In 1984, parents raised angry fists over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which the villain pushed his hand into the chest of a man and yanked out the poor guy’s beating heart. They said this sort of violence didn’t belong in a PG-rated movie. The result? PG-13.
In 2009, a suburban dad -- that would be me -- read an advance copy of a new novel called Will Grayson, Will Grayson and came upon this instant-messaging reparté:
boundbydad: thrust your fierce quivering manpole at me, studThis, in a book due in April 2010 from Dutton Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., and intended, says an informational note, for readers aged 14 and up.
grayscale: your dastardly appendage engorges me with hellfire
boundbydad: my search party is creeping into your no man’s land
grayscale: baste me like a thanksgiving turkey!!!
14 and up, I thought. 14 and up? 14 and up?! To me, “14 and up” is just another way of saying PG-13. And the excerpt above is no PG-13.
Then, 30 pages beyond the quivering manpole, I came across this:
cock + pussy = a happy rooster-kitten coupleUm, would you want your pubescent child reading this?
As the father of boys aged 13 and 9, who both love to read, I am now officially worried. Is this the stuff of books for Young Readers? For 14 and up? When I was a kid, I was free to read pretty much whatever I wanted, and my kids have the same freedom. While I’ve steered my older son away from, say, Disclosure, which is about sexual harassment, in favor of other, less sexually graphic Michael Crichton options, here’s the thing: When I allow my son to read novels for grown-ups, I know what we’re -- and more to the point, he’s -- getting into. And until now, I thought the same thing about books for Young Readers.
My fear: He picks up Will Grayson, Will Grayson on his own, intrigued by its very intriguing premise. (Two high school students named Will Grayson meet each other, and each changes the direction of the other’s life.) Eventually, he gets to page 70, then page 101. Before writing this article, I wondered if this was language he knew. But when I showed him the pages, he was so mortified that he didn’t know what to say. Neither did I.
Ratings are made based on vocabulary and situations. In terms of the former, if memory serves, one of the Motion Picture Association of America’s lines in the sand for what separates a PG-13 rating from an R is the word “fuck.” Sometimes it’s a question of how many times the word (or a form of it) is used, sometimes it’s about context. For example, if the word is used sexually, the film gets an R. ArtAndPopularCulture.com says the word “cock” alone can move a film from PG to PG-13. Using these guidelines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson would be an R-rated movie.
But it’s a book -- and for books, what’s the standard? “There is no standard at all,” says Luann Toth, managing editor of the book review section of the School Library Journal. “It’s pretty arbitrary. Publishers do their own thing. Unlike multimedia, which tries to have a standard, there is no equivalent in the book world.”
So-called book ratings, like “14 and up,” indicate reading level, not content. And even when such indicators are used, they’re buried on the back, in tiny type, near the barcode. Hardly responsible publishing.
Driven by Ratings
Now, before you cry “Censorship!” understand that I am not advocating any form of artistic restriction. In 1988, Doubleday published my first novel, Total Eclipse. It featured teens, but in no way was it meant for teens; it was marketed to adults. My point: as an author, I consider censorship abhorrent. I would never suggest the book’s authors edit the lines out, but I would urge their publisher to add a rating that reflects its content.
Much of our culture, after all, is driven by ratings. We accept and trust them; we would think carefully and search for more information before taking a young child to an R-rated film, for example.
Ratings, of course, are based on content, not interpretation. For as long as I can remember, television has aired “viewer discretion is advised” messages when programming content warrants it, and now there are actual ratings, too. Videogames sport E (Everyone), T (Teens), M (Mature), and other ratings. And music wears on-pack parental advisory notices due to explicit lyrics. Such warnings have not discouraged sales, though some recording artists have produced “clean” versions of certain songs. In the end, all of these notices have simply created better-informed consumers. More, they have helped consumers maintain their own moral baseline, their own ethical center -- and no matter where your own ethical center happens to be, having the information you need to maintain it is the point.
If movies, television, music and videogames are rated according to their own systems, why aren’t books? Why are books marketed according to reading level but not content? Marketing books according to reading level alone is like rating videogames according to people’s ability to push the buttons on control devices. Imagine: THIS GAME IS RATED E BECAUSE, HEY, EVERYONE KNOWS HOW TO PUSH BUTTONS! Never mind that pushing those buttons shoots machine guns that reduce characters to piles of digital blood and flesh.
Ratings are not censorship; they’re a guide to what buyers will find inside the package. And before you accuse me of being homophobic, stop. While the IMs cited above happen to be between two male characters, would they be any less disturbing if boundbydad were a girl?
The Problem Is Marketing
The problem with Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t the book itself. John Green and David Levithan have written an entertaining novel that contains important messages about the power of self, creativity, friendship and love. It’s got an innovative hook, a cool premise, a compelling narrative and complex characters.
The problem is the way Dutton Young Readers is marketing it. When I spoke with the book’s publicist, she acknowledged that the publisher had anticipated this problem and told me I was the first of what they imagined would be many calls from parents about this book. She assured me that kids 14 and up have access to and use this sort of language all the time (this came as quite a surprise to my son). And she added that Dutton would be publishing the book on schedule.
Fine. But adding an honest rating to the book’s front cover would help Will Grayson, Will Grayson find the readers it is intended for. Its publisher -- and all publishers -- should take more responsibility for the books they publish by creating an independent organization whose job it is to establish a clear, objective system for rating books, including front-cover icons that indicate content. Whether they’re single-letter ratings or simply “explicit language” warnings, this level of honest publishing can only be good for everyone involved: authors, publishers, and readers. It would go a long way toward making sure that fiction is just in the books, not in their marketing plans.