Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Tipper Stickers

Some time ago, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Wiig appeared in a Saturday Night Live sketch about two people carpooling for the first time. Their conversation starts out awkward, as can happen when people who don’t know each other find themselves in a confined space. It quickly takes a turn for the worse:

Wiig: So, it looked like you were having words with your neighbor there.
Baldwin:  I’m sorry?
Wiig: When I drove up, he was ranting and raving—that must be fun, living next to a crazy old man.
Baldwin:  That’s my dad. He actually lives with us.
Wiig: Oh, I’m sorry.
Baldwin: He’s not quite right anymore. He had wandered into the neighbor’s yard, I was trying to get him back to the house to, uh, put some clothes on him.

Things go hilariously south from that point on, as the characters, desperate to find safe ground, keep inadvertently opening up wounds they couldn’t possibly know the other had. “It’s all right,” Baldwin’s character says at one point, “you weren’t there.”
I think of this sketch (which is not available for viewing on line because NBC is rather fierce in defense of  SNL) because of Bonnee Crawford’s post earlier this week. She’s worried that the dark places her current manuscript goes might upset people, or impact her ability to get published down the road. Bonnee says, “WALLS is something I’m going to want to stick trigger warnings all over because of how messed up some parts are, even though I’d rather let readers go into the book without knowing what to expect.”
The questions Bonnee asked in her post got me thinking about this subject. Here in the US, we have a ratings system for movies, parental guidelines for television shows, and ‘Tipper Stickers’* on records (oops, showing my age there—music recordings). But we don’t have them for books. Should we?
Would you want one of these on your book?
I can’t remember a time when movies weren’t rated. I do remember the contentious hearings that took place in 1985 when “Tipper” Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center pushed for a ratings system for music, and the seemingly-unlikely coalition of musicians–Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider—who testified before before a Senate committee against it. Ultimately the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a system of labeling music with explicit or profane lyrics. The television industry followed suit in 1997 with the system we currently see today. What surprised me is that all of these ratings are voluntary—there are no laws in the United States mandating ratings on movies, TV or music.
To date, I have never seen a book come with any sort of warning label. However, we live in highly-sensitive times, and the internet has an echo chamber effect. It seems much easier to rile up the masses, or at least make it seem like masses are protesting something. While poking around preparing this post, I came across articles from this springwhere university students—college students, for God’s sakes—were pushing their respective universities and colleges to label some books. Could it happen? I expect so.
But should it? As someone who tries to read widely and is somewhat mature, and as someone who is trying to break into the world of the published author, I do object to Tipper Stickers for books, even voluntary ones. This is not just a case of me objecting to something that could affect me, I’ve always been much more sensitive to censorship and bans when it comes to the written word than other media, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a world with R’s and X’s for movies, and the occasional ‘Viewer Discretion Advised’ warnings preceding certain TV shows. I do think books promote thinking more so than movies and TV in particular. The pace of reading, the ability to stop immediately, go back and re-read a section, or shut the book and our eyes while we deal with whatever is in the story allows us more time to process the unpleasant things presented within than the often graphic images flashing on a screen.
Do we have responsibility to warn people they might be upset or offending by the contents of our works? There is something in everything that is going to offend someone. Perhaps it’s the use of the F-bomb. Maybe a scene brings back unpleasant memories of childhood trauma. We don’t know who’s reading our books and what they’ve been through in life. Some readers have serious scabs that might be scratched open by something we write. What do we label? Bad words? Suggestive or overt content? Rape scene? How can we honestly know what’s going to set someone off? Back to the skit for a minute:

Wiig: It’s okay, I’m, I’m just sensitive about it, y’know, she’s always been there for me, y’know—she’s, she’s my rock.
Baldwin: Your rock?
Wiig: Yeah…what?
Baldwin: It’s just that last summer my dentist and I were rock climbing, and he fell into a crevasse where he got his foot stuck. The coyotes were circling, so I did what I had to do and I chewed his foot off with my teeth. So you should be a little more careful with the words you throw around.

Yes, we should be careful with the words we throw around. But should we label them? What say you? Have you ever been so offended by something in a novel that you stopped reading or got really upset? Are you in favor of some kind of Tipper Sticker for books?
Thanks, and have a great weekend.

*Historical note: “Tipper” Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore, was the public face of the PMRC, hence the stickers are given her name.
Full transcript of ‘Morning Drive’ sketch here. Trigger warning: rape reference.

9 Responses

  1. I'm not sure I would say that I've been "offended" by things in a book, but I have certainly stopped reading a few books when they showed me things in a detail beyond what I was comfortable with. If the book is well-written and I'm into the story, I might skip the tough section. But if it's too prevalent, the skipping becomes cumbersome. I have sooo many book on my to-read list that I have lots of other reading options.

    I don't mind knowing if a book has graphic sex, violence, and/or language in it because that helps me decide whether or not I want to put my money down to buy it.

    In years past, I was a member of a couple of different book clubs, and that was how I'd build my reading library (I'm one of those who likes to reread books). I was grateful that a simple warning was included with books that contained any of those three. What's interesting is to see how the term "graphic" has evolved over the years. The threshold used to be a lot lower than it is now.

  2. I don't like warnings for books. They are different from movies and television in that our imaginations are in charge of how graphic a scene gets in our heads while reading. And if something gets too graphic in the description, we can skim ahead.

    I write adult novels that have cussing and sex and some dark stuff. I'm actually a little afraid to send one scene to my critique partner. He doesn't like dark stuff. Maybe I should warn him first. 😛

  3. I think category and genre label books just fine. You should know if you pick up a horror, it will most likely be gruesome. And with romance, you expect sex. Heck, there's a sub-genre of SWEET romance to indicate NO SEX.

    Most books are for adults, unless they're labeled for children or middle grade or young adult. So basically, we DO have labels. Just not labels for adults.

  4. I don't consider ratings the same as bans or censorship. I think children should be protected from adult content, but I don't think it's particularly necessary in books. If someone feels uncomfortable when reading, they can stop reading. It's harder to do that with music, TV, computer games, and movies. On a tangent, I can't help wonder if the increasing number of mass shootings by teens and twenty-somethings doesn't owe something to the prevalence of violence on TV, games, movies, and in the media. I never used to believe it, but something's changed in our culture since I went to college in the 80s. Then, no one would have considered getting a bunch of guns and killing as may students/teachers as they can. Now, not a month goes by without a mass shooting (or attempted shooting) somewhere.

  5. As a teacher I've found that kids pretty much censor their book choices on their own. I've got a huge variety of books in my room – from chapter books to extremely intense YA novels. For the most part if a student isn't ready to handle the content of the book then they'll put it down saying it was 'boring' – and it is to them because they're not at that stage. I 'label' the books by genre or author and reading level and they choose accordingly and almost always appropriately 🙂

  6. I write romance, but there are levels even to sweet or clean romance. There might be no sex, or there might be fade to black sex, or there might be steamy kissing that fades to black, or just steamy kissing. One magazine I subscribe to online does steam kettles and they explain what the kettles mean. That lets me make an informed decision.

  7. Thank you, everyone for your comments so far. I find it very interesting how different we can all be in our responses to these things.

    Jemi, I think it's interesting you find your students self-censoring their books. You have to be extra careful, I imagine, as you are probably likely to get either extreme of parental reaction: "MY child is capable of reading that book" vs. "I can't believe you allow that TRASH in your classroom!"

    I guess it's no surprise I'm much more in the Lexa/Stacy/L.G. camp as far as labels, etc. I think (and heck, this could be fodder for another post) that the divisions in bookstores and libraries into age categories does tend to protect children more, though there are certainly books for younger readers with scary, unpleasant parts to them that deal with mature themes. As for adult fiction? I think there's an expectation of adult content, and quite often, the blurb/jacket copy can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

    Donna, I definitely agree that 'graphic' doesn't seem to mean what it used to.

  8. The more I think about it, the less inclined I am to believe they're necessary despite my fears about my own manuscript. I don't like censorship in general, but then I don't find myself to be a particularly sensitive person. If something in a book has offended me, it's probably because the author wanted it to, and it's worked. The less intentional stuff (e.g. resurfacing bad memories of past traumas) it something the author can't really help, as we don't know the individuals reading our stuff. And you're right about the reader's ability to just put the book down if they decide they're not enjoying whatever discomfort or offence has been caused.

    Thanks for the linky-link Jeff! 🙂

  9. I wonder if our feelings on this sort of censorship are closely tied to our tendency to take offense. In other words, are people who are less-easily offended more sensitive to potential censorship or not?

    And we can't help it. We can't be in the heads of every single potential reader to know what sort of traumas they've experienced. You're welcome for the link, thanks for stopping by!

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