I’ll admit when it first came to my attention a few years ago that the “clean” label for fiction is offensive to some, it surprised me a little. But, I understand the concern. (Mind you, while romance and young adult fiction are the focus of the article I just linked to, the overall discussion of clean fiction is broader.)
I wish books had a standard rating scale, like movies. And nowadays, since I’m realizing what “clean” can mean to different people, I personally opt to use the word “wholesome” instead, when I can. Or I refer to certain books as mild or moderate in content.
Or, hey. In an informal capacity, I just go ahead and use movie ratings to describe the content levels of books, and folks get my drift.
However, I think it can be easy to use and take the word “clean” out of context when it comes to books. Yes, as the article I linked to says, words mean things. Even so, most words in the English language have more than one meaning or sense. And not every sense is an equal or fair comparison to every opposite or contrasting word.
The article above mentions that “not ‘clean’ = dirty.” In the context of books, I tend to disagree. For instance, consider two other words, as common as clean and dirty: “sweet” and “sour.” People often use them as opposites or contrasts. But when it comes to a particular fiction category, sweet romance, does “not sweet romance = sour romance”? Or is that equation a poor one in the context of romance books?
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. People often say that a certain book or movie contains adult or mature content. Does that mean they’re saying “not adult = childish” or “not mature = immature”? Are they implying that all books and movies without adult or mature content must therefore be juvenile or babyish, or inferior in some way?
“Adult” and “mature” aren’t value judgments meant to belittle milder books. The words are content descriptors to help audiences make informed choices. And the descriptors are meant to be used and taken in the context of content, not value.
A little kid finishes his dinner at the table, and his mom says, “Wow, Joey, that’s a clean plate!” Is she telling Joey that his plate isn’t dirty? No. Joey’s “clean plate” is indeed a dirty dish, and somebody’s going to have to wash it after dinner. But Mom is telling Joey that his plate is clean of (or free of) the food he ate. That’s all.
In the business of publishing, I don’t think the “clean” label for books is meant to be a value judgment, or meant to say that all books that aren’t clean are therefore dirty. “Clean” is a content descriptor to help audiences make informed choices, and the descriptor is meant to be used and taken in the context of content, not value.
Of course, an official movie rating will often come with a bit more fine print for a given movie. For instance, PG: for some mild sensuality, and brief incidental language. Likewise, authors or publishers will often have to give a bit more information to clarify the content labels for specific books. But in general, a reader can expect a clean read to be free of certain kinds of material. Just as a reader can expect a mature read to contain certain kinds of material.
Clean, mild, wholesome, gritty, adult, mature—each of these words has more than one meaning. If someone is using or regarding the “clean” label for books in a holier-than-thou way, they’re using it in the wrong context or regarding it in the wrong sense. Clean doesn’t equate to “good,” and mature doesn’t equate to “bad.” Clean isn’t better than mature, and mature isn’t better than clean. They’re descriptors to help readers find books according to their personal preferences or to let them know what kind of material to expect. That’s all.
Still, whenever I opt to say “mild” or “PG” instead of “clean,” it’s because I see both sides of this issue and don’t want fellow book lovers to think I’m passing judgment. 🙂
Anyone else wish that books came with standard ratings?
Also, while my quasi-conservative, ChristFic-loving self doesn’t worry much about content levels when it comes to distinctly Christian fiction (I mean, hey, even The Holy Bible contains sex and violence and other mature stuff), Fiction Finder is rather clear about the different content levels in ChristFic books there.