I’ve been thinking a bit about the difference between a “problem novel” and a really good book. Someone once asked me if I was planning on writing any more “problem novels like Pink”, which rather astonished me, because I was under the impression that Pink was a funny, nerdy chicklitish sort of book, not a problem novel at all. But some people have classified it as that, because it is about sexuality (amongst other things). You could say that John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is about a girl with cancer. This immediately makes it sound like a problem novel, to go on the shelf next to the one about the girl with the eating disorder, the boy who gets cyber-bullied*, and the girl who has an abortion.
But that isn’t where this book belongs, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.
There is a girl with cancer in TFIOS. But the book is so much more than that. It’s about all sorts of other things, things you would expect in a John Green book. It’s about love, and introspection, and video-games, and death, and the meaning of life (or at least humanity’s search for a meaning of life). It’s funny and irreverent. It’s about literature and the power of made-up stories, and the inevitably fallibility of the people who make them up. It’s beautiful and sad and I couldn’t put it down.
I think what makes a problem novel a problem novel is that it’s only about that one problem. The book lives and breathes its issue, and its characters are just vehicles for exploring that issue. Some of these books are produced from a genuine desire to help teenage readers, others are preying on the adolescent desire to be shocked. There is a place for both kinds of books, and I don’t want to suggest there isn’t. I loved the problem novel as a teen, devoured it alongside my old friends the Doorstopper Fantasy Tome and The Babysitter’s Club.
And I also hate the distinction between books that are just generally entertaining, and Proper Quality Highbrow Literature. But for today I’d like to distinguish between Books That Are Just Fun To Read and Books That Make You Think About Lots Of Things.
I like both. I’m certainly enjoying devouring lots of regency romances at the moment, and they don’t usually make me Think About Lots of Things (there are always exceptions). That’s one of the reasons why I like them – it’s a great way to wind down when I’ve been spending all day with my head in my PhD.
But occasionally you will read a book that does Make You Think About Lots Of Things, and it isn’t necessarily a Great Classic. It might be funny. It might be romantic. It might have a pink, sparkly cover. It might be a picture book. Or A Doorstopper Fantasy Tome*. Or it might be John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
And you will read the book. You may laugh (I did). You may cry (I did). You will live in someone else’s life for a little while, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
And you will be changed. You will put the book down (with only a slightly guilty look at the pile of things you should have spent the day doing), and you will Think About Lots Of Things.
This, to me, is the very best kind of book.
*don’t get me started.
**it is unlikely to be a Babysitters Club book, but you never know.