iUniverse blog, after listening to a recent radio serialization of “Ruth” by Elizabeth Gaskell on the excellent BBC Radio 4 Extra station, thought it very fitting to take a look at that difficult but provoking book genre-the social problem novel. The social problem novel is a work of fiction in which a current social problem, such as gender, racial discrimination, or class prejudice, is dramatized through the way the characters in the story are affected by it.
This genre first came to light in the Europe and the United States in the mid-19th century. Ruth (1853) is an early example, which depicts a humane alternative to the “fallen woman’s” usual progress to social ostracism and prostitution during the period. Gaskell, along with Dickens, were two of the leading English Victorian exponents of the genre. Also we should not ignore two great early French authors of social justice novels, Emile Zola’s 20 books that constitute the series Les Rougon-Macquart (1871–93) and the topical Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo.
The American Way
Turning to the US, one of the first examples is, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the novel that made slavery impossible for America to tolerate any longer. It’s an extremely emotive read, a tear-jerker, and a shocking observation into one of this country’s original sins. It is still banned in some schools today because of its use of the N-word, but nevertheless it remains a powerful and illuminating exploration of the human dimensions of slavery in America.
Another classic of the genre is “The Grapes of Wrath”(1939) by John Steinbeck. This tale of one family’s struggles during the Depression years epitomizes the era. The main characters, the Joad family abandon all that they have and make their way from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life — but find that the playing field is continually skewed against them. Given that we are currently recovering from the recent economic downturn, this is the perfect time to read this classic.
Other leading American exponents of the genre, and brilliant writers, are Arthur Miller, Upton Sinclair, Harper Lee, and the more contemporary James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.
iUniverse Publishing says that in setting out to write that “social justice” novel and become a published author, it is worth noting that usually a social problem novel limits itself to exposure of a problem. A personal answer may be arrived at by the novel’s characters, but the author must not insist that the solution in their particular book can be applied across the board or that it is the sole solution. Also bear in mind that most social problem novels derive their chief interest from their novelty or relevance.