Problem novels, issue books, and moralising

The problem novel is an art form almost as old as the novel itself — it turns out that people really like using art to explore social issues. Dickens wrote a number of them, of course, Steinbeck was a fan, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was an enduring classic. I bring up these heavy hitters by way of pointing out that the problem novel — also sometimes known as an issue book or social novel — is not a new thing, and that some ‘classics of literature,’ said with a snooty look down the nose, are actually, at their heart, plain old ‘issue books.’

You’ll note that the antipathy for young adult fiction means that serious adult grownup books about social issues are problem novels or social novels, and they’re often widely praised for their searing examination of the human condition or blah blah whatever. YA, on the other hand, is reduced to an ‘issue book’ of saccharine heavyhanded moralising that’s just a total slog, and why do authors have to pretend it’s necessary to impart serious moral lessons when they could just tell stories?

Contemporaries tend to be tagged as ‘problem novels’ most often, in part because the format lends itself to it, whether they’re exploring social issues (The Female of the Species, The Truth About Alice) or personal ones (Wild Awake). But fantasy, science fiction, and everything between can take on social issues. Because we live in a society, and it has issues. And one of the ways we delve into those issues is, uh, talking about them. Which is good! We should be talking away about all those issues, and youth are just as interested in these issues as the rest of us.

But ‘issue book’ is said with a certain kind of sneer, often by adults who think YA is vapid and meaningless to begin with, so we don’t get to have a conversation about a good old fashioned problem novel versus a book that contains annoying, preachy, pointless moralising. Like, for example, a book I read recently but won’t name that was actually pretty good, in that ‘I don’t think I’ll read this again but it’s okay’ sort of way, until suddenly, bam, the final chapter unleashed Problems, and in the spate of a few pages I got teen pregnancy, drug use, police violence, and racism dumped on me like a confusing cold shower after I’d been meandering through a pretty unremarkable book that actually didn’t have much to do with any of those things.

Here’s the thing: I have read some outstanding novels featuring all of those things, sometimes at the same time. Hilary T. Smith’s A Sense of the Infinite, for example, handles abortion really deftly. These books are amazing books. They are great works of writing with explorations of society woven through them. There’s nothing heavyhanded or hamfisted or clunky about them, yet some would likely lump them as ‘issue books,’ sticking them in a dismissive pile with moralising stories.

So what makes a book an excellent problem novel, and what makes it just another preachy, obnoxious moral lesson? (Adults: Don’t delude yourselves into thinking that adult fiction is magically immune to this problem.)

The key thing, for me, is how the social issues are integrated into the text. Do they run throughout as an integral part of the story, a steady background hum that interacts with the plot in a meaningful way without overpowering it? Or are they stuck in randomly in order to send some sort of message to the reader, good or bad? Two books about the same subject, like, say, a teen raped while at camp, can come out very, very differently depending on how they are handled and how the story is told. A good author and a good editor can tell when they’re on the right track. Other times…not so much.

Of course, not everyone is in one to one agreement on what makes a good problem novel and what doesn’t, and when a book succeeds and where it doesn’t. I, for example, hated Exit, Pursued By A Bear, because I thought it was clunky, awkward, moralising, and obnoxious. Other readers absolutely loved it, and it got a great deal of critical acclaim. Similarly, I thought A World Without You was disablist and abominable, but it again got a great deal of critical acclaim. Both books overlapped with my own experiences, but they didn’t tell stories in ways that I felt were deftly (and in Revis’ case, responsibly) written. Other people with similar shared experiences felt differently. That’s the magic of books and reading, that everyone can interact with texts in totally different and distinctive and wonderful ways, and there is no absolute ‘this book is good or bad’ to it.

But I get irritated when books are unreasonably elevated just because they’re problem novels, as though people who don’t like them just aren’t sophisticated enough to get the deep social commentary involved. I also, conversely, get annoyed when books are trashed simply because they deal with social issues. I love escapism and fun books that don’t have much to do with the world as much as the next person, but I also live in the world, and I want to see how other people live in it, and how they deal with the things I deal with. It’s why I keep coming back to outstanding works of fiction, adult and YA, contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and beyond, because there’s always more to get out of them. Being problem novels is in fact one of the things that makes them so good — my abiding affection for The Sparrow has as much to do with the questions of colonialism and first contact and faith and love and chosen family as it does for the characters and plot, just as I love re-reading the Gemma Doyle Trilogy for conversations about queerness. Anyone who says they hate ‘issue books’ is suspect, in my eye, because the problem (so to speak) isn’t the problem novel, but how the problem is handled.

Image: Jackie Treehorns, Justin Kern, Flickr