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?
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