Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Anything but Cozy

Books should come with ratings, like movies.

As a reader, I'd mostly select R-rated titles, like I do with movies. Not because I love sex and violence, but because I like stories that push the limits of conventional expectations, and I find that most authors who push those limits don't limit their characters to polite language.

I would steer away from G-ratings, or anywhere I might encounter a bakeshop mystery or a cat named Fluffy. Not because I hate cats or cupcakes, but because I feel like I'd be less likely to be challenged or surprised by those stories—and I like to feel both when I read.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a book that should have been rated. Great story, compelling characters, but lots of people were repulsed by the brutality of the rape scene, and more. I would choose to read it again in a heartbeat—in fact, an R-rating would have likely made me pick it up even sooner than I did. But others could have saved their time, money, and sensitivity and spent them instead on a book that was more up their alley.


As an author, my promotional goal is to connect my stories with MY readers. I don't want to offend the wrong audience with Clare's foul mouth and adventurous love life. I want to put these books in the hands of readers who actively enjoy a bit of urban edge in their detective fiction.

Partly, this could be a geographical issue. I'm writing in Canada, where like Europe, foul language isn't something most people blink at. In the United States, perhaps because of the religious influence, more people take up arms against bad words.

Which is fair enough—I like that we live in a world with such varied taste. It means I can write in my voice, a knitting mystery author can write in her voice, and Quentin Tarantino can push violence to his own limit. And it's why I like the rating plan.

Using movie ratings, I think my Clare Vengel series would fall somewhere between PG-13 and R. There's no violence or brutality. They're fun, fast reads. My teenage cousins are allowed to read them. But they're anything but cozies.

Do you agree that books should be rated? I'm not talking about creating an official ratings board with all the ensuing headaches and bureaucracy. I'm thinking of an honor system where the publisher estimates the content and sticks a rating code on the cover—to help a book find its true audience.

If books were rated, where would your preferences lie?


Robin Spano's latest novel, Death's Last Run, explores the death of a New York Senator's daughter on a ski run in Whistler, BC. Publisher's Weekly calls this book “engaging,” and “a believable tale of estrangement, love, lust, greed, power and revenge.” For more information, including reviews and sample chapters, click here.

15 comments :

  1. I totally agree with you that books should have content advisory labels. My sister-in-law read GWTDT and highly recommended it, and I grilled her about the violence because I just can't stomach graphic violence anymore (having children made me soft). She didn't think it was too bad, but I wasn't convinced. It took a bit more research before I realised it wasn't a book for me, whereas a rating or warning notice would have saved me that time. I think it's important to let a potential reader know exactly what is in your product, whether that is genre, SLVN, or other controversial themes such as religion/politics/racism/sexism, etc.

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  2. You made a good point Robin. I have seen an unofficial rating system for romance novels in review sites to let a readers know the level of graphic sex in the book. And I have often mentioned in interviews that my mystery series would be rated PG13 for language and violence. I do not want people to pick up the books and then stop reading because they don't like the way Sarah cusses.

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  3. I would cycle between R and G. I like edgier mysteries and thrillers, but I also spend a great deal of time with cute kittens and cozy mysteries. Life is brutal and it's nice to have a break from the constant stream of violence. I am personally turned off by graphic sexual content, so I definitely want to be warned if I'm about to walk into erotica. In terms of horror, I love terrifying suspense but hate gore, so a heads up on that one would be appreciated as well. I would support a rating system.

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  4. I make my own on my web site. My system is simple. I have the following on the book descriptions, and I feel it works very well...

    HEA-no/yes/atypical/HFN, VIOLENCE-none/low/moderate/high, LANGUAGE-none/low/moderate/high, SEX-none/traditional/sensual romance/erotic romance/erotica

    I also tend to use content advisories when necessary, for things like rape or attempted rape in the book.

    Honestly, something similar would work for any given site, and some publisher sites have a similar system for marking books.

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  5. I like the content advisory system better than a rating system. I can tolerate a fairly high level of bad language, a medium level of sex (I can always skip those bits, if I consider them gratuitous), a medium-low level of physical violence, and no sexual violence.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

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  6. Interesting ... my stories do not contain graphic sex or violence ... but plenty of salty language ... I've spent too much time on golf courses, in poker games and arguing sports in bars to think 'polite' language is real. Now, here's the rest of the story: I once established a connection with a semi-successful author who agreed to review my book and help me with some marketing ideas ... turns out she was totally offended by the language ... never heard from her again. Maybe a rating system would saved me some time.

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  7. Hey good points, all.

    Elle, I'm glad you saved yourself a brutal read. Great book, but not for everyone, for sure.

    Maryann and Brenna, that's interesting that you advise readers already. Smart way to keep your books going to the right readers.

    Diana, you are truly a creature of contrast. I love it. Kittens in one mood, dark edge in another.

    Marian - great point. Content advisories would make it even more specific. When my husband and I are watching TV, the warning will often keep us glued to a program we haven't heard of if it tells us there will be "strong language and sexual content" but rarely if it's violence and gore.

    Christopher - wow, that must have been disappointing! Hopefully you've found a new mentor who's a better match for your work.

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  8. I'm of an age that the edginess factor isn't what I judge a book on - or the action for that matter. There are brilliant writers who can string a reader along with nothing but descriptive narrative that is essentially without plot. But we're hooked. Those are the authors that amaze me. How do they do that? I'm exploring an author now who would rate on the milquetoast level - or feel good with exceptional writing - hahaha. Not sure how we'd work that into the rating system. But we should discuss rating systems more. When it comes to romance, maybe milquetoast to habanero? I dunno - it would have to be something the world understands.

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  9. Hi Robin, and thanks for this thought-provoking post. I fear the rating of novels. It made my skin crawl that Brenna reveals the type of ending. I fear that relying on ratings will make us lazy in all the ways that typically work to do this—a well-designed cover (I always know erotica!), the carefully worded back cover copy, and the first page that stands as a promise to the reader.

    For their new Landmark imprint for book club fiction, Sourcebooks (pubbing my debut in Jan 2014) is assigning a type of rating system that will help book clubs successfully pick out novels they'll like. They're assigning "weight" on a one-to-four anchor system: one anchor is for groups that prefer a light, fun read; a four-anchor book offers fodder for deep, weighty conversations.

    I like that—but it's not rating. You can have sex and language in a light read or a heavy one.

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  10. I have enough trouble with assigning sub-genres to my books. All Romance eBooks insists on a 'heat level' rating, but that's only for the way the sex is handled.
    I wouldn't like to create reader expectations with a rating system--everyone's interpretation would be different. What's 'graphic' to one person is run-of-the-mill to another. I've had my books called "porn" and "slightly sensual"--for the same book.

    (When we used to go out to movies--before moving to the land of no theaters--I always preferred to choose R rated ones because it meant no squirmy screamy kids)

    Terry
    Terry's Place


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  11. I read R-rated fiction, but many times I think the language gets to be too much. Dropping the F-bomb every other sentence causes it to lose its shock value. There are many ways to get across the idea to readers (and it's more challenging to come up with those)! My books are probably GP-13: I write so that young adult readers can enjoy them (and yes, I know many teens use worse language than I ever thought of!)

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  12. I'm not really a fan of general ratings, because they seem, well,... too general. These days it seems like genres are getting more and more specific, letting readers know what kind of content a book holds (hot suspense, graphic horror, etc). And reviews tend to give a reader a hint, as well as samples of the book that are available on-line in most places. And then there are covers, which can give a hint as well. But I definitely think titles that fall under the broad umbrella of "children's literature" might benefit from ratings. I remember opening a MG/YA book that I had pulled from the shelf in the library--the first scene was a sex scene, and I cringed at the thought of my kids browsing the shelves behind me. That "MG" definitely needed some type of
    warning.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    Slow Stir


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  13. That's a thoughtful post, Robin, but I'm not sure I'd want to see or use content labels. The only exception that comes right to mind is my novel "When Pigs Fly," which sounds to some like a children's book but isn't one. I often add the disclaimer to my tweets, "Not for kids." Other than that, I see no reason to warn potential readers.

    By the same token, I am happy to take my chances with someone else's novels. If any aspect of a story bothers me enough, I'll just stop reading. I guess I wouldn't mind a disclaimer that "This book has not been professionally proofread," but maybe that's too much to ask for.

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  14. LOL Bob I love the proofread warning idea! (Though at least with Amazon's Search Inside The Book or Kindle's sneak preview you can usually tell writing quality before buying.)

    Dani, your point is good too: Great writing is great writing, and we don't need curse words to take us to another world compellingly.

    Kathryn, that's a cool way to "weigh" novels. In Canada the crime fiction world has just introduced an award for lighthearted crime fiction called the Bony Blithe--since the major awards tend to prefer more weight.

    Terri, that's interesting re: heat ratings. Romance is unfamiliar territory to me (both reading and writing). That's cool to know.

    Heidi, ha ha. True re: young readers being well beyond shock value, but I know what you mean about not wanting to write hardcore content for a younger audience.

    Shaunda -- WOW! That sex scene must have been a shock!

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  15. As a small publisher, I toyed with the idea of using a rating system because the books I published were typically family reads. In the end, I chose not to.

    One novel, however, deviated significantly from my typical family-friendly category because it dealt with sexual child abuse and its devastating impact on the life of the victim. (This book was based on fact.) When the author came to me, he'd spent 10 years trying to get the story published and had numerous rejection letters to show for his efforts. Looking me straight in the eye, he said, "You're my last hope."

    As a never-intended-to-be publisher and a fledgling novelist myself with my first book just out, I agreed to look over his manuscript. It needed a lot of work, but the story (definitely not my type) was terrifyingly compelling. With some trepidation I told him I would edit and publish his book. Why? I'd seen first-hand how such child abuse destroys people, and I felt it was a story that a lot of parents needed to read.

    While the sex scenes were not offensively graphic, they left no doubt regarding what was happening. The violence, on the other hand, was quite graphic. At the time I considered a content warning and still believe it would have served a good purpose. Would I have used the G, PG, PG14, R, X formula? Probably not. But a warning that some scenes might be troubling to sensitive readers might have been a good idea.

    This is a great post, one that some of us perhaps should ponder.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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