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Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday Discussion: How Much Can You Take?

One of the trickiest parts of being a Readers' Advisor is gauging your patron's acceptable level of sex and violence in a book. After years of experience, I can tell you there is no way to know for sure without straight out asking the patron. I have little old ladies who tell me they like their romances, "the hotter the better," and young people who get squeamish if there is any blood in a book. You cannot judge a patron by their cover. You need to find a way to get to the heart of the issue in a bold and direct matter.

The problem, however, is two-fold. First, you need to be able to find a way to ask your patrons about their preferences for sex and violence in a book. But, second, and even more importantly, you also need a resource to find out how hot and bloody a book is.

Let's start with the second problem first.  I have a great resource for finding blunt descriptions of a book's level of sex and violence. All Readers.Com provides book reviews by real people. At the end of each review there is a chart which evaluates the major appeal factors of said title. All you need to do is read the chart and it lists, very clearly, the level of sex and violence in the title.

Here is the chart for a fairly racy Susan Elizabeth Phillips book versus this one for a tame Debbie Macomber title. See how different their "What kind of sex" sections are.

Also, for violence, here is a review for the graphic Darkly Dreaming Dexter book (note under Main Character when it asks how much violence he uses. Answer: "a tremendous amount.") and another for a cozy, culinary mystery by Diane Mott Davidson. Comparing the two tells you quite a bit.

For all of these examples, compare the difference in their sex and violence levels. All Readers does a great job of really telling you what to expect. Since we cannot read every book, this is a great way for the librarian to know what the reader can expect.  Anytime there is a issue, I simply print the review from this resource and give it to the patron to decide for him or herself.

Now let' get back to the first problem: how to ask a patron about their preferences when it comes to sex and violence in a book. When a patron tells me that they want to read a romance, suspense, thriller, or mystery, I don't beat around the bush. I immediately ask who they already like to read. Their answer helps me to know what their acceptable levels already are. Remember, if they talk about an author with which you are unfamiliar, take a minute to run their name through All Readers so you can see for yourself.

However, as you know, there are always the patrons who, when asked what authors they enjoy, answer to the effect of, "Oh, I like everything." For these people you have to be direct. It helps if you have a prepared line. This makes you less nervous to ask such a personal question and hopefully makes them more willing to answer.

Here are some of the lines I use. For violence question: "Do you mind a lot of blood and violence in your story?" "Do you want a mystery that is more about the characters and the story and less about the murder?" (this is a nice way to find out if they want a cozy or not) For sex questions: "Do you want a sweet and innocent romance or is it okay if it is more adult?" I also go right out and ask many patrons, "And how much sex can the book have?" You'd be surprised, most patrons are happy that you have asked, and are even happier to answer.

That being said, no matter how careful we are to ask these questions, we can never guarantee that a book is "safe." If you have a patron who is adamant about reading a "clean" book, you need to make sure you give them as much information as you have and then be honest that you can't know for sure. Even if you have read the book yourself, do not make a guarantee because what is acceptable to you may not be okay with your patron.

So for today's discussion let me know how you handle asking patrons about their acceptable levels of sex and violence? Do you have any resources you use to help with this issue? If you are a patron, how do you want to be asked about this by the librarian? Does it even matter to you?

Remember, you can follow any of our past Monday Discussions by using this link.


John BPL RA said...

I'm glad this was brought up.

I have found that the easiest and most accurate ways to find out about a patron preference for sex and violence are:

1. Come off as an open minded individual.


If you accomplish the above, you will rarely, if ever, have to "question" patrons about sex or violence because they will just come up and tell you. In fact they will SEEK YOU OUT when looking for gore and lust. This kind of trust can take time to cultivate but is well worth the effort. Back when I worked at the Circulation desk I was amazed by the number of people who felt that they had to justify to me why they were checking out certain books. "I only read these because..." or "I'm checking these out for somebody else..." It got to the point where I would try to reassure them by commenting on some of the plots of the books and thus acknowledging that I had also read them. This was particularly helpful with horror (of which I happen to be a fan). I noticed that people were not as shy about explicit sex or violence as they were about the blending of the two. Books involving sex killers, rapists or sadomasochism seemed to freak people out the most as did any kind of sexual mutilation. Books that contained sex without violence seemed to only worry parents. One woman, as I recall, would leave her kids in the next room while checking out explicit urban fiction and then put them in her purse. Books with violence and no sex didn't often offend anyone. More people were offended by Harry Potter than Stephen King.

As time went by, my brief comments and reassurances grew into lengthy discussions. Sometimes other patrons would overhear them and join in. When I came to RA many of the same patrons remembered these discussions and kept going to me for certain authors or book ideas. Instead of dancing around a taboo, you can really become memorable and respected and sought after by patrons if you are just open and honest with them from the start. Make them realize that you are here to help them rather than pass judgement on their tastes. A good resource for gauging a book's level of sex or violence is to ACTUALLY LOOK AT THE BOOK! I'm not saying read every single title but whenever you see something perverted or sick take some time to familiarize yourself with it. Also, know certain authors. An author that writes erotica usually does not stop with one title. The same is true of horror and all the various sub-genres of horror. Doing this really makes you look sharper than you are. People like when you can just pull a book off the shelf and talk about it without consulting a computer. People who are heavily into disturbing stuff really like when you know about it. There's no better resource than that.

Kathy BPL RA said...

I totally agree with John about earning a patron's trust. I would also add that patrons often don't know how to talk about what they find a comfortable level of sex or violence because often times they don't know themselves. I find it extremely helpful to just start talking about some books and say things like "it's really sexy and steamy" and gauge their reaction. Just as John said, once they realize you don't mind talking about it, they don't mind so much either. Once you really start talking books, I find patrons generally find it easier than explaining what they like without the aid of specific titles.

Jackie, BPL Youth Services said...

Of course, as a youth services librarian, my role is a little different. Personally, I respect the reviewers and other librarians who classify books for juvenile and young adult literature. I tend to let the young adult take the lead...and can gauge from their questions whether they are asking about sexual content or not. I am a strong believer in books being a 'jumping off point' for discussion between adults and young people. If they ask me about sex, violence, drugs, or any other 'risky' subject within the book, I try to be wholeheartedly honest with them. I respect them and want them to come to view me as an honest and approachable adult and/or librarian. The trust between a young adult and myself is a goal I aspire to.

That said, I also have some duty to a parent and their wishes. I can usually judge by a parent's questions, eye contact, or probing what they find acceptable for their child. I have to honor their wishes of 'no sex', no violence' or 'no drugs' in the book if that is what they want for their child. I may not agree and think the child is old enough or sophisticated enough to handle the issue, but they know their children the best. Trust between the parent and me is important, too.

Having raised three teenagers myself, I look back with confidence that allowing my children (now adults) to choose his or her own reading material was a wise choice. They were then, and are now, comfortable about coming to me with any issue or problem. I am proud of that fact.

I, too, agree with John and Kathy, that gaining the patron's trust is the key to the whole issue. Once a young adult knows the librarian respects them as a fellow reader. a comfortable sort of interaction follows day after day. I am always pleased when a young adult returns to tell me about the book I've recommended and even more pleased when they are comfortable discussing the issue. Once that trust has been established, a bond of reader equality is the tie that makes it easier to approach the desk on the next visit to the library.