ALAN v25n3 - The Problem Novel in a Conservative Age

Volume 25, Number 3
Spring 1998

The Problem Novel in a Conservative Age

A. C. LeMieux

As a writer of fiction, I'm often asked, "Do you write about real people and situations from your life?" My response is, "Yes, frequently, though not always consciously." I just finished a book in which a group of seventh graders plays a game called "Choice," a fictional episode directly inspired by my daughter as a twelve year old. Over nachos at a local Mexican restaurant, she posed the following question to her best friend. "If you had a choice, would you rather swim in a pool filled with live worms for one hour, or be tied face to face and hung from a ceiling fan with Geraldo Rivera for eight hours?" I almost choked on my chalupa at the thought of being forced to choose between two such gruesome alternatives. Reflecting on it was almost as unsettling for me as reading "The Lady or The Tiger?"

In this book, a sequel to a middle grade novel, the main character and her best friend have moved on to seventh grade. And though I didn't set out to write a problem novel, the story grew into one, with a parent having an affair that precipitates the breakup of a family and one of the girls developing an eating disorder. It seemed to be an organic and inevitable narrative progression, a function of the characters being a year older and inhabiting the perceptually larger world of young adulthood.

One of the most important tasks of young adulthood is, I think, the development of the ability to frame deeper, more probing questions. In one of the books in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the most fantastically capable computer ever invented came up with the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. This answer? 42. But a problem remained: discovering the exact question for which 42 was the answer. This required the creation of an even more fantastically capable computer - which turned out to be the planet earth, complete with human inhabitants. I really like that metaphor: human beings engaged in a communal venture, formulating The Most Important Question about Life, The Universe, and Everything. It fits right in with my belief that one of the most definitive characteristics of human beings is an inherent inclination to inquire.

When I was in high school, working afternoons as a cashier in a supermarket, my curiosity was activated by a young man who came into the store a few times a week. I can't call him a regular customer because he never bought anything. But his behavior was always the same. Without looking at, or speaking to, a soul, he'd approach the magazine rack next to a register, tug on his lip worriedly with one hand, and run the other over the stack of TV Guides. Sometimes he'd select one, flip through it quickly, then put it back exactly where it had been in the rack. Other times he'd spend ten minutes poring intensely over the pages of one issue, replace it, then devote the same attention to two or three more, but always, in the end, putting them back and leaving the store empty-handed. I watched him over the course of two years, fascinated, and wondering "What is he looking for?"

Twenty years later, that idiosyncratic behavior and the questions it generated in me became the seed out of which grew my first ya problem novel, The TV Guidance Counselor . What I, and my 16-year-old narrator, identified with so strongly was that search, that quest, for something perhaps defying identification, but nevertheless essential to find in order to know the meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything. In that sense, writing, for me, has always been what Rilke described in Letter to a Young Poet as "Living the questions…along some distant day into the answers…."

One might think answers, in this day and age, dubbed the Age of Information, might be fairly easy to obtain. We interface with machines that can process information far faster than the fastest human brain, in quantities far in excess of the most capacious human brain. We can wander the World Wide Web, find ourselves laden with packets of data, accessed through a machine with impeccable logic, but without, as of yet, the distinctively human ability, after sifting and sorting, to evaluate this information. E-value-ate: to apply human values, name a worth, discern what is humanly meaningful from what is not.

When the theme of this conference, "Exploding the Literary Canon," was relayed to me over the phone, the first question that leapt to mind was homophonic. Did this refer to a detonation targeted at the sacred body of work by eminent children's book authors, or was it intended to convey the idea of the best books, stacked up as ammunition, ready to load into heavy firearms, and shoot at – whom? Students?

An intriguing phrase is always a trigger for the writing part of my brain to start playing. Musing a little further on a literary firearm brought to mind "loose cannons" – you have to be careful when they're rolling around on deck, you don't know where they'll wind up aiming…cannons on wooden ships, manned by the navy of a young country founded on the value of freedom… or by pirates and privateers, buccaneers and renegades.

Renegades: rule breakers. Exploders of the prescribed rules comprising a canon. In music, a Canon is a composition written strictly by the rules, two or three voices singing exactly the same melody. A different tune sung by a renegade voice would break that right up. Renegade voices: that led me back to writers of young adult problem novels.

Judging from the lists of challenged and banned books, there are a lot of people in today's conservative climate who feel they have the right, or even the obligation, to define the literary canon, and who have placed a number of authors in the category of renegade. YA problem novel writers are well-represented on those lists. I'd like to mention two books from the 1995-96 list put out by the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom because they both deal with core issues of choice, questioning, and values.

The first, Lois Lowry's The Giver , challenged as containing violent and sexual passages inappropriate for children, as well as material on euthanasia and infanticide, is a book which explores with exquisite acuity the theme of human choice, and the implications of restricting choice for a theoretical common good Lowry calls "Sameness." Rule #3 on the list given to the main character Jonas, as the community's Receiver of Memories, raises the act of questioning – an act very restricted for all the other members of the community – to an extraordinary privilege. With the clarity of a consummate storyteller, Lowry demonstrates what humanity loses when the freedom to question is relinquished.

The other book, a perennial target of challenges on grounds of racial issues and language, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird , has special significance for me. It was a book I studied with the teacher probably most responsible for my becoming a writer, my high school freshman English teacher, Sister Margaret Paula. Immersed in that story, I first encountered a living concept of justice in the unshakable ethics of the gentle Atticus Finch; I first realized the complexity of morality, and the decisions we face, and the choices we must make, witnessing, through Scout's perception, the renegade against-the-rules heroism of Boo Radley. If I had to pinpoint exactly what made Sister's teaching so effective, I'd say she had an ability to elicit from us empathic responses for the characters in the literature we read and to catalyze our minds to deeper questioning with the questions she gave us as starting points. She activated an evaluative faculty within us.

John Gardener, in his book On Moral Fiction , says, "True art is too complex to reflect the party line. Art that tries hard to tell the truth unretouched is difficult and often offensive. It tears down our heroes and heartwarming convictions, violates canons of politeness and humane compromise…. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values."

To my mind, the banning of controversial young adult problem novels serves to reinforce a most immoral precept: turn your eyes away from any problem too disturbing, too culturally unacceptable for comfort, or potentially subversive in the issues and questions raised. The danger I see in the attempt to stifle such renegade voices is that we'll foster a generation with a shrinking or atrophied ability to discern, to evaluate, perhaps even to question.

Two years ago I was in the midst of a personal cataclysm, confronted with choices I knew, once made, would have a major impact on my life. I wasn't even sure I wanted to BEGIN asking the kind of questions necessary to make these choices, or face the bottom line implications of evaluating the answers. By way of gentle prodding, a friend e-mailed me the following quote from Thoreau's journal: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."

My immediate response, indicative of the way my mind works, was to seize the quote and milk it for meaning, by way of questions: "A trout in the milk? Hmmm….. Is the milk in a bucket or a carton? If a carton, did the trout swim in through some dairy plant plumbing gone awry? Come to think of it, how big a trout? (My guess – a toddler or a teen trout.) If a bucket, is the bucket near a river? Did the trout miscalculate a leap? Do trout, in fact, leap? Or did some errant fisherper-son snag the milk bucket for a predawn jaunt, and neglect to clean it out before returning it, whereupon the trout remained as a sleepy-eyed dairyperson came stumbling out at sunrise to use the bucket for its designated primary purpose? Or – more insidious – did someone deliberately plant the trout to foul the milk? Who would do a thing like that? And more important, why? And perhaps most important of all, because it touches on one of the Fundamental questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything – How Does Life Live? – can gills process milk, are fish lactose tolerant, and is the trout belly-up or still swimming?

In my ongoing evaluation of my own writing, I often bounce passages off my daughter to gauge how well a given story strand is working. I recently read her a passage of a young adult novel-in-progress in which best friends, a boy and a girl, are exchanging graduation gifts, knowing that one of them will be going on to college at summer's end, while the other will not, because of adverse family circumstances. One gift was

A silver-plated box about the size of one of those designer boxes of facial tissues, with Kaley's name engraved on the top, along with strange symbols, runes, and hieroglyphs. I'd given the guy at the jewelry store a list of them, along with instructions he thought were completely bizarre: solder the box permanently closed.

Kaley turned it over and over, looking for the secret, pressing it on different corners, on some of the symbols, finally shrugging, clearly baffled.

"Okay, wise guy. I give up. How does it open?"

"It doesn't!" I cackled gleefully.

"I think you've finally lost it, Drew." She nodded, doing her solemnly patient imitation. "You've given me a jewelry box that doesn't open. I know you don't do anything without a reason. however contorted it might be from the perspective of a normal person. Enlighten me. Please."

I took the box from her, and held it up. "In this specially modified silver-plated box is Schrodinger's Cat. Or some such. It doesn't really matter what. Because I have given you, for graduation, a box of infinite possibilities. All the possibilities exist simultaneously as long as it remains sealed."

My daughter's response? "I like it." I imagined what my mother's reaction might be if I read her the same passage and explained the reference. Probably something like, "Well, of course it can't be alive if there are no air holes," thus completely circumventing Schrodinger's paradox. But she's not of the generation that's grown up with a casual acquaintance with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, of the generation whose young minds have the capacity to comfortably consider quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in which the observer, by the act of observation, changes reality; to imagine not only the dark side of the moon but the far side of black holes; or to encompass the notion of the simultaneous existence of infinite parallel universes in which any given scenario is enacted in all its infinite possibilities.

How does one decide on a choice given a selection of infinite possibilities? In his book, Toward a Psychology of Being , Abraham Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, cites a study done in 1935, on free choice and homeostasis – the balance of functions and physiological characteristics in an organism. A group of chickens was given a wide variety of food selections, with a range of nutritive value from excellent to poor, from which to choose their own diet. The study revealed that some chickens chose the menu items that comprised the best diet for a chicken's metabolism. Others did not. Though it might bring to mind a rather silly image – picture Foghorn Leghorn scorning pepperoni pizza in favor of organic blue corn polenta – the data from this experiment showed that the "good choosers" chose in the direction of health; and these "good choosers" became stronger, healthier, larger, and more dominant than the "bad choosers." The study also showed that, if the "bad choosers" were then fed the nutritionally good items selected by the "good choosers," their health improved.

Maslow went on to speculate that the results of this experiment held potential implications for value theory in psychology. But I don't think a strictly controlled and narrowly regimented diet is the answer. I believe for a value system to be vital and viable – active and alive – it needs to be chosen, not imposed. And herein lies one of the challenges for today's teachers – to present literature as a highly appetizing item on a menu with lots of options that are the equivalent of junk food for the brain.

Maslow also says, "The human being is simultaneously that which he is and that which he yearns to be." We are both being and becoming, with every set of possibilities we consider, with every choice we make. I see what I write very much the same way – as both actuality and potentiality, with part of the potentiality of the story stored until the reading event takes place, to be released by the mind of the reader. I hope that this potentiality, in part, contains the power to provoke, not in the sense of inciting to anger but exhorting to question. And if any questions raised by my writing precipitate an exercise in value analysis, I'll be glad to paint concentric red and white circles on the jacket, and say, "Fire away!"

The roots of the word "problem" go back to the Greek, and mean "thing thrown forward." Filtered through that translation, the word seems to me a most apt description of adolescence: young human beings hurling themselves into their own futures. How can we adults – parents, teachers, writers – hope to help them? Perhaps less by aiming them in the direction we see as best for them, than by facilitating the growth of their own ability to aim well, to aim true.

Author of Dare To Be, Me!, Do Angels Sing the Blues , and The TV Guidance Counselor, Anne C. LeMieux made this presentation at the 1996 ALAN Workshop and kindly allowed The Review to delay publication in order to include it in this issue to help define its theme.

by TG