that's how Miami city kids talked. I'm not saying it's wrong or right, but the truth is, I heard way more profanity from my classmates (myself included) than I EVER read in books growing up.

Sometimes, kids who use profanity constantly are the ones who need to read a book the most. And sometimes protagonists can come off as too goody goody for them. Kids like to connect to characters much like themselves, and if some inner city kids can connect better with a protagonist because they talk like they do, it could be something that would get them reading.

As a librarian, I always get leery of where these kinds of discussions may lead (though having these kinds of discussions is extremely important), because sometimes things are said that give fuel to censors.

Frankly, I think we don't give teens as much credit as we ought. I remember picking out books at my public library that had "naughty scenes" in it when I was 15, and placing them back on the shelf because I didn't like it. They aren't without their own personalities, likes and dislikes, already. If they don't like it, they won't read it. But if they like a book with profanity, so what? At least they're READING."

The Reply

"To each his own. Art and culture (and writing is an art), as part of our environment, have always served to shape a person's character, the way they think, speak and behave. This is the reason we have ratings for movies and TV shows. If more YA books are coming out with profanity, maybe we would need ratings for those as well. Or, should we just say at least they are READING? As an adult, some of the books I read contain profanity, and even there I don't see them as necessary, but I have long passed the impressionable age."

My Reply to that Reply

"Art and culture (and writing is an art), as part of our environment, have always served to shape a person's character, the way they think, speak and behave.

Very true, however, I think the artist should be true to themselves. Because, profanity aside, I think when one stops writing for themselves and their message, they do a disservice to their work with self-censorship. I'm certainly not going to write my YA novel to be a parent-by-proxy.

I'm going to leave the parenting of those 'impressionable minds' up to the parent, not the author, high school teacher, or librarian.

And yes, I think we should say, 'at least they're READING' or I wouldn't have written it in the first place.

And I'm not a fan of the MPAA either, so I'm probably not the person you'd want to ask. I frankly disagree with what the MPAA considers more immoral (murder and violence are considered less dangerous than nudity) so don't get me going there. But who determines what is appropriate and what isn't? I mean, I think we should just be aware that just because some parents don't like any books with profanity, some parents do like certain books that happen to have profanity and wouldn't mind their kids reading it."

Then, the person who originally started the discussion posted her thoughts, and she was very cordial. The only issue that concerns me is when she also advocated for a rating system for books like with "movies." Also, both posters didn't like my 'At least they're READING' statement. I honestly think that kids who are reading are in a much better place, even if the book has profanity, than kids who sit on networked games for hours on end, and hear people just mouth of profanity like neanderthals over the game networks.

My Penultimate Reply (Final Reply Summarized Above)

"I would recommend those advocating for a "rating system" check out sites like this one. Many organizations have taken it in their own hands to do the things you have mentioned, but I am against nationally mandated organizations telling me, or my family, what is and isn't 'appropriate':

It's real easy to use. Just search for the book or even film in question, and look at the reviews. I recommended this to many parents at my library, who didn't have time to read entire books before deciding if they wanted their kids to read it or not.

This is a good place to browse:

Ironically, I don't like centralized control and an organizational dictatorship over 'morality' as I find such a thing inherently immoral, as it begs the question, who has the authority to decide such a personal and SUBJECTIVE thing?

Also, just reading some reviews on amazon can give you an idea. I mean, we write book reviews here. The information is out there, but having one organization tell EVERYONE what is and isn't 'appropriate' is wrong."

The End?

So there. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to share some of my musings I had there over here, since you all know how big of an advocate I am against censorship of any kind, which includes forcing or coercing publishers to use one standardized rating system.

Thoughts on a standardized rating system for books? Comments? Manifestos? 

PS- I added this link in the comments but I wanted to share it here as well, please check out this article regarding profanity in YA literature by author, Chris Crutcher. 


  1. I wouldn't mind a standarized rating system as long as they don't put it on the cover. I'm a liberal reader so I don't mind all that suff parents complain about which are legitimate reasons but I agree kids/teens need more credit when they choose books. Trust that you raised your kids well. They'll put down books they don't agree with.
    I mean, you can tell what kind of book is by looking at the cover, title and reading the summary on the inside jacket or back cover. Even what section a book is in. I never read horror stories because I wasn't comfortable being scared or reading about blood and gore (which I discovered wasn't always the case in horror stories much later on).
    Personally my parents never really censored or paid attention to what I read, they just liked that I was reading. I have a female muslim friend who read Game of Thrones by George R.R Martin which has violence and sexual content. She enjoyed the story but skipped over the sexual stuff (which happened in the background mostly...) because she wasn't comfortable with it.

  2. Don't ever shut up. =)

    I really dislike rating systems for all the reasons you mentioned. That makes sense though, as we think quite alike.

  3. As a writer I have to say that when you strive for realism that it's difficult to make a character authentic if you censor their words.  I don't have an issue with cuss words, and I read books that have them.  However, I don't like reading them if they're written for shock value (that's just poor writing, in my opinion).

  4. Very true. It is distracting if it's used to shock for shock's sake (as in there is no deeper commentary going on). Profanity can be used very well, or very poorly. It's all about balance and the ultimate goal the author is trying to achieve. If it detracts from what the goal is, it can be considered poor writing. There are also those who will never like to see profanity of any kind in any work for any reason, and the best thing they can do is pick up another book. :)

  5. Thanks, Beck. Sometimes I feel I talk/write too much. But things like what you say encourage me to keep yammering on. lol :D

  6. Rosie, thank you for commenting. You bring up a valid point. It is a lot easier to skim over scenes in a book if they make one uncomfortable as opposed to a film. I still don't like the idea of ratings, even on the back of books, because again, it is one organization making a morality decision for everyone.

    I find it even a little slothful on the part of people who are hardcore advocates of it, because there are plenty of parenting review websites where they can get the information regarding the "appropriateness" of the book before they purchase it. And with the internet, and nearly everyone writing a book review nowadays, people can figure out if it's right for them or not. Amazon and Goodreads are filled with reviews by real people.I think a national rating system strips nuance and discourages people to think for themselves.

  7. Lari, your point is so on point. Literature is an Art, and as far as YA is concerned, Kids are not given enough credit. I know for a fact I picked up reading as a child, NOT because of words that made me jump, but because of the knack for telling moving, true (albeit) storytelling that opened my eyes.
     And just for the sake of the title, can anyone ever imagine reading a book where the story is moving, your turning pages, and all be damn there's the word spoon, so you close the book!?!And just for the peach, since I can't shut up either, I wrote a book heavy with profanity, but not for the shock value. I don't care for the hype type of writing either, even if it has no cuss words in it and all murderers. However, as I sit back and assess this book I wrote, flying high with the language, I'm going to tell you the profanity was necessary, yet the reason I'm getting comments that the book is a real page-turner, is not because of the language used. Many didn't like the profanity, and neither some of the content, which tells me it's the story driving this tale, unbeknownst to some, driven by none other than the content and the language. Now that's literature. That's Art. Thanks for getting me fueled up here, and Ok, now I'll shut up! ;-)

  8. Thanks for commenting! I love meeting other people who can't shut up. :D Please don't. I loved reading your point of view and your perspective. Literature can be shocking, warm, moving, inspirational art. But it is an art form. It is art! Can you imagine if art museums had rating systems? Ha!

  9. Miri Gifford ShortenSeptember 5, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    Here are my thoughts, in the laziest form possible:

    1. I'm with you on not liking it when some people decide what is and isn't "moral" for everyone. Also, a book rating system would probably be just as unreliable as the movie rating system is--why are some movies rated R with no violence or nudity (but maybe three F-words), and some PG-13 movies are full of the raunchiest sexual content you can imagine? I hate the idea of judging books based on something so arbitrary.

    2. I agree that it's not that hard for parents to find out what a book is like, and I think that parents SHOULD need to invest a little bit of time and effort in tuning in to what their kids are reading, rather than just trusting the little letter (or number) on the cover. If you depend on a rating system to police their reading for you, you'll probably end up missing a lot anyway. (Obviously not all parents would just blindly trust the rating system, but some will, and it's an issue either way.)

    3. I don't think parents should expect to be able to know EVERY SINGLE THING that's in the books their children are reading. No matter how invested a parent you are, teenagers find ways to have their secrets, and frankly they need to have their own space. Half the point of reading, especially for angsty teenagers, is to be able to escape your own life sometimes. That needs to be their own thing. (This sort of sounds like a contradiction to my previous point, but I don't think it is--it's all about balance. No, probably don't let your kids read porn; but don't write off a book just because a character has sex, either.)

    4. Frankly, I think labeling a book as "mature" or whatever will just increase the appeal to teenagers, just like an R-rating does for movies. Just like banning books, this is a system that could easily backfire and create an effect exactly opposite of what it was going for. Kids don't need more labels in their lives; they have enough already.

    5. Finally... I just don't think it's necessarily preferable to make sure teenagers aren't reading anything that's not squeaky clean. Life isn't squeaky clean, especially during those years, and teenagers need to know about it. Besides, teenagers are all about wanting to be treated like adults--if they feel like they're being babied, they rebel, and find that stuff on their own. The fact is that teenagers know about sex; they know about drugs, bullying, violence, hate crimes, abuse, profanity, and all those things that we sometimes consider "too dark" for them. Sometimes... it's okay for them to be exposed to the ugly parts of life. Sometimes they actually NEED it.

    So... This started out as two points. I guess people who can't shut up have a way of finding each other, huh? But it's kind of fun when you all can't shut up about the same things. :) 

  10. Miri- Great comment! I love it. 

    I'm so glad people who can't shut up find each other because then we have people willing to listen. 

    But yeah, judging a book based on a rating system really is arbitrary. I think people stop thinking for themselves, and then trust the rating system to decide whether or not the book is "appropriate" for them. Ugh. And that word, "appropriate" really bothers me too. 

    I think people need to stop treating teens like they are fragile dolls, but adults. We should treat everyone respectfully, and if something bothers a teen in what they're reading, what a great parenting opportunity! Instead, we get rid of all these opportunities to learn and grow together when we avoid the conversations altogether. 

  11. Posting down here because it won't let me make a standalone comment...

    Does it bother anyone else when parents are all like "I looked at the bookstore and couldn't find any YA novels without objectionable content"?  I get the impression that people see what they want to see, because there are tons of YA novels that are free of profanity and sex.

    I would not be a fan of a ratings system for books.  I think it might make authors more likely to try to shape their content around the rating system rather than writing the story for its own sake.  Japanese-based manga does have a rating system, and I used to be the one sneaking copies to my younger siblings and their friends when they were a couple years too young to buy them.  It's a free speech issue, mostly.

    I also think that kids are mature enough to censor themselves when they're not happy with content.  I censored myself the first time I read Vonnegut, then came back to it a couple years later when I was more ready for it and absolutely loved it.  As a teen, I didn't care for raunchy sex in books, but I sure as hell found a book with a graphic sex scene when I was the only kid in school at 14 who didn't know what sex was and whose parents were too embarrassed to have the sex talk with me.  I was just like "oh, that's how it works" and went back to reading my Star Wars books.  :D

  12. "I think it might make authors more likely to try to shape their content around the rating system rather than writing the story for its own sake."

    Well put!

    Also, I would recommend you (and everyone) check out what Chris Crutcher wrote regarding remarks along the lines "I looked at the bookstore and couldn't find any YA novels without objectionable content"?  

    It is here:

  13. Very thoughtful post - and much appreciated.  As a parent of three (24, 17, 8) and a former young reader myself, I look for choice in reading material - open the door to ideas, whether they are comfortable or not, and then a discussion.  If there is no discussion around the dinner table, ideas don't have air to breathe and grow all spindly and white like seedlings under a rock.  Kids will naturally form ideas and identity bounced off their environment - and I want family and community to be part of that environment for as long as possible.  Kids need to have the choice of what to explore, and while ratings and reviews are helpful, they should definitely remain suggestions, not mandated by any overreaching group.

  14. "Kids will naturally form ideas and identity bounced off their environment - and I want family and community to be part of that environment for as long as possible.  Kids need to have the choice of what to explore, and while ratings and reviews are helpful, they should definitely remain suggestions, not mandated by any overreaching group."

    Agree! And I'm not against all voluntary rating systems per say, but against nationally mandated ones that are forced on publishers. I think people should gravitate to reviews of those people whom they trust, or who have similar values, but it's not a one size fits all solution.


Please leave a comment.

Subscribe by Email

Netgalley Badges

Professional Reader Frequently Auto-Approved