The surge in the popularity of erotic literature following the publication of the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy caused widespread concern among parents. This genre of literature is becoming both increasingly common and more accessible for people of all ages. Whilst movies, video games, and even CD cases all come with an age-rating or explicit content warning, the literary field has so far escaped such labelling. In the US there is a voluntary system in place where publishers can include a recommended reader age on children’s books. In the UK there have been suggestions of a similar system, but very few publishing houses have followed suit.
There has been content rating for films for nearly the entire history of film production. Perhaps the most obvious issue with a novel rating system is the sheer size of the literary canon. Whereas film production barely goes back two centuries, we have literature from over two millennia ago. How would we even begin to categorise it? Content could be policed in terms of the inclusion of explicit vocabulary, but there are other factors to consider as well, such as the horror content and scenes of a violent or sexual nature. Books have a very different style to films. Rather than receiving audio-visual content, they involve reader interpretation. People bring their own imagination into play, which can make a story seem vastly different from person to person. Then there is the matter of metaphor, innuendo and other ways of disguising the true meaning of a phrase. Would the content rating be based on the metaphor at face value or the actual meaning behind it?
This is just one of the practical difficulties of applying ratings to all literary works. Presumably a history textbook or a historical novel could be considered too violent simply because they were describing wars and executions. It would be difficult to argue how to distinguish between stories and facts, and if there were different classification bases for fiction and non-fiction, where would religious texts be placed? The Bible covers wars and violence, not to mention the crucifixion, so this could be considered unsuitable for children below a certain age. However, restricting access to it would almost certainly cause offence, so religious books would probably have to be exempt from classification all together to avoid offending peoples’ beliefs.
Aside from religion, content rating could act as a limit on education. Classic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies have been taught in schools for years. Yet this book could be considered too violent, or the general content too adult, for children under a certain age. If this is the case it could be removed from the syllabus, and children who are better at reading could be forced to fall behind their potential by age-branding. Why should a child be held back, aged seven, because they want to read something marked as suitable for ten-plus? On the flipside, it may be humiliating for a child to have to read a book which is marked as suitable for children much younger than themselves.
Content rating could be considered useful in terms of guidance for relatives wanting to buy books for children and young adults. It would also enable parents to restrict what their children were reading to some extent, if they wished to do so. The blurb, being short in length may not give a true indication of the suitability of the book, and it would be a shame if people were to give up buying books and just turn to DVDs and games where they can be guided by age recommendations. However, I don’t believe that this is a strong enough point to be worth putting an age-rating system into place. In this era of social media and the technology generation, there is already concern that people don’t read enough, and many local libraries have experienced a significant loss of use. If we were to restrict children and teenagers’ access to books then this would surely only increase the problem. Also more generally, when something is actively discouraged, it often becomes more appealing. An age rating system may actually inspire children to try to access literature unsuitable for their age as an act of rebellion, where they would otherwise just read what interested them.
Although it is possible to see some positive aspects to the idea of an age-rating scheme in literature, it seems that there are far more negatives. I strongly believe that books can be an aid to children growing up. We learn from the mistakes that characters make in novels so that we don’t make them ourselves. Children grow up reading books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, identifying with the characters and maturing alongside them. The escapism that books offer help children to better understand the world they live in, to develop their own personalities and to become the person they truly are. To limit children’s access to books would certainly be a detriment to not only their education, but also their development into adults.