Monday, October 12, 2009

CORA Diversity Roll Call: The Problem Novel

For this assignment, I am asking participants to share their views on the problem novel. This assignment was inspired by an article at Justine's. I think Justine rocks. She's a kickbutt writer so when she said she wasn't always fond of the problem novel, I admit I was a bit wounded.

I work with a population that gravitates toward this sub-genre, but it's not only at risk (I really don't like this term. Note to self: find alternative) youth who identify with these works. I think sometimes we forget how confusing adolescence can be. Sometimes, young people put themselves in unsafe circumstances; at other times, kids find themselves in circumstances they have no control over or they are ill-equipped to deal with situations. The problem novel isn't designed to fix life's ills, but it can help a young person realize they are not alone and possibly find the courage to seek help or gain understanding. The problem novel is sometimes the first time a young person finds identification.

What are your thoughts? Did you read these kinds of works when you were an adolescent? Did you think they were silly or did you gain something from them? Do you enjoy them as an adult? Do you recommend them to students or other teens you're in contact with? Which titles and to whom would you recommend them? What issues or circumstances would like to see address in YA? What are your recommended best reads and which would you honestly say are poor examples in this genre?

Answer one or all. The choice is yours. To entice you and from now on, I will randomly choose a participant to pick a freebie from the Prize Bucket. Deadline is October 26th.

Leave a link to your post with Mr. Linky. Happy reading.


tanita davis said...

We were warned in graduate school against The Problem Novel like other people are warned against wearing white shoes with black tights. It was WRONG, it was BAD, it was TASTELESS. And yet, as with all of the other rules we learned for writing, we learned that rules can be broken, if you know how. If you know how to make a so-called "problem novel" not come across like ye olde ABC After School Special, and allow your characters to be well-rounded and real, then... well, you're halfway to not having a Problem Novel right there.

Problem Novels are ones which are written strictly to say "Say No To Drugs" or "Use Birth Control... Or Else." There's more to life than black and white messages, and so should there be in fiction. I absolutely LOATHE Lurlene McDaniels and the like because ALL of those kind of novels seem to be these huge dramafests about Poor Little Dying/Lost/Aborted So-and-So, and I find it hard to take those pity-girl novels seriously -- the characters seemed unreal, and it was all carefully researched subject, subject, subject. I think novels should be about People and not Issues.

But, that's just my two centavos.

Color Online said...


Thanks for chiming in.

What is your opinion of Speak or Cut or 13 Reasons Why? Are these problem novels?

Is the problem the sub-genre or the poorly written, extremes?

Color Online said...

pussboots has already posted a link. Want a different look on what the problem novel looks like, read her post.

Thanks, pussboots.

Neesha Meminger said...

Personally, I love problem novels. I hate that that is what they are called, but all my life I've searched those types of novels out because they are the ones I saw myself reflected in. Life is a series of problems and books are ways that help us see those problems in new ways, see how others might solve them, how others might have the same feelings and responses as we do, and that we are normal, healthy, sane beings living in a world that doesn't always make things easy.

Having said that, I do agree with Tanita: it's all in the way they're written. The characters have to be layered and complex, including the "bad guys," and the story and issues, themselves, have to be layered and complex. The reason we're drawn to things that are bad for us is because we get something out of it. Women stay in abusive relationships (as do teen girls) because there's something in their partner that they love, that they value, and there is something they get out of staying (financial security, not being alone, status, etc.). So, if these types of contradictions and complexities are woven into a "problem" novel, it becomes an un-put-down-able read, IMO.

Some of the novels I've loved that fall into this category are ALL RIVERS FLOW TO THE SEA by Alison McGhee, many novels about race/racism, BORN CONFUSED by Tanuja Desai Hidier, Jacqueline Woodson's novels, Dorothy Allison's BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, Sue Monk Kidd's THE SECRET LIFE OF many. Most of the ones that I would list as favourites.

Anonymous said...

I'm being misrepresented! :-) In my post I was trying to say that I used to not like problem novels, but I've changed my mind, and now not only read lots of them and think many are truly excellent, but have written one myself. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear.

Justine Larbalestier

Browngirl said...

I wish I could contribute more to this conversation but I'm just not very familiar with current YA fiction. I've only read the Twilight series and that was after the 4th installment was released. Curiosity got the best of me. Anyway, it's funny that the very novels Tanita "loathes" are the ones I am familiar with and liked growing up. McDaniel's Six Months to Live was one that really touched me. I still have a soft spot for Judy Blume's Deenie. Also, Cynthia Voigt's Izzy Willy-Nilly, about the repercussions of drunk driving, was another that resonated with me and I still recommend to young people today. As you can see, I wasn't exposed to much POC YA fiction as I was not aware if any even existed during the late 80's, early 90's. Although, I did read Morrison's The Bluest Eye around the same time and it was mind blowing coming off Voigt, Blume, and McDaniel. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with not only the much heavier subject matter, but also the layers and complexities of the story and characters that Neesha spoke about. I need you all to suggest some modern "problem novels".

Color Online said...

Dear Justine,

I did say you said "wasn't always." I did link to your post. You inspired a great discussion. :-)


Color Online said...


Keep reading here and for YA suggestions, put "Shades of love" in the search box.

As I mentioned, I read a lot of problem novels. I highly recommend Jacqueline Woodson. I will tell you, she is brilliant and I should know because I am her #1 fan. lol

Color Online said...

I should also mention I didn't suffer through the books Tanita referenced. I have read far more YA as an adult and Morrison's work while the main characters are girls, I don't believe the book has ever been marketed as YA.

Kaethe said...

I think for me problem novels are just fine, as long as they're good stories. If the publisher is just churning out screeds, well, no one would like them. But since problem = conflict, then pretty much every story has a problem at its core.

Browngirl said...

Just The Bluest Eye in particular is the only one I've ever questioned as YA fiction regarding Morrison's books. I actually, after reading it, didn't think it should be YA fiction, but that's where it lived in my public library. Back then, the YA section was relegated to a few of those spinning wire racks and that's where it was with a YA sticker on its spine. But I still feel that was probably an error on the library's part.

I'll have to look for Shades of Love and some Jacqueline Woodson books. FYI, I'm reading The First Part Last during the read-a-thon.

Color Online said...

'Shades of love' is a tag here. I try to assign it to all YA posts. but I don't always succeed.

Doret said...

I like problem novel- though I like to think of them more as realistic fiction.

Though there needs to be a story, an author shouldn't try to force lessons on readers.

I loved Nancy Werlin's- Rules of Survival

Mardel said...

I think if an author can write a "problem" novel without too much moralizing or lecturing than it's a good thing to write. Even as a young teenager though, I could tell if a book/writer was trying to jam a lesson down my throat-and never appreciated it. On the other hand, as a young teenager there were a lot of things I was worried about, or on my mind that I could never ever feel comfortable talking with my mother or father (though he was very understanding) about. It was good to know that even if I was reading fiction, the feelings or worries I had were also shared by others. That's important. Reading how a character deals with issues, makes mistakes, has consequences, or grows was always a big help. As long as an author wasn't too judgemental (like in an old series about a student nurse written by a very religious writer) it was always helpful for me to read about other situations.

K.L. Brady said...

As a writer, I am a proponent of weaving messages into stories without hammering the lesson over the readers head. So, many of the problem novels simply didn't appeal to me because I don't necessarily want to be taught while I'm reading an novel, I want to be entertained. However, if I just happen to gain a life lesson through the laughter or tears the novel generates, I feel like I'm more appreciative of the work and the lesson. If I want to be taught, I'll buy a text book.

With that said, subtle doesn't work for everyone. There are some audiences that really need to be hit over the head with a message and I think novels that cater to that audience definitely serve a purpose.

Akilah said...

Added my link.

Most well-written novels have a specific theme or message, but the thing about them is that you don't feel like you're learning. As K. L. said. There's nothing fun about a didactic novel that's hammers it to you over and over again.

My students said the message of The First Part Last is strap it up (or use a condom/birth control), but the text doesn't ever really say that. But they got the message loud and clear.

Color Online said...

Thanks Akilah,

On my way. You know, I didn't see the story as a warning to use protection though I think it is implied. What I thought was more pronounced was the reality of the other unexpected: the young girl dying. There is so much emphasis on teens having sex and avoiding pregnancy but we don't talk about teens die from things like aneurysm or single teen fathers.

greygirl said...

I never remember reading or liking "problem novels" when I was an adolescent. As an adult, I've discovered some really great ones. I don't know if this is because the quality of literature has improved, my access to literature has expanded, what is being published is of greater variety than it used to be, or some combination of the aforementioned factors.

In any event, I've got to fall in line with a lot of folks who have already sounded (is that a word? anyway...) off--I, too, prefer subtlety and ambiguity in my problem novels (though subtlety and ambiguity may disqualify it from that category according to some people). I cannot stand the Beatrice Sparks novels "It Happened to Nancy" and "Go Ask Alice".

Some of my favorite books and/or authors include: almost anything by Angela Johnson (she's BRILLIANT!), specifically, "the first part last," "Looking for Red" and "bird"; "When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune" by Lori Aurelia Williams; "If You Come Softly" by Jacqueline Woodson; "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson; "Kendra" and "Tyrell" by Coe Booth; "Falling Snow" by M. Sindy Felin; and "Bang" by Sharon Flake. Sorry for the repeats--but I thought they bore another mention.

Doret said...

Susan, my Roll Call is finally up. Though the pics are slightly heavy to one side. I may tweak it later.

Color Online said...

Thanks, Doret.

Akilah said...

Susan, we also decided that the message of First Part Last is don't have sex because you'll die. Since that's what happened to the mom. After she had sex and got pregnant.

I'm being facetious, mostly, but it was in the book.

I agree with you, though, about the unexpected. They just felt it was definitely a "don't get pregnant" book because being a teen parent is HARD.

There is another book out there about a single teen father: Hanging on to Max (I haven't read it, though). And then there's Nick Hornby's Slam, which is about a teen dad's experience.