About a year and a half ago, I was spending a lot of time on the fiction sharing platform Inkitt. Inkitt lets writers create a profile and upload short stories and even entire novels to the site, where other users can rate and review them, kind of like an online beta reading system. Inkitt also sponsors writing contests. When I was still interested in traditional publication for my first book, Absence of Blade, I entered it in Inkitt’s breakout novel contest. Inkitt pledged to act as the agent for the winner and shop the manuscript to publishers.
I don’t know how it all turned out for the eventual winner, or the ethics of Inkitt’s “platform-agent” model. I bring it up here because of Inkitt’s rating system. For each piece you upload, Inkitt asks you to rate the story for content, such as violence, profanity, sex, and other assorted adult themes. When I uploaded Absence of Blade to the site, I found myself checking off many of these boxes for content. If my book were made into a movie, it would almost certainly be rated R. Yet anyone of any age could waltz into a bookstore and buy it without the supervision of a guardian.
This made me wonder–why don’t books have a rating system like television and film do?
One might argue that violent or explicit visual media have both a more immediate and more lasting impact on impressionable minds, but I’m not sure that’s true. Some of the most powerful ideas and images I’ve encountered came, for me, from books. Literature can be every bit as affecting (positively or negatively) as visual media: take me at fourteen, forcing myself to finish Stephen King’s Pet Sematary at 9 am in broad daylight because I was too scared to read it after dark.
So why no warning ratings on literature?
In a sense there are–they’re called categories. Physical bookstores maintain separate shelves for children’s, YA, and adult literature as well as many other categories. Virtual bookstores like Amazon accomplish the same categorization with algorithms. Besides making it easier for readers of various demographics to find what they want to read, separate kids’ and adults’ shelves help screen kids from material they’re not ready for.
Publishing isn’t subject to ratings boards as film is. The Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration controls the ratings films receive based on their violent and sexual content, profanity, and other so-called adult themes. These ratings are often highly subjective and biased against sex while being much more permissible toward violence, including violence against women. For those interested in learning how deep this rabbit hole goes, I highly recommend the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” (itself rated NC-17 due only to the clips from other films it includes), which explores the peculiarities of the MPAA’s rating system.
Some former rating guidelines would be side-eyed now: for example, the Hays Act of 1934 made homosexuality a forbidden subject; when homosexual characters appeared in film at all, it was often as villains whose villainy was heightened by their supposed “sexual perversion” (as homosexuality was defined at the time), and who got their comeuppance in the form of death by the end of the film. This “bury your gays” trope still appears all too frequently in film and literature despite the Hays Code being long abandoned.
Finally, printed material has in fact been rated and censored in the past, but such strictures have relaxed with the times. Take the mid-century Congressional hearing on comic books, which resulted in the implementation of the Comics Code Authority of 1954. The CCA was essentially a self-censorship handbook for comics publishers.
Based on the argument that children were the primary audience for comic books (I’m not sure this has ever been true, but that’s another story), the CCA provided a list of obscene, graphic, and unwholesome material that publishers should strike from their comic books, including murder, true crime, rape, and the depiction of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Although it was a set of guidelines, many distributors would not carry comics that didn’t follow the CCA, giving it the de facto force of law. However, the CCA was all but abandoned by the 21st century, and by 2011 it was completely defunct.
Finally, cultural attitudes toward books may play a role. Reading has long been viewed as a more “wholesome” pastime than watching TV, and educators have promoted literature to kids from the age they can read. In the 18th and 19th centuries especially, it was believed the purpose of reading was to enrich the individual; stories were as much instruction as entertainment.
It’s also a lot harder to point to graphic content in a book, because reading is such a private and subjective experience. It’s much easier to take clips from a film or game and argue the material should get a rating. With a book, readers create the graphics. An enormous amount of imagination and inference is required of readers to take static words on a page and extrapolate them into a mental world; the world thus created is as much the reader’s as the writer’s. In a way, rating literature would be tantamount to rating the reader’s own imagination and the ideas they have access to. Personally, that’s not a road I want to go down.
Readers, I want to hear from you: Should books have ratings, or trigger warnings for sensitive readers? Where is the line between concern for readers’ sensibilities and censorship?