Andrea Griffith never saw it coming.
The Arizona woman was passing through an airport two years ago when the title “50 Shades of Grey” caught her eye. She read a sample chapter and was intrigued. It appeared safe enough, so the 67-year-old purchased a copy on her Kindle.
The book’s true colors were exposed when Griffith encountered a “vulgar” bedroom scene a few chapters in, she said. When she realized how much sexual content the book contained, she deleted the novel from her e-reader.
“All of the sudden it got very explicit. Whoa, this is not what I thought it was about,” Griffith said. “I really didn’t know what it was about. My daughter-in-law thought I was kind of naïve.”
Movies, television and video games all have their own rating systems in place. And while the effectiveness and criteria of these systems are subject to debate, they all provide at least some guidelines for disclosing possibly objectionable content to consumers. But book buyers are often on their own. Some readers, parents and at least one university professor believe more resources are needed, especially by parents, to help readers make informed decisions about books. In the meantime, they're doing what they can to make people aware.
Sarah M. Coyne is an associate professor of human development in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Coyne and a team of researchers published a study in 2012 that examined the profanity, aggression, substance abuse and sexual content in the 40 best-selling adolescent novels of 2008. Some books were harmless while others had “gritty content,” Coyne said.
The study, published in the journal Mass Communication and Society, showed that the average teen novel comes with nearly 40 instances of profanity. One of the books in the Gossip Girl series had sexual content and 50 “F-words” in about 200 pages.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” was much more mild but occasionally referenced bodily functions.
“Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines,” a best-selling memoir of a young man’s drug addiction, contained substance abuse, graphic portrayals of immorality and 500 instances of profanity, including 190 “F-words,” in about 300 pages.
“If that was a movie, it would be rated R, no question,” Coyne said. “But you can find it in the teen section next to Harry Potter.”
Parents are generally happy if a child is reading something, but beware of the graphic content, Coyne said.
“It’s time to have the conversation about putting a content guide of some sort on books because you just don’t know from looking at the cover," Coyne said. "Almost all of the different types of media are rated in some way."
Coyne wanted to be clear that she isn’t advocating censorship or banning books. But as a parent of four children, she wants to know what they are consuming.
“I think its responsible parenting," she said. "I wish we had a better mechanism to help parents out there."
Ron Charles, Book World editor at The Washington Post, objects to a rating system. While book coverage in newspapers and magazines isn’t what it used to be, book critics, reader reviews, blogs and online book sites are only a click away, he said.
“Before investing 15 hours or so in a book, why not spend 15 minutes reading about it from sources you trust?” Charles wrote in an email to the Deseret News.
Charles admits there have been a few times when he’s started a book that was too painful to finish. In those cases, he set the book aside, satisfied to have made up his own mind.
“Good books aren’t simple things; they’re works of art,” Charles wrote. “Publishers and reviewers already give interested readers a helpful sense of what a book is about. Readers who want to make sure they don’t accidently stumble upon the realities of adult life should probably stay away from books for adults.”
But some readers believe that what's provided by publishers and reviewers falls short when it comes to a book's content.
Cindy McNutt is a mother of three and the executive editor of CompassBookRatings.com, a website that reviews books and provides readers with a free, detailed idea of the content in regards to profanity/language, violence/gore and sex/nudity. Compass has a number of reviewers and more than 1,500 book reviews in its database, and it receives around 25,000 page views a month.
McNutt, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, believes parents need to know what is in the books their children are reading, she said.
“The literary community doesn’t want anyone to label anything but one person’s clean is another person’s unclean,” McNutt said. “There are thousands of books published each year. People have different opinions about whether the content level is appropriate or inappropriate. We need a more consistent and systematic eye.”
Cathy Carmode Lim has reviewed books for 15 years at various publications and has a website called RatedReads.com. She is on board with McNutt, although she doesn’t expect to ever see a universal book ratings system materialize.
McNutt, Lim and Coyne are among many who wonder why ratings exist for movies, television and other forms of media but not for books.
“It would only be right to have information available for readers and parents of young readers about book content so we as readers and parents could make more informed decisions," Lim said.
In addition to searching online for information about a book, what else can be done? Coyne suggested contacting local government representatives and sharing concerns, while another option would be speaking to a librarian.
“Your local librarian should know quite a bit about the books in the library,” Coyne said.
Griffith hopes people continue to ponder the idea.
"I think it's a good idea," Griffith said. "I don't want to waste my time reading something like that again."