Archive for September, 2021

Author’s note: much of the content detailed here has already been covered in a Twitter thread I started yesterday; however, as events have continued to unfold, the length of the thread has become unwieldy, and so I’ve opted to set things down in a more accessible fashion.

Early yesterday, author/agent Ashley Herring Blake and agent Molly Ker Hawn independently reported on Twitter that they’d been contacted by a hitherto unknown site called YA Book Ratings, requesting that they rate their respective YA titles – Herring Blake’s own forthcoming novel and the works produced by Ker Hawn’s agency – using the site’s rubric. The aim of this, as evidently expressed by YA Book Ratings, was to label these books according to their “cleanliness” (per Ker Hawn) and fit them into “appropriate” categories (per Herring Blake). At least two other authors also reported receiving similar emails. Though these categories no longer appear on the website, which is temporarily down as of the time of writing, they initially appeared in the following YA1 to YA4 format:

According to the site, the eventual aim was to produce stickers bearing these ratings to booksellers and other interested parties; however, according to the FAQ, as the site owners – listed yesterday as Jolie Taylor, Liz Wilson and Rachel Hill – wouldn’t have time to read every book in order to rank it personally, they were relying on others to do the ranking for them, which would seem to be born out by their decision to contact various agents and authors and ask them to rank their own work. In other words: Taylor, Wilson and Hill hoped to make money in the long term from the sale of their stickers while outsourcing the majority of the labour required to apply them to unpaid strangers.

Here is what the stickers looked like:

It’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, but the design of these was puzzling to more people than me. What is each symbol meant to be, and what does it have to do with the content it supposedly represents? Is YA1 a cloud or a flower? Is YA4 a sexiness rating, or does it refer to hellfire? And why is YA3 just… a box? Your guess is as good as mine.

More worrying were the guidelines offered for determining which books belonged in which category. The fact that sexual assault merited a lower rating than consensual, on-page sex was particularly noteworthy, as was the bizarre weighting of swearwords, even the mildest of which were censored (slurs weren’t mentioned at all). “No underage alcohol use besides sip by MC,” a YA2 guideline, is both weirdly specific and pointedly judgemental, while also failing to take into account the fact that different countries have different drinking ages. By contrast, the inclusion of “extreme gore” in YA4 is downright incongruous for YA in general – but then, I suspect that Taylor, Wilson and Hill are working from a different definition of “extreme” than those of us who routinely mainline horror content, given that they’ve placed it in the same category as “excessive alcohol use and partying.” Excessive by whose standards? And what is “justified violence” as listed in YA2? What does any of this mean, practically? And how does one use this system to rank a book that contains elements from all four categories – say, a book with no underage drinking and no sexual topics, but with an instance of the word shit, an MC who vapes once, and some gore? Do you scale it up or down, and either way, why? And – most pressingly – with each of these four categories meant to represent such a wide range of content, such that a given book might tick one box or all of them or just a few, how could a single sticker on the spine be more practically useful than the actual blurb?

Exploring the YA Book Ratings site-as-was, which originally included information about Hill, Taylor and Wilson, one thing leapt out at me: all were white women seemingly married to their childhood sweethearts, all had either 4 or 5 children, and all were educated in Utah, with Hill’s degree coming from Brigham-Young University. Together with the clear moralising of the proposed ratings system and the fact that Hill and Wilson’s book review podcast, Two Babes and a Book, boasted its provision of “cleanliness ratings” on the landing page, it seemed reasonable to conclude that all three were Mormons, or at very least strongly influenced by Mormonism. And, well: as a queer person already eyeing that “in-depth sexual topics” yardstick in the highest-rated YA4 category and wondering if it was a coded way of saying “gay stuff happens,” this was, uh…. unsettling, shall we say.

Here’s why this is an issue, particularly in the context of YA book ratings: Mormon ideals of moral cleanliness, as put forward by the temple, especially around sexuality and sexual thoughts, are… let’s go with deeply unhealthy, to say nothing with the intense homophobia advocated for by Mormon leadership. To quote Twitter user Kayla Thatcher, who was raised Mormon, “I internalized the rules of my culture as a kid. I was in no way a rebel. That meant that I felt a lot of shame and guilt every time I encountered anything “inappropriate” in literature… There was no sense of gradually growing into adult media. If media had swearing, it was bad. If it was sexual, it was bad. If there was too much conflict, it was bad. If it was gay, well, none of us would have heard of it.”

To be clear: this is not a blanket denunciation of every Mormon ever. The red flags here come specifically from the proximity of apparent Mormonism-masquerading-as-objectivity to the moral ranking of sexual and other normal teen behaviours presented by a site whose ultimate aim is to have those categories used and disseminated by booksellers (to say nothing of the aim of feeling the need to rank YA thusly in the first place). And that, to me, is a problem.

As I and others reacted online to the categories and the morality behind them, however, the site’s owners took notice. First to vanish was the page listing Hill, Wilson and Taylor as its creators; by evening, Taylor’s Twitter account – which, as best I could tell, was tagged into the discussion by exactly one person – had been deleted, and the site itself was reduced to nothing but a landing page, which was, by this morning, also gone, replaced by a 404 error message. Even Taylor’s Instagram account was gone, though the Two Babes and a Book Instagram and Facebook page are both still up. The deletion of the site felt strange to me: as I said at the time, why would three people, apparently in tune enough with YA book blogging to have between them an established podcast and a very popular TikTok account – the latter is Taylor’s, with over 38k followers – invest so much time and effort in the creation of their site, even going so far as to create a trademark and logo, only to delete everything the second they were criticised? Had they genuinely not anticipated any pushback, or were they just regrouping? What was happening?

That question was answered in part this afternoon, when Liz Wilson posted a lengthy Instagram story to the Two Babes and a Book account addressing the proposed ratings system. For my own ease of reference as much because of the inherent impermanence of Insta stories, I posted a transcript of her video here, and was immediately struck by several things about it:

  1. At no point does Wilson openly acknowledge the chain of events that led her to post the video. She talks about the site as a “project” that she and Hill are “working on,” and mentions the site is down while they “revamp” it, but never says that the project already went live and was taken down. Jolie Taylor isn’t mentioned at all.
  2. Though Ker Hawn and Herring Blake both reported use of the words “cleanliness” and “appropriate” in the correspondence they received from the YA Book Ratings site, Wilson claims explicitly that “we just want people to be aware of what’s in the book, and we wanna avoid things like, this is clean, this is not clean, this is appropriate, this is not appropriate, but really from a standpoint of ‘this is the content that’s in the book,’” while speaking from an account that – once again – literally talks about cleanliness ratings in the byline. That she later goes on to ask whether the podcast ought to replace the word “cleanliness” with something else does nothing to retroactively remove it from the original correspondence, nor its shadow from the YA categories originally listed on the ratings site.
  3. Wilson goes on to describe the aim of the site as being much more akin to diversity support than anything else, providing a way for readers to avoid triggering content or find characters with a particular disability or sexual orientation, yet still frames this in terms of a rating system. She does not explain how these two things mesh: by definition, a rating conveys scale, a subjective assessment of whether something is least, middling, more or most by whatever rubrics apply, but triggers and inclusion cannot usefully be ranked this way, and they certainly can’t be dealt with using group criteria, as was present in the original YA1-4 schema (which, tellingly, she doesn’t mention either).
  4. Despite this apparent emphasis on diversity and triggers, Wilson brackets the video by asking why books don’t have ratings when TV, movies and video games do.

Later, however, Wilson returned to Insta and added what is, to me, the most telling part of her argument. “We know that it’s a sensitive topic and we just want people to be more aware before they pick them up and read,” she says, while a black textbox floats on the screen to her left, reading: “and I might add parents since we are referring to young adult novels; children as young as 10 or 11 years old are reading YA books.”

This, right here, is the crux of the issue: because whenever someone proposes ratings systems for YA books, it’s ultimately less about helping kids and teens than it is about helping adults to police them. And where ideas of moral cleanliness are lurking in the background, nine times out of ten, what that means is parents restricting access to queer content, to sexual content, to stories that mention drugs or homelessness, police violence or white supremacy; anything they think might be a “bad influence” on their kids, even or perhaps especially if it’s something those kids might benefit from experiencing or be eager to read about in a safe, controlled way. This policing doesn’t even have to be the end goal of Wilson, Hill and Taylor to be the most likely upshot if their revamped site succeeds, though I’d be surprised if it didn’t factor into at least some of their thinking, even if only subconsciously.

Here’s the thing about YA: it is already, all by itself, by virtue of being distinct from both middle grade and adult fiction, a type of classification. It is both young and adult, meaning that it features teens developing into adults – and that is always going to be a messy, imperfect transition involving both young and adult themes, which is why the genre is definitionally broad. This is where blurbs, book reviews and promotional materials step in, telling prospective readers what a given title might be likely to feature – and though Wilson seems unaware of it, publishers and authors are increasingly taking the step of including trigger warnings on published books, listing the most common forms of content, such as abuse and sexual violence, for which readers might want to be forewarned.

Now: I have absolutely no doubt that Wilson is right, and that kids as young as 10 and 11 – or, hell, even younger – are happily reading YA. But I don’t think for a minute that this justifies employing a YA ratings system. Why? Because those kids are reading up. They are exploring material meant for older readers, just as many tweens and teens have, since time immemorial, explored adult books alongside their YA and middle grade favourites. This is part of growing up, and while an involved family might well choose to sit down with their precocious reader, touch base on what they’re reading and perhaps discuss any more advanced topics in a constructive way, this process will not be helped by the addition of a ratings system, whose reductive nature is simultaneously useless as a real content warning while appealing to the most restrictive, knee-jerk of adults – no, that’s too old for you – without encouraging further investigation. Imagine trying to introduce a ratings system for adult books on the basis that teens might read them – what purpose would that serve, really? If you, a concerned parent, are worried that a particular book isn’t appropriate for your child, you have plenty of options: read it yourself, look up reviews of it (which do exist outside of Goodreads, contrary to Wilson’s apparent belief), discuss it with their teacher or librarian, or even just ask the kid what they think of it, or why they want to read it. A ratings system does nothing but provide a handy excuse to yank a book out of a kid’s hands without having to think twice about it.

According to Wilson’s Insta video, the current plan is for the YA Book Ratings website to go back up by the end of the week. Even should she, Taylor and Hill try to parlay the site into some sort of diversity index/database, as Wilson’s video suggested, I will remain deeply skeptical of their efforts, not least because they’re seemingly either unaware or uncaring of the fact that such resources already exist. On their original FAQ page, for instance, they said:

Setting aside the absurd idea that rating a book is somehow less negative than giving a trigger warning or using a content label on its own, the stated goal of “providing a faster and more concrete system for readers to know the content contained in books” is notably unsupported by any evidence. How will the site be faster? How will it be more concrete? And on whose shoulders will the diversity search function of YA Book Ratings be standing, if and when it’s implemented? An immense amount of work has already been done by groups like We Need Diverse Books, Disability in Kidlit and the Queer SFF Databse to promote, review and record works both by and about marginalised people; will YA Book Ratings be contributing to these communities, or stealing from them? Or will they simply ask busy, marginalised people, as they already set about asking agents and authors, to perform free labour for them?

The whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth. At base, the original categories were bizarre, moralising and functionally unusable, while Wilson’s video subsequent to their removal has neither acknowledged what they did in the first instance nor reconciled the jarring disconnect between “we just want to promote diversity and all-purpose content labels!” and “we need to protect young children from reading Inappropriate Stories,” all while actively lying about the use of “cleanliness” and “appropriate” in their initial correspondence. I’m going to keep an eye on the site and see if it progresses, but here’s where we are for now, and folks: I am Tired.