Problem Novels and Contemporary Realistic YA

Dear YA Readers:

I'm not going to begin by dissing problem novels. I have read many good ones, and I believe they have a purpose. I do, however, believe that problem novels should only be a portion of what is out there for teens to read, and I am feeling as though the problem novel is making a comeback in terms of new representations of differing queer genders and sexualities. I've come across a number of novels recently, about bisexuality, intersex and trans teens, and other such emerging identities, but I've noticed there always seems to be the obligatory scene of violence against the other. Similar to early gay YA where the protagonist or secondary character either gets ill or beat up, or dies, many of these newer books feature a character who ends up being injured in the process of coming out or upon their gender/sexual identity being discovered by peers.

While I understand that authors seem to be including these instances of violence in order to lend a sense of realism to the story, I feel that having an overabundance of such situations in YA gives the impression that to come out as L, G, B, T, I, Q, etc., will inevitably lead to some sort of violence or unavoidable negative consequence. The same goes for uses of homophobic/transphobic language in novels as a way of realistically portraying the cruelty of homophobic/transphobic individuals. The use of such language, however, also troubles many readers who hear these words being hurled at them in real life. Sometimes I think it's okay to have a book that contains challenges for characters, and references life's complexities, without necessarily including scenes of violence and/or homophobic language.

Problem novels treat a particular situation as a teaching opportunity, relying on didactic content to educate and teach readers. While I still think that problem novels do have a place, I think we do need more nuanced stories that contain rich characters and complex situations without needing to rely on such heavy handed scenarios. In the novel Switch (Davey), for instance, the bisexual main character looks up bisexuality in a dictionary so that the reader gets an explicit definition. There are moments of transphobic and homophobic language and violence that the protagonist ends up referring to in a speech to the school, where he has his "after school special" moment. I'm not necessarily against the use of such language if it serves a purpose, but it feels as though it's being used gratuitously in some of these books.

In addition to this book is a new novel on intersexuality (though I cannot speak to the specificities of the text in this post due to my position on the Printz committee next year) which contains similar issues to Switch. In many ways, I'm feeling a resurgence of the problem novel formula when it is, I don't feel, entirely necessary. Perhaps it is because many cisgender authors are doing research and trying to represent such information in novels about others and it's coming across more like a research paper, but that's obviously a huge issue to get into here. I am not engaging in insider/outsider authorship here (that would be a post or book unto itself), though I do believe that elements of that debate need to be engaged with in the context of the discussion of didacticism and "realism" in LGBTQ fiction.

What I want to know is, what are your thoughts? Since I normally only write reviews here, I don't get a whole lot of comments, but I am hoping that this post will provoke some discussion of the topic. I am open to dissenting views and alternate opinions, but I am also hoping I'm not the only one who sees an opportunity for more literature that engages with elements of life outside of bullying, homophobia/transphobia, and violence against queer individuals. Let me know your thoughts!




  1. Robert,

    I really liked your post. I was involved in a Twitter discussion a couple of weeks ago about how LGBTQ issues are handled. I am outside the culture and still ignorant and I don't want to pretend there aren't issues for LGBTQ kids, , but as a person who often discusses books with teens and booktalks all ages TO all ages, I have been looking for books where LGBTQ is not THE problem, because there problems common to all (many at least) teens that don't necessarily have to do with sexual identity and I hate for the kids to work with to see being LGBTQ always presented as THE obstacle (okay, not the right word, sorry, can't think of another right now) in the text. I do not like pedantic, I don't know any reader who does, so I COMPLETELY agree with you there. But, I do have to completely disagree with myself now and say I LOVED Freakboy, which completely focuses on gender fluidity, but it is not in the least bit pedantic (but def focused on the issue). So, I'm agreeing with you and saying we still need the 'problem' novel, because yeah, sadly, still an issue and will continue to be one, but it does need to be addressed in a less two dimensional way than the books you're mentioning do (again, voting for Freakboy, OH and Two Boys Kissing) :-)

    1. Thank you so much for your comments! I agree with you re: Freakboy. I actually really like that book. And Two Boys Kissing!

  2. This is a really fantastic post. I especially get upset when queer characters in included as secondary characters in books for the sole purpose of being bullied/beaten/killed, as if that's their only role. Things like bullying are still common, but I think authors who include queer characters need to challenge themselves to deal with those issues as separate from their queer characters' sexuality. I was bullied in school, but for being a nerd rather than being gay. I was actually never bullied for being gay.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Shaun! Always appreciated. And interesting to hear your own experiences as well.

  3. This brings up so many interesting things! Thank you so much for the @ on Twitter, I would’ve hated to miss this post.

    I like that you don't attack the "problem novel" or "coming-out" narrative itself, because like Sharon said (and like many people have been saying recently) coming out novels/novels *about* sexuality/gender are still vitally important. But bringing up a point of certain events/narratives present in pretty much ALL coming out novels... that is a really interesting and important discussion to have. I'd really like to thank you for writing about this! I'm thinking this subject might make a *great* twitchat for GayYA in the future...

    As always, however, I think talking about these things the same way for gender and sexuality does not work. They affect people in such different ways, and people see them in different ways (at least in the modern day). I also think there needs to be a differentiation of actual violence and emotional or mental violence (e.g. queerphobic language or sentiments, shaming, etc.)

    I think absolutely we need to start moving away from the "required" scene of violence. However, I think there’s really something to be said for the fact that if a character is coming out, there is probably shame and fear around their identity… and that doesn’t come from nowhere. I think there’s a lack of understanding that people are not born in the closet. They aren’t born with the shame and denial and the feeling like they need to hide. That is taught and learned. And if a character is living in something like that *especially* if there’s denial involved (which I think there is in most coming out books)… there probably is a good deal of mental/emotional violence that they’ve experienced, and will probably get worse if they start expressing their identity.

    And I also do think that there is a need for problem novels/coming-out stories for intersex and nonbinary teens (also probably asexual/aromantic), and ones that deal with violence, both physical and emotional. Because I think the experience of those things is still one of fear and isolation. And like… while I love my collection of books with nonbinary characters, I would kill for an actual realistic contemp coming-out novel about one. It would actually just be the best thing.

    Lastly, I think we do need to be careful about ticking off a list of “what it means to be [insert identity here],” but I don’t think that means all identity-related violence has to be eliminated. I think, especially, if it really looks at how that violence affects them and how they relate to their identity, there is a place for it. But the “research paper” style of writing that includes the “required scene of violence and/or hate speech” I agree, definitely needs to go.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments/feedback. I agree with you very much on all points. I think my hesitancy regarding the violence and physical/emotional/psychological trauma lies more with the fact that it seems these are always the depictions that come first. I think depictions of characters dealing with violence are just as important as those not dealing with violence and being able to represent a certain amount of fantasy about a world where there isn't a need for fear and shame. But when the representations of fear and shame and violence lead the way with each new identity included in YA, I do think it can send a negative message to teens, that there is just no way around it, that they're going to have to deal with it, which can lead to an unwillingness to come out or be active in queer communities. Again, though, I agree with you very much on all your points! Thanks so much!!


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