You Got a Problem With That?

I’ve gotten into two discussions recently — one real, one virtual — where people discussed and mostly disparaged the “problem novel.”

What’s a problem novel? Answer: nobody really agrees. I mean, it’s hard to find a novel without a problem, right? But the term was indistinguishable from young adult fiction when I was a teenager. You have to understand that the 70s and 80s, amazingly, didn’t have a lot of paranormal/fantasy fiction for teen readers. (Basically because teenagers just read the paranormal/fantasy novels in the grown-up section.)

About the only thing I think everybody agrees on is that problem novels have “real” problems that kids face — bullies and broken families, as opposed to undead hordes and post-apocalyptic game shows. Where we disagree is whether the problem novel also entails other attributes: that they are preachy and moralistic, that they deal with mundane problems instead of more serious ones, that they aren’t character-driven, that they are morally unambiguous, that they are relentlessly downbeat. While I agree that any of those qualities can make for a lousy book and that all of them are true of some books from the era, I’m not convinced that any of those things have been a standard of any genre of young adult literature since the days of Horatio Alger, and I bet there are more non-examples than examples (Paul Zindel, anyone? Judy Blume? Paula Danziger? Isabelle Holland?). Aside from the pseudo-memoir novel Go Ask Alice, I actually can’t think of any notable books from my teen years that was really over-the-top with its sermonizing, and even that one is at least character-centered (after all, if the purpose of a book is to show the harrowing calamities of bad decisions, they have to be driven by the character’s bad decisions).

And while I certainly agree that the term “problem novel” has become pejorative, I think it conveys an assumption that teen books of the last century were typically fatuous and less realistic, daring, or relevant than books now. And I don’t think they were. That’s not a slam on books now, just a defense of the so-called problem novel era.

I seem to be in a minority, though. Why, even Roger Sutton of The Horn Book speaks dismissively of the problem novel era. What do you think? Were teen books all that bad back then, and are they that much better now? Am I just too sentimental about the cozy melodramas that shaped my teen years to see their failings?

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