This week I began my career as a public speaker. Just kidding—I gave two speeches, and other than presentations at work and oral reports at school, these are the only two talks I’ve ever been asked to give. I was terrified; more so, I think, by the seventh graders than the college kids. But I ended up having a great time and left each presentation inspired and excited. Both talks touched on ethics in the publishing industry. Morality is on my mind.
Books are products that people choose to buy. But does the publishing industry have a certain responsibility to readers? Consider young adult books. Most forms of entertainment—movies, TV, music—come with some sort of rating. Movies rated R are obviously not appropriate for thirteen-year-olds. Thirteen
may be about thirteen-year-olds, but would you want your newly teenaged daughter to watch it? A CD branded with “Explicit Lyrics, Parental Advisory” clues in parents that the words to their child’s new favorite song are graphic. TV shows frankly advertise the suitability of a program’s content, specifying whether it includes “suggestive dialogue, coarse or crude language, sexual situations, or violence.” But books don’t have ratings. Granted, a book title that appears to drip blood probably indicates gory text. A typical romance novel will probably have “sexual situations.” But in my experience, the content of a young adult book usually isn’t that obvious. And the suggested age range has more to do with reading level than content.
The Gossip Girl
series is incredibly popular. I find the books compelling and un-put-downable. But I’m almost thirty. Blair’s sexual pursuits and Serena’s drug use probably won’t affect the choices I make. These books are about high school students, and ostensibly for
high school students. But should even seventeen-year-olds be reading about sledding naked while incredibly high (only one vivid scene from the series)? And come on… kids read up. Who read Seventeen
magazine when they were actually seventeen? I was bored with it by twelve, long before I needed tips on making out.
Should the publishers and writers of young adult books be responsible for providing only age-appropriate content to young readers? Like a violent TV show, could a violent book encourage a teenager to be violent? Could a group of characters who go to boozy parties convince a young reader that drinking is cool? Maybe. One of the seventh graders I talked to explained that “images are WAY more influential than words”—ugh—so maybe not. But in case books are even a fraction as influential as movies, video games, and TV shows, should publishers and writers be responsible? Do they have a moral duty to protect the young minds of their readers?
I once worked on a wonderful book about a girl in search of her family. She also happened to be bulimic. At the redemptive ending of the book, the girl had located her mother and was more confident in herself. But she was still bulimic. I had to write a reading guide for the back matter of the book which included an interview with the author and discussion questions for book clubs. In the interview, I asked the author why she didn’t resolve the character’s eating disorder, and she responded that the book wasn’t a public service announcement. It’s true. No book is a public service announcement. But did the author have the moral duty to address the main character’s disease?
I’m torn. On one hand, I don’t think drinking, drugs, and promiscuity (wow, do I sound like a prude!) have a place in young adult books. But I sure did when I was
a young adult. Books about the above can be more interesting and compelling—certainly more scintillating—than their safer counterparts. The most important thing is that those young adults are reading, right?
The Girl with the Red Pencil
Next up, the morality of memoirs?