Have you ever heard of the Problem Novel? According to Amy Pattee’s (n.d.) blog about Problem Novels, this genre presents a hot button social issue, explores it from various angles and leaves the reader to make his/her own judgements in the end. Jodi Picoult is a master writer in this field.
I have read many Jodi Picoult books that would fit this definition. “The Tenth Circle” deals with sex. It’s hard to imagine a more touchy teenage topic! Picoult has you squirm in your seat as she wields her words, weaving a web of deceit and mistrust. What causes what in this seemingly cause/effect story? The problems paramount as infidelity matures into murder. Where does it stop?
Problem writing can be dark. Picoult brings the reader to death’s door, and sometimes even allows you a peek inside. Amy Pattee mentions the book “The Girl in the Box” (1988, Joy St. Books) as an example. In this story a girl is kidnapped and placed in a cement cell. She never sees her captor or anyone else, is given water and only barely enough food for sustenance, has to use the bathroom in a plastic bag, but [apparently] has a typewriter and plenty of paper to document the whole experience. As I read Pattee’s description of this problem novel, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for authors exploring the deepest corners of thought. Ouida Sebestyen, author of “The Girl in the Box”, created this cement cell in his mind. Then he lived the horrors of this girl by imagining her feelings, fears, hopes, and actions.
What makes problem novels riveting is their realistic nature. The events and situations within these tales are only as captivating as they are imaginable. In Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle” the daughter of an adulterer is date-raped. As it turns out, the perpetrator is the young girl’s ex boyfriend. The teacher of story-telling knows that every tale must present a problem. The line between “Realistic Fiction” and a text being a “Problem Novel” lies in the intent of the text. While a Problem Novel would fall into the category of Realistic Fiction, in that it is believable, the all-consuming problem of the story has the reader completely wrapped up in constant conflict. You are reading ONLY to find out the answer to the problem. And, be forewarned, the better the Problem Novel, the less likely you will be provided a solution!
This reminds me of my “Controversy Can Be Classy” project. The concepts that Picoult presents would be considered controversial, because of their reasonableness. Yacek speaks of a controversy as being “alive” when it is believable in his paper, Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He explains that both sides of a problem must be a realistic solution. This is where the masterful writing of a good Problem Novel comes into play. The more realistic the problem, setting, and characters, the more empathetic the reader will be.
Have you read any good Problem Novels? What might attract someone to read this genre? Why would an author choose to write this type of book? How does reading a Problem Novel help you?
Pattee, A. (n.d.). YA or STFU: Got a Problem with Problem Novels? Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/ya-or-stfu-got-problem-problem-novels/#continue_reading_post
Yacek, D. (2018). Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues. Journal of Philosophy of Education,52(1), 71-86. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
3 thoughts on “Problematic Writing”
In my course on The Problem of Evil, we read a good deal of books where the main character is Satan, or some version thereof. Students are forced to struggle with the fact that many times it is humans, and not some external, supernatural element, that are responsible for evil in the world. Often great evils: rape, torture, genocide. One central aspect of the struggle comes with the fact that if the devil, or some supernatural agent is in fact responsible for this evil, then humans, logically, cannot be blamed, and are in fact innocent. What then becomes of eternal punishment? What of eternal reward? Christian students, or thos with a Christain background, upbringing or system of belief, struggle with this mightily. Especially if they have been raised Evangelical, because it flies in the face of eveverything they’ve been taught. This is not true for all, but enough to make generalizations.
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This is an interesting thought… Here is more fuel for the fire: In traditional Christianity, as I understand it, every human is sinful, until saved by grace. I thought of this when you mentioned “innocent” humans. Are they faultless or manipulated by the Devil? Are they his tools (vessels), but he is the one actually responsible (in the minds of those students)? So many interesting questions and thoughts. I never thought about exploring (mixing in) theology. It seems like nowadays authors don’t touch this topic, but it was all anyone wrote about historically! Thanks for getting my cognitive wheels turning!
I think, for some students, they understand that the devil may tempt us, but often fail to make the follow up connection that sin is not devil’s fault but our own acquiescence to that temptation. Sure, the devil may suggest; but at the end of the day it is when we say, “You son of a bitch! I’m in” (to use a popular meme. That’s the difference between free will and “the devil made me do it”, which implies some lack of control on the part of humans.