Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why you’ll never see this in my disclaimers: “17+”

I’m just as much a market researcher as I am a writer. Sometimes I wear that hat much more often than I wear the writer’s hat. Why? Well, it’s simple: I want to be successful and sell books. Sure, writers want to write what they feel, what they know, what they believe in, but at the end of the day, a savvy writer is one who can do all those things mentioned above and make a buck on top of it. But this isn’t about what types of books are selling. This has to do with the way many writers qualify their work for mass consumption.

Disclaimers are necessities for writers, I suppose. I’m not committed one hundred percent to that notion. How they came about? I’ve no idea, but it may have something to do with the advent of Mature Young Adult and New Adult fiction subgenres. Suddenly authors felt the need to include disclaimers at the end of their book descriptions because their stories were controversial in nature. What do I mean by that? Well, too much language, violence, and sex. Some authors may be scared not to include disclaimers for fear of public backlash (or snarky, pious reviews). Some authors are parents who find it necessary to warn other parents about “bad” stuff in their novels to keep impressionable kiddies away. Still others use disclaimers to lure readers. No harm in that. Just good business.

I’m no exception to the disclaimer rule. You’ll see the following in parentheses under my book descriptions: “This is a Mature YA novel that contains explicit language and sexual situations” or something of that nature. Why do I care about sharing that information with potential readers? Well, quite frankly, I don’t (and I suspect that most readers don’t care either), but I feel compelled to share so that no one is hit upside the head with it when they open my book. I throw my hands up. “Look, I gave you the warning, sister!”

In order to come to terms with the fact that I don’t feel like I should have to include a disclaimer for my books but know it’s essentially required, I had to figure out a way to include them to my liking. Enter parentheses. Stay with me. When are parentheses used? Think back to those horrendous grammar lessons in junior high. Parentheses are used to add information that is not pertinent but could be useful. In essence, anything inside of parentheses can be viewed as nonessential, additional information. So that’s where my disclaimers go. (“Hey, you might wanna know, but it won’t hurt you not to know.”)

And now moving on to the “17+” problem. I understand there is an age limit for rated R movies. I understand that there is an age limit to purchase rated M video games. Kids are limited in those areas as to the type of content they can consume (unless Mommy and Daddy say it’s okay, or they sneak into the theatre, or they get fake IDs, or they purchase games on the internet, or . . . You get the picture.) When it comes to books, however, there is no age requirement for buying, well, anything. And I don’t have a problem with that. Why? First off, I would never be so self-important as to assume that I know what’s appropriate for certain age groups to read. “You’re fifteen? Oh, well then, you can read books that have light language in them. Words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell,’ but no ‘f’ word, missy. And you can forget about sex. Nope. Not even a little. In fact, I don’t know that I’m all that comfortable with you reading about French kissing. Why? Good grief! You’re fifteen! Now maybe if you were fifteen and a half . . .” Second, I would never intentionally limit my fan base by including a 17+ recommendation. I want fans. Good grief. What writer doesn’t? And any one of them who says censorship should supersede an individual’s right to read is a hack. Third, I believe in parental rights—the right of parents to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children to read.

I think it’s mighty dangerous when authors qualify their work with disclaimers. Again, I don’t like them, but I feel I have no choice but to include them myself. And again, I think this is a relatively new phenomenon. Did Shakespeare put a disclaimer on his work? How about Flowers for Algernon which is a standard addition to many middle school English curriculums? That’s got sex and language in it. How about any piece of classic literature? I don’t remember seeing a disclaimer on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and that book includes a rape scene!

My point? Fiction is an exercise in writing about the human condition. And you’d be hard pressed to find any book out there that doesn’t speak to controversial themes. (Well, unless it’s complete garbage.) Why? Humans are flawed. Humans are ugly. But humans also have redeemable qualities. So good realistic fiction is going to explore both the goodness and wickedness of human nature—all the things that make us laugh, cry, cringe, scream, and most importantly, think. Call me crazy, but I expect those elements when I pick up a book, and I don’t need a disclaimer to warn me about them.

(This is a very opinionated post on disclaimers. It contains language and sarcasm.)   

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