Rethinking “Racy Reads” | Up for Discussion

A library educator takes on the labeling issue

One evening last summer as I was sitting around watching TV and reading, a news promotion caught my ear and persuaded me to stay tuned for the 11 o’clock program. My local NBC affiliate was running a special report entitled “Racy Reads,” which was to deal with those extra-edgy teen paperbacks in heavy rotation at libraries and in high demand at bookstores. As the anchor delivered a somber voice-over about the controversial content of the new YA novels, I studied the graphic that appeared on my screen: a slow pan of a collection of teen novels scattered over a tabletop, most of which I’d already read. Then, I saw a book I hadn’t read: Niki Burnham’s Sticky Fingers (S & S, 2005). The cover featured a cropped photo of what appeared to be a young man and woman in a passionate embrace; the man’s back was to the camera and only the arms of the woman—one reaching above her head, one reaching towards the man’s back pocket—were visible. I knew then what I was going to read next.

The fact that the other books appearing in the report’s graphic had not really turned out to be all that explicit—the “Gossip Girl” series, the “Au Pairs” series—didn’t deter me from my mission. The next day, I grabbed a copy of Burnham’s novel and set to reading.

That night, 150 pages into the novel, the only “sticky fingers” I had encountered were those of the narrator’s best friend, a compulsive shoplifter. By 11:30, I was still waiting for the payoff promised by the book’s back cover: “one drink is all it takes for [narrator Jenna’s] perfect façade to shatter.” Finally, in the last chapters (we’re talking pages 250-275 here), the main character takes two sips of a beer at a party. Soon, she starts feeling dizzy, funny, and kind of drunk. Turns out, her boyfriend decided to put roofies in her drink to get her to “relax” so that they could finally have sex. Of course, a friend (the aforementioned shoplifter) saved her (and her virginity) and the book ended. There was an epilogue and an author’s note, in which readers were warned of the dangers of date rape drugs. “What a rip-off!” I thought to myself.

When I tell people this story they usually laugh; but, the point I want to make here is pretty serious. Though a bit silly, my encounter with Sticky Fingers is exemplary of many others’ experiences with literature: readers learn about books in magazines or hear people talk about them on television, and then, they seek out those popular titles. Witness James Frey’s controversial memoir A Million Little Pieces (Nan A. Talese, 2003). After Oprah lauded the title on her television show, sales of the book skyrocketed and have remained high, even after the truth of the book’s content has been questioned. Some might argue that the controversy surrounding Frey’s book was one of the best things that could have happened: now, readers were either rereading or newly reading the memoir and actively critiquing the content, trying to decide what was true and what was fiction and discussing it among themselves. The big difference between the Frey case and my Sticky Fingers example, however, is that because of the difference in the intended audience, we are popularly encouraged to take very different action. Namely, we are to discourage teens from reading them (and forming their own opinions about their alleged raciness) and even reconsider adding books of this ilk to our library collections.

In list-serv discussions, American Library Association (ALA) censorship watches, and various media outlets, the discussion of young adult literature and audience appropriateness has reemerged and two primary means of address have been suggested: the institution of a book rating and labeling system and the creation of “safe” booklists. While both of these systems seem to appease worried parties, these policies fly in the face of librarianship and infringe on young people’s intellectual freedom. Book labeling—using either a library-created system or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings—raises the question of labeling authority and offends the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, while the creation and dissemination of “safe” booklists of “clean” reads (the Young Adult Library Services Association’s “Books That Won’t Make You Blush” booklist is one example) can act to deter teen readers’ agency. Interestingly, while both of these measures purport to effect only the artifact of the book (that is, no one is suggesting expurgation), what these supposed safety measures really do is restrict access and attempt to reshape authentic reading practices.

Proponents of book labeling and rating argue that the use of this type of system to identify potentially harmful books can aid parents as they select material for their children and could alert them to whatever dangerous books might be read in the household. Librarians who favor this method of description argue that the identification of books that contain mature content can aid in collection development and organization in much the same way that reading level assignments can and do. Additionally, libraries with smaller collections (or with mixed children’s and young adult collections) can ensure that the material collected for older readers is used by the audience for whom it is most valuable. History has established a tradition of media-ratings systems: the Comics Code Authority has, with diminishing influence, monitored the content of comic books since the mid-century; the MPAA has encouraged voluntary conformity to its rating system since about that time; and, more recently, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board has established its own system to rate electronic games. Literature—already a stratified field—seems like a logical next step.

Bibliographies that suggest “alternatives” to supposedly racy novels or that purport to list books that are “clean” and free of references to sex, violence, drugs, or strong language have a historical basis as well. Librarians and teachers create thematic or subject-specific booklists for pleasure reading and school assignments as a method of passive reader’s advisory. When the youth services librarian is not present in the library, generalists and patrons can look to these bibliographies for guidance. Many bibliographic resources are created to answer patron need or demand; the children’s and young adult booklists created to appease Harry Potter readers waiting for the next series installment serve as examples of such user-centric service. This appeal to the user or reader is one that may have motivated the creation of “clean” booklists as librarians respond to a media frenzy of young adult literary criticism.

The ALA has made its position clear in relation to the ratings and labeling issue and their statements that address this issue are relevant to the creation of “clean” bibliographies as well. In a document entitled “Labels and Ratings Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” ALA maintained that the restriction of access to any material based on a preexisting or newly created ratings system would be considered a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. According to the statement, labels that call attention to aspects of a material’s content, creation, or creator in the interest of “warning” patrons of its divergence from the norm are considered “prejudicial labels.” These prejudicial labels “are designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language or themes of the material, or the background or views of the creator(s) of the material, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of users.” While proponents of a ratings or labeling system argue that such a measure would not require a corresponding policy of restrictive access, the very presence of the label can discourage reading by those too embarrassed to bring a book with a mature-content sticker to the check-out desk. The ALA’s “Freedom to Read” statement speaks clearly to the label issue and indirectly, though conclusively, to the bibliography dilemma. Mature-content labels and bibliographies like “Books that Don’t Make You Blush” don’t, in the words of the ALA’s “Freedom to Read” statement, “force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous.” However, by forcing a reader to accept any prejudgment—of “cleanliness” or “dirtiness”—of expression, we are playing a dangerous game with reader rights.

Does this mean that all of our labels, bibliographies, and readers’ advisory activities are suspect? Of course not. What I’m saying is that labeling material on behalf of readers and using language that strongly implies a moral prejudgment of the materials’ content is just wrong. As no impartial and agreed-upon guidelines exist to determine the “maturity” of literary content (with the exception of legal tests for obscenity), mature content or ratings labels can and will be inconsistently applied. Furthermore, if a significant component of the critical-reading practices we want to encourage among the young involves critical reading and textual judgment; mature content labels or ratings statements will effectively challenge this practice by telling readers they aren’t mature (or literate) enough to judge for themselves how effective a novel is. On the other end of the spectrum, by drawing attention to select titles and according them “clean” status by way of specialized bibliographies, we are calling into question the books that aren’t on the list. As a result, we librarians become more than access points to a collection, we become interpreters and gatekeepers of the collection’s content.

Because popular fiction doesn’t get the same amount of attention in our professional journals as it does in the mainstream press, it’s up to us to keep abreast of the popular critical movements and recognize the impact of these statements on our patrons and their families. Even more importantly, we should use these opportunities to model critical media literacy and investigate these so-called controversial texts on our own. In my case, while media coverage informed the way I approached Sticky Fingers, it was the real content of what turned out to be a thoughtful novel that made me hope that other readers would (and could) be moved to similar encounters with fiction.

Amy Pattee is an assistant professor at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston.

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