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.