Saturday, October 24, 2009

What's the problem with problem novels?

On Diversity Roll Call Susan asks about "problem novels"--books, particularly in Young Adult lit, which focus on one particular social issue.

When you think about it, every novel is a "problem novel" in some form--after all, conflict is the cog that moves a plot along, and the definition of conflict is some sort of problem, right? Robinson Crusoe's problem is survival after a shipwreck; Hamlet and David Copperfield both have enough family problems to keep Jerry Springer busy for a week.

But when the problem or the character confronting it is one-dimensional, it doesn't make for an compelling story. A character who's defining characteristic is bulimia or a drug habit isn't interesting. Add a plot that revolves around MC-has-problem/gets-help/the-end, and you've got a novel whose sole attraction is the sort of rubber-necking that Jerry Springer relies on.

But books can have a social issue at their core, and also have literary merit beyond addressing a particular topic. Nick Hornby's Slam, for example, deals with teen pregnancy, from a guy's perspective--adding Hornby's signature style to the YA shelf for the first time. I'm always impressed with Hornby's ability to offer lighthearted entertainment that also takes a deeper look at life.

Speaking of which, Hornby's A Long Way Down isn't a YA novel, but with its focus on suicide, it could be pegged as a Problem Novel. It also manages to be among his funniest and most heartwarming novels. Four people meet on a rooftop on New Year's Eve, each with the intent to commit suicide--a situation which proves to be exceedingly awkward for all of them, and which bonds them in unexpected and far-reaching ways.

Another pair of books that focus on social issues in a three-dimensional way are the memoirs Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, and Tweak by Nic Sheff. Tweak offers the point of view of a young man in recovery from addiction to meth, and Beautiful Boy is his father's perspective. To read the two of them, one after the other, is a powerful experience for adults or older teens.

One thing I've never found is a novel that deals with anorexia without being a one-dimensional problem-focused novel. Does anyone know of one? What do you think about "Problem Novels" in general?

This post was written as part of the C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll call, which is running until tomorrow on Color Online, and there's even a prize involved this week! The next assignment will be posted early next week right here on Worducopia.


  1. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a book called Wintergirls that deals with anorexia - I couldn't keep reading it because it was so sad, but I know that Anderson has a gift for writing layered, complex novels. :)

  2. Slam is the only Hornby book I've read. I enjoyed it

    I always thought it was smart that Tweak and Beautiful Boy were released together.

  3. Can you tell when I visit here even when I don't leave a comment? Just curious. I really can't address the Problem Novel issue. :)

  4. Jenny, I forgot about Wintergirls! Haven't read it. I guess I should give it a try.

    Doret, I think you'd like A Long Way Down, too. I thought it was better than Slam.

    Care, If I know someone's specific city I can often tell by the Feedjit life traffic feed that they've been here, but I don't generally check that. So for all practical purposes, I only know who's been here if they leave comments. So, thanks! :-)

  5. Willow by Julia Hoban is about cutting, but it's about so much else too, not the least of which is learning to grieve.

  6. I erad The Gathering by Anne Enright. It was about a women trying to deal with her Brother's suicide and her ow issues..

    But i m sad I didn't really understand that novella at all.. Coming to think about it, i have not read any "problem" as such!

    I am not sure i will knowingly want to, but i think we need to read it at some point of time.

  7. Ali,

    Okay, it's been crazy. I need to select a winner. Will announce on Color Online on Sunday.

    Great post!