(Or: Sex, Violence, and Writing a Good Story)
So there I was at church a while back, thumbing through some magazines while I waited for the hand-shaking and chit-chat to conclude so we could get home for lunch. Lo and behold, book reviews! “Thriving Family” magazine had a few listed; I think there was a “popular” category with one review (“Matched”), some other category, and a “Christian book” category. I didn’t take the magazine, so I had to look it up online later. Isn’t technology wonderful?
To their credit, they don’t issue pass/fail verdicts on these things at their site. What they do is go through and, in the case of books at least, offer a full plot synopsis so parents can decide whether they think it’s appropriate for their kids; they break it down into categories like “Belief systems,” “Nudity and Sex,” “Profanity,” etc., and outline what’s present in the book; and they offer discussion questions at the end for parents to think about talking about with their kids.*
This got me thinking (you knew it would). I took a look at a few online reviews to see what they put into these things and do you know what I realized?
If they did give pass/fail grades on these things, Bound would fail. Hard. In almost every category.
These reviews are rife with spoilers. I don’t want to do that here, but without giving everything away, here’s some of what I came up with in their regular categories:
– going against societal expectations, parents’ wishes and the will of government, fight with mother ends in storming out and not returning, disobeying parents’ wishes re: banned books (ha!)… all in chapter one
Other Belief Systems
-Tyreans are polytheistic (further explained in book 2). Does magic count as a belief system? Because that’s kind of huge. Magic is everywhere, and different beliefs about it are causing tension between nations. Ancient fertility statues mentioned (gasp!)
-H— (the place and as a curse) used several times, d—, s—. Thank g–, oh my g–, etc. also used in dialogue (Yes, they use dashes like that in their reviews. Yes, I find it confusing). Death threats. Name-calling is frequent in thought and speech. But hey, at least no one says fuck!
-Violence… well, it could be worse. There’s a lot of blood. Self-mutilation (for a cause!), somewhat-graphic descriptions of wounds/injuries, violent attacks, slapping, people burn to death.
Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality (I know, I know…)
-Yes/ yes/subtly implied. Oh, hey, they forgot nudity… we have that, too! In terms of “graphic description” we’re not talking “insert tab A into slot B,” but a few of these things are kind of major plot points, and there’s a bit of tension surrounding these situations. Or a lot.
And in the “notes” section…
Alcohol: Wine is consumed several times. Oooooh….
Lying/deception: at every turn
Smoking: Hey, we don’t have that… wait, no, someone smokes a pipe, and we don’t even know what’s in it. Never mind.
Criminal activity: theft, infanticide (discussed), several murders, abduction, breaking and entering…
Suicide: Mentioned in passing, sort of attempted (see: self-mutilation)
Anger: HAHAHAHAHA… yeah. A bit. Jealousy, too.
I’m done for now. You see what I’m getting at, though? And I haven’t read enough of their reviews to even know where magic actually fits into all of this (though their sister site, PluggedIn, doesn’t think very highly of Harry Potter, and over there they do caution parents against these books)
Do I care? Not so much, actually. I have nothing against books with positive messages. I love leaving a story feeling happy. But I really dislike books that set the moral above the story, and I think perfect characters or slightly-imperfect characters who always make the right decision in the end make for boring stories. Are my characters flawed? H— yes! Damaged, even. Do they do things wrong? Of course they do, that’s what makes the story interesting.
And that’s what I set out to do: to tell a good story. An entertaining story. An honest story, in that people’s actions make sense in the context of their world and their surroundings. Should people let their 12-year-olds read it? I wouldn’t**. But I don’t think that makes it a “bad” story. There are a lot of great things there, too; there’s love, there’s loyalty, there’s self-sacrifice and generosity and yes, magic, which I do consider that a wonderful thing.
I didn’t set out to be provocative, and for the most part, I don’t think Bound reads as a story that’s pushing some dark agenda or promoting immoral behaviour. I think most books would do at least as poorly, even MG titles. It’s just funny how it looks when you categorize everyone’s sins like that. 😉
So tell me: How do your favourite books stack up? If you’re a writer, how would your work do in a review like this? Does either result surprise you? Do you think books can be all rainbows and unicorns and making good choices and still be worth reading?
*Just for the record, I think this is a useful resource. It’s not those crazy people who were burning Harry Potter books (because, y’know, witchcraft). It’s just putting information out there so parents can guide their kids’ choices and help them process the media messages that they’re being exposed to. No doubt there are parents who use this to tell their kids that they can’t read anything because it’s all evil, but for those of us who are sane about these things, it’s good information to have available.
**But then, there are people letting their kids that age read 50 Shades of Grey, so…