Looking For A Good, Clean Book

The first time I heard about this, I assumed it was a joke, but apparently this is an actual thing – librarians being asked by adult patrons to recommend ‘clean’ books. ‘Clean’ means different things to different readers, which must make it difficult for the librarians, but generally, these readers are looking for books untainted by ‘language’ (that is, swearing), sex and violence. Sometimes the readers are looking for a suitable book for their children, but often, they are adults looking for a book for themselves that, in the words of one Christian blogger, “won’t be a near occasion of sin”.

'Mary Magdalene Reading' by Ambrosius BensonLuckily, these readers don’t have to rely on librarians for recommendations, because there are a number of blogs and websites that review and recommend books based on such criteria. The most well-organised and thorough site seems to be Compass Book Ratings (formerly SqueakyCleanReads.com), which I came across because it rated one of my own novels. As Compass Book Ratings rightly points out, movies, TV shows and games are rated, so why not books? This website rates books for children, teenagers and adults, with books given a rating for literary quality (from one to five stars), three separate ratings for profanity/language, violence/gore and sex/nudity (from zero to ten) and a recommended age range (9+, 12+, 14+, 16+, 18+ and 21+). A handy search page means that a reader can search by genre, ratings and recommended age ranges to compile a ‘clean’ reading list, or alternatively, the reader can check the ratings of a particular book.

For example, here is the Compass Book Ratings review of The FitzOsbornes in Exile (which is, I think, a fair and generally positive review). The book gets a four-star rating for literary quality and is recommended for readers aged sixteen and above. It receives a rating of two out of ten for profanity (“8 religious exclamations; 7 mild obscenities”), two out of ten for violence (with a list of all the violent incidents in the book, such as “a character is shot, but suffers no permanent injury”) and four out of ten for sex/nudity (again, with a list of incidents). There’s also a listing for “Mature Subject Matter” (“War, Homosexuality, Refugees, Persecution of ethnic groups”) and “Alcohol/Drug Use” (I was puzzled here by the claim that “a 14 year old smokes cigarettes”, until I realised it referred to a brief mention of Javier, the chain-smoking Basque refugee). This all seemed fairly accurate to me, although I must admit I’ve never counted the number of swear words, and I do think a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old could read this novel without incurring any permanent moral or psychological damage. And really, if a reader is going to be disturbed by “7 mild obscenities”, a “discussion about Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality” or a mention of “periods”, then I don’t want them to waste their time or money reading The FitzOsbornes in Exile.1

Of course, ratings for a book aren’t very meaningful unless you can compare them to other familiar books, so I looked up the ratings for The Great Gatsby. Good news for me! It gets four stars, which means my book is of the same literary quality as the Great American Novel! The Great Gatsby is slightly more profane (a rating of three) and violent (a rating of five), but oddly, is reported to contain no sex or nudity at all. Really? The FitzOsbornes in Exile is more confronting than The Great Gatsby, regarding sexual morality?

Then I looked for books with higher (that is, less ‘clean’) ratings and found reviews of Jasper Jones (which gets a ten for profanity, nine for violence and eight for sex, and is described as “well-crafted” but “overwhelming”) and The Fault in Our Stars (which gets a more positive review, but a ten for profanity and a six for sex). What was more confusing to me were the recommended age ranges for books. Jasper Jones is recommended for eighteen years and over, but a book of quotations about Jane Austen (which has no profanity, sex or violence at all) is strictly for readers twenty-one and above. ‘Clean’ books on the topics of family life and motherhood are also recommended only for readers well into adulthood, so I assume the reviewers are making judgements here about reader interests, rather than the books’ potential to cause moral harm. But no, wait. The reviewer of Persepolis says that the “use and amount of profanity in this book would make it inappropriate for anyone under the ages of 21”, while To Say Nothing Of The Dog is twenty-one-plus because it has slow pacing. Okay . . .

Despite the website claiming to have a “formalized content review process” that produces “consistent results”2, the ratings really depend on the individual reviewers, who vary in their qualifications and reviewing philosophies. The reviewers range from a thoughtful high school English teacher with experience on a library board, who wants to find books “that are both enjoyable and relevant to my students and acceptable to their parents as far as content is concerned” and who states “I do not believe in censorship, but I do believe there is an important place for content advisory”, to a student who proudly states she will “throw books across the room on occasion if the content is inappropriate or distasteful” and another young woman who is horrified by “seemingly great books that end up having WAY too much content”. Otherwise, the reviewers are not exactly representative of the general population. All the reviewers are white and, while it doesn’t explicitly state this anywhere on the website, I wondered if the site was affiliated, if only informally, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons3.

Apart from the variable quality of the reviews, I had Issues with Compass Book Ratings. (Yes, I know the site’s not for readers like me, who’ll read just about anything. I’m still allowed to have an opinion on it, especially if it rates my books.) I’m concerned that the site provides lists of ‘objectionable content’ without any context, which can then be used as ammunition by people who want to ban books that they haven’t bothered to read. And I have a problem with keeping teenagers away from ‘objectionable’ content in books, anyway. Surely it’s safer for them to read about these things before they encounter them in real life, so they’ve had a chance to think about them and discuss them? And if there are adult readers who’ll be psychologically damaged by accidentally picking up a book that contains any mention of sex, nudity, violence or swearing, then maybe they should consider abandoning reading altogether and taking up a safer hobby, like knitting. But mostly, I’m disappointed that Compass Book Ratings hasn’t reviewed the Bible. Violence and gore and sex and nudity? Surely they’d have to rate that book ten out of ten.

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  1. Honestly, I’d love it if all those readers would avoid my books entirely. Then they’d stop ranting on the internet about how disgusting my books are, and they wouldn’t feel any need to direct their homophobic readers to my own LGBTQ-themed blog posts, and we’d all be much happier.
  2. The website recently added some disclaimers on this page, which makes me wonder if they’ve had some complaints about inconsistent ratings. Those disclaimers weren’t there when I first encountered the site, and the site owners haven’t removed the ‘less consistent’ reviews.
  3. The site seems to be based in Utah, at least one reviewer graduated from Brigham Young University, and the site gives glowing reviews to a number of books written by and about Mormons.

8 thoughts on “Looking For A Good, Clean Book”

  1. I have mixed feelings about this site. On one hand, I can somewhat understand where the reviewers – and the readers who turn to sites like this – are coming from. In my early teens I used to wish books had ratings the way movies do – I had a few negative experiences with books which made me very uncomfortable. (A couple of these were books which had been mis-shelved or left lying around in the wrong section of the library.) Even now, when it comes to recommending books to younger readers, or if I’m not in the mood for dealing with certain content, I’ll occasionally start thinking that movie-style ratings could be useful.

    That said, good reviews will indicate a book’s major themes and issues, and I find that’s enough to make an informed decision. That’s often more information than you get from the rating on a DVD!

    But I can’t identify with needing the level of detail they provide. I’m utterly baffled by counting every instance of blasphemy and profanity. Unless you’ve reason to want a swearing-free book, surely it doesn’t matter if there are eight instances of blasphemy, or only three? Context matters – who is swearing and why they are swearing? The same goes for sex, drugs and violence. Looking at their content analysis for a book I read recently, there are references to things I don’t even remember. I wouldn’t recognise the book from the content analysis alone. And it’s not because I am utterly unconcerned by this sort of content: I don’t swear or drink, ever; I’m religious; I’m sensitive to violence. So I usually notice these sorts of things even if they’re not going to make me throw the book down (I can generally deal with reading about things I mightn’t agree with).

    Listing every count of this and instance of that seems to over-emphasises the presence of these things in the text. My concern is that it will encourage people to give such factors undue importance when deciding whether to read a book. Or whether to let someone else read a book. The potential for this to fuel uninformed book-banning is a bit frightening.

    Wanting to avoid a book because of a major aspect of the book is one thing, but to make such a decision based on minor references? That seems more like sticking your head in the sand, pretending these things don’t happen.

    And why oh why does “thoughts about holding hands” need to be in a warning? Now I’m going to go away and worry about the kids and teenagers whose parents use this site – or encourage them to use it – to limit what they read…

    So it’s s not just people who are happy to read just about anything who find this sort of warning system problematic.

    I can’t remember in which of your blog posts you recommended Debs at War, but I recently finished it and it was absolutely fascinating. I had to keep telling people about the interesting or surprising things I’d discovered in it. So thank you for that recommendation!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Herenya. Yes, the lack of context for the warnings worries me, too. It reminds me of all the people who wanted the first Harry Potter book banned because it contained the statement, “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it . . .”. Except that’s Voldemort, the bad guy, speaking! The whole book is about how Harry and all the good characters disagree with Voldemort! Without context, that quote makes the book sound like some sort of manual for sociopaths, when it’s actually about fighting against evil.

      And thanks – glad the book recommendation was useful!

  2. I suppose there is a demand for a book like this but surely to confine fiction reading to bland anodyne pap is a great mistake. I’m sure that young readers are able to deal with everything, or almost everything fiction has to offer. I would hope that if I was a young reader today I’d be be keen to tackle JK Rowling and Flaubert at the same time and that eclectic and passionate reading was a good thing period.

    1. This particular site is interesting because so many of the books reviewed and rated are for adults, not children. I can understand some parents wanting guidance for children’s books (after all, they can’t read every book their child reads, especially if their child is a voracious reader), but I was surprised by the level of ‘cleanliness’ demanded by some adult readers for adult books.

      1. Maybe it is over compensating for the (very understandable) concerns about what children can find on the internet?

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