Should We Put Content Warnings On Books? (A Very Serious Talk)

12:43 PM



Just kidding. I can't do anything seriously.

*returns victoriously to the blog after hiatus, and therefore is a bit giddy as I write this*

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But anyway. Today we're going to talk about putting content warnings/ratings on books, and why I personally think that's a bad idea. Because how would you ever survive without my opinion.

I've seen this idea circling around recently. Ana argued that we should put content ratings on books just like we do on movies, for the sake of knowing what sort of content is in the book and being able to avoid things she'd rather not read. (It's a very well put-together argument, so you should go check it out.) Even more recently, Heather wrote an equally awesome response post about why she thinks content ratings are a bad idea for books, which is also something you should read.

Having looked over both of these posts and thought about my own opinion on this topic, I will now present you with my own opinion regarding this. Here's how it goes: 

I don't think we should put content ratings on books.

I feel like I should preface this by saying that while I'm comfortable reading a lot of different things that one may find in a more mature YA book (or any book, really), I understand that not everyone is comfortable reading certain things, and that's okay. I can respect that 100%. I have little siblings and I wouldn't want them to read/watch certain things. We all have different levels of tolerance with more mature content and I'm not trying to slam anyone. 

So there. 

Now, Heather's post goes into all the logistics of why content ratings might be a bad idea, and she gets awesomely technical, but I am not gifted in that area so these are just my thoughts. 

1. It doesn't take context into account. Let's say that we start putting little labels on the back of books with a content rating and maybe, like movies, a brief and vague list of the reasons why. "PG-13 for violence, intense sci-fi action, thematic elements" and so on. Now, this is great for someone who wants to avoid these things. But there's a vast difference between the sort of violence you might find in a bestselling thriller and something in, say, a historical fiction book about some important historical event. Sometimes it's more harsh, or less harsh, because of the context. (If that makes any sense at all; I'm rambling.) I would venture to say that books can be much more varied than movies in the way they present content. 

2. It could turn people away from important books simply due to their content. Now, yes. I 100% respect someone's right to stay away from certain content. But I also think that there's a time and a place where it's important and okay to push your boundaries and go out of your comfort zone a little. There are some books that may be harsh, but they're eye-opening, and uncomfortable for a reason. Now, I'm not thinking your average YA novel. It's more along the lines of things like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby -- all books that are shocking, eye-opening, and have something to say about humanity that could change the way you look at things for the better. But they also have some pretty rough content that could steer people away. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with my first point. There are some books that are supposed to be important, and that don't condone or promote the content in them but use them as a tool to say something greater, and I'd hate for people to automatically set something like that down because all they saw was a content rating on the back. There's more to take into account than that. 

Unfortunately, I cannot actually throw great books at you. 

3. It comes uncomfortably close to book banning. Book banning is bad, guys. We all know this. Banning a book because of its content (especially if it's an important book) is censorship and it's not okay, no matter what the book is. Once you start slapping content labels on books, it makes it very, very easy to see only the label, assume something about the book because of the content, and maybe even ban it from somewhere or some people because of that. Not. Cool. 

In summary: 

Do I think it's a good idea to show discernment, and that it's okay to not read things you're not comfortable with? Yes. You are in charge of what you read. You don't need people shoving books down your throat. (There are plenty of sites where you can find out about the content in a book, or you could ask someone who's read it, and so on.) Do I think it's a good idea to start putting content ratings on books? No. That creates a whole host of problems that are by no means limited to the three points I listed above. (Like I said, Heather's post goes into all the technical details.)

Now, this is my opinion about it, and we all have varying opinions, and I'm not opposed to thinking about it more if someone brings up more good points. It's an interesting discussion -- thanks to Ana for making me think about it! 

Do you think we should put content ratings on books? Comment away.

25 comments

  1. Well, I suppose you know my opinion—but I did want to say that you did a really, really good job of addressing the kind of personal element that I had a lot of trouble putting into my post! XD What especially stuck out to me was the discussion of things like Brave New World versus a YA novel. I have seen parents in my middle and high school career have their children do alternate assignments on some books because they were afraid their child couldn't handle the content—but literature the way that Gatsby or The Road or any other book is written is intensely different than the way YA is written. And a lot of the stuff in those books, like you said, is important to hear. You summed all this stuff up much better... I think I might add your post into my post, if that's okay with you! (And, also, thanks for the shout out. It's appreciated. :) )

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    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed the technical details of your post, too, because that's not something I'm able to do and it gave me a unique look into it. I definitely think that yes, it's okay to avoid certain content, but there are books where it's actually very important to read even though it might be uncomfortable.

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  2. Yes! I totally agree with you, Aimee.

    If people want to know what content is in a book, or if they are concerned at to what might be in it, then they can ask a friend who has read it, about it. Or even look at a couple of reviews on the internet.

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    1. Thank you! I feel the same way -- it's easy to find out other ways, without all the problems brought up by slapping a simple content warning on it.

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  3. I agree with you. The whole post I was thinking, "It's a lot like book banning. If people start putting content ratings on books, that makes the banning books door open even wider. It'll make it more probable to ban books." And then I read #3 and was like, "Yes! She covered that one!"

    Plus, I like to be the judge of my own books. I have different comfort levels than most people. And putting an ambiguous label on a book isn't going to help me any and, like you said, it will drive some people away when the book maybe not be what they think it is. I like what you said about the books that address important issues too. Those books tend to be gritty because they show humanity in a truthful light. Humanity can get dirty sometimes. A lot of times. But for those same reasons these books are deep, impacting, and meaningful.

    And things like violence in books is way different than violence in movies. In movies, it's all there for you to see. You are seeing everything else that everyone else sees graphic-wise. In a book, there can be violence, but the author may or may not elaborate a lot. That and it depends upon the reader's imagination to fully see it and/or fill in the blanks (which in my opinion makes things way more scary than a movie, but that's not really helping my point. . .).

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    1. Yes! A simple little content warning is much harder for books, because even the way the content is presented and how graphic it is varies widely from book to book, so it wouldn't be very accurate anyway. It would be a real shame to drive people away from a book because things look worse than they are.

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  4. Just found your blog yesterday! Just want to thank you for motivating me to write the story that's been in my head! Lol I was contemplating but then I read your posts on writing and I think I will! Thanks!
    -JH

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    1. Oh gosh, thanks so much! That means a lot to me and I'm really glad I could be helpful/motivating/encouraging. <3

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  5. Oh, I definitely agree with your argument. There are some books I really loved "except for that one PG-13ish scene", and I think the ratings will stop people from reading great books like that.

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    1. Yeah, basically. I've read lots of books with things I might be uncomfortable with, but it was worth it because the rest of the book was valuable.

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  6. I totally agree with this post. Especially when you mentioned The Great Gatsby. It's my favorite book, but a lot of people could be deterred from reading it due to the subject matter, which would mean they'd miss out. Fantastic post, and thanks for writing it!

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    1. SAME. Gatsby is one of my favorites ever, and I will admit to being slightly afraid of the content when I picked it up, but I found it to be one of the most valuable and impacting books I've read yet. I really do think books like that should be read, even if it's not the sort of content people are usually comfortable with.

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  7. Hmmm... I don't quite understand how warning people to the mature content in a book is opening the door to banning. Some people really don't want to touch certain types of content. If they hear that a book is incredibly important and impactful, it is still their choice whether they want to venture into reading it or not. Just like I occasionally watch harder rated movies if I feel like there is a really important message.

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    1. Yes, there may be a connection between rating books and banning books but I don't know that one necessarily leads to the other. And if it did, books would be banned for damaging, unhealthy content--not for ideas. It's when you start trying to censor the spread of ideas that freedom is endangered--not when you try to censor mature content.

      Anyway, great and thought-provoking post.

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    2. It's definitely your choice whether or not you read certain content, especially knowing about the book. And I don't believe in forcing people to read things under any circumstances, while I do firmly believe that there are certain books that everyone should read BECAUSE they're uncomfortable and difficult and gritty and honest. I don't think it would most definitely mean more book banning, either -- it would just make it easier and more likely to happen, because that content warning on the book would be the first thing people see and would turn them away/lead them to keep it away from others. If that makes any sense. :)

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  8. Despite this argument, I'm still for putting content warnings. Is putting content warnings on movies close to movie banning? No, it's just a way for the consumer to be aware of what they will be watching. Does knowing the content of a movie change whether someone will watch it or not? Yes, that's why we have content warnings. That's kind of the point of content warnings. It's so the consumer has awareness of what they will be consuming. Sometimes the content in books is more severe than that shown in films.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. That's a fair argument, and I can't say I disagree entirely with it. There are pros and cons to both sides. :) My main issue comes from the fact that books are much more varied than movies in the way they present content and how graphic it is, so something as simple as a content rating like that couldn't possibly take it into account, and it could be much easier for someone to judge a book by mature content rather than by the actual value and importance of it.

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  9. I've read Ana's post, but I haven't read Heather's yet. *runs to check that out* You make some good points, Aimee. Myself, I'm a bit wary of sticking content warnings on books, but I still think I agree with Ana on this(I know, that sounded so wishy-washy, but oh well). Thing is, every time I've heard someone argue to not use content warnings, the argument has come from someone who is comfortable reading a lot of what we call "adult content." But(and you said this) not everyone is comfortable reading about sex, drugs, alcohol, rape, people who cuss, etc. Personally, I do NOT want to read about sex. Some people may think that's close-minded of me, but coming to a sex scene in the middle of a book with otherwise great content--just ruins the whole book for me. (I should note that I do make a few exceptions. Like, I think rape is a serious issue and totally don't think it should be ignored). Still, content ratings would help me to avoid that disappointment.

    Still, you have reaaallyyy good points! I hate that some people would make the decision not to read a truly amazing book just because of a few curse words. But I would also make this point: People should be able to make their own decisions.

    Really, it shouldn't matter whether we use content ratings or not. Even if we do, it will be our own decision whether or not to read a book. So(even though you've made some good points) I think content ratings would be a good idea because there are so many good books out there without content that might make me squirm. I also don't think anyone should be ashamed if they do squirm at particular issues. Some people just can't handle certain content, and I just don't think it's fair to make them search so hard for books to read.

    I'll stop now, because I'm bordering on rambling. But great post, Aimee.

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    1. That's definitely fair and valid. It's taken me a while to be more comfortable with certain content and I wouldn't EVER try to force other people to read it or belittle them for it because that's really not cool at all. xD In my own opinion content warnings open up a whole new set of problems when you could look up the book or find reviews or just ask someone else who's read the book beforehand to warn yourself about content (and probably get a more accurate representation of the content in that book).

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  10. I think I agree, Aimee. I especially liked your point about important books. Sometimes books have things in them I'd rather not read about, but I would then avoid them. For example, In Cold Blood (I actually wouldn't have read this is it weren't for school) had some horrible violence, but I thought it was really good. Noughts and Crosses had both violence and a good sprinkling of sex, but it was a really good exploration of social boundaries. There aren't that many books I regret reading, because even if they are awful, they've broadened my horizons. But again, I have little siblings (like my six year old sister who's just started chapter books) and there are some things I'd rather she avoid. Thanks! Weaving Waves Words

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    1. Ooh, I'm interested in Cold Blood. (slightly off-topic, but true xD). There are some very important books that do have more mature content and while I would never force people to read them, I would also hate for someone to be turned away from something important simply because of the content involved. *nods*

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  11. I agree with you that we shouldn't put content warnings on books. Not only would some content warnings spoil the plot, they would also as you say turn away people who might otherwise enjoy the book. When I (rarely) encounter a book that contains content I'm uncomfortable with, I stop reading it.

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    1. Yes, that's very true. I've stopped reading books before too, and I think there are lots of options for finding out the content that don't involve all the problems of a content warning on the actual book.

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  12. I actually don't have an opinion about this. I agree with both sides a little too much. XD It was cool to hear your opinion!

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  13. I see what your saying, but by not disclosing content in books for children, that's a sensory in itself. You want them to read the content because its important, but don't want to disclose anything that might offend them for fear that they won't read it. Isn't that tricking them into reading it? Isn't this whole debate about protecting children's right to read what they want? By not informing them of the content we are then taking the decision of being informed away. I say let the reader make a truly informed decision to read a book or not. The idea of keeping the content a secret just so everyone will read the book it kind of a backwards way of thinking. Since when is "being informed" a bad thing?

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