• Dysfunctional Family Lit 101

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 8 comments

    I thought I’d write about editing today, but Thanksgiving inspired me to write about “dysfunctional family lit.” Reading about someone else’s family, real or fictional, can feel cathartic when you’re dealing with your own.

    Below is a list of my personal favorites from the genre, minus works by Jeffrey Eugenides and David Sedaris. They make almost every literary dysfunctional family list (Google search “dysfunctional family lit” and you’ll get plenty of results), whereas people often forget about pre-twentieth century authors who painted destructive family dynamics as anything but quirky.

    The first three novels are just that–“classics” about dysfunctional families that haven’t lost their edge over time. The last two novels are my modern favorites (I threw them in for good measure). However, if this list is too heavy-hearted, I’d go with Naked or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by Sedaris. They’re lighthearted, clever reads that are best read when you’re not too pissed off at your relatives.

    Wuthering Heights

    Emily Brontë’s classic novel isn’t just about Heathcliff and Cathy’s star-crossed love–it’s also about the cyclical nature of abuse and “breaking the cycle.” I’m not sure if Brontë set out to write about the latter two themes; they weren’t being discussed clinically at time, to my knowledge. One thing is pretty unanimous among critics, though–Emily Brontë was ahead of her time for exploring the generational effects of spousal and child abuse.

    Jude the Obscure

    In 1895, Thomas Hardy shocked readers with his rendering of social taboos. The protagonist, Jude, falls in love with his cousin Sue–but that’s not what outraged readers. Jude and Sue live together, unmarried, after she leaves her husband, and she and Jude have children together. (Gasp!) However, today’s readers might find their story disturbing for other reasons, especially in how their social outcast status affects their children’s lives.

    The Brothers Karamazov

    Freud was fascinated with Dostoevsky’s novel, if that tells you anything. The book has Oedipal undertones without the incest (the “mother” figure is the father’s lover, so it’s a little less icky). Patricide, love triangles, alcoholism, sibling rivalry–The Brother Karamazov has the full gamut of hard issues, plus Dostoevsky’s trademark philosophical and theological themes. Good for stimulating your mind while listening to your uncle go on about NASCAR.


    Reading Carrie is an intense experience, much more so than watching it. Stephen King’s first published novel is raw and unnerving; as I read it, I felt real empathy for Carrie. Unlike the movie, in the book you learn about the mother’s backstory and the bizarre relationship she had with Carrie’s father. King wrote Carrie in epistolary form from the perspective of the townspeople who knew her, and the extreme narrative distance shrouds Carrie’s home life in disquieting mystery.

    The Poisonwood Bible

    (I promise you I’m not part of Oprah’s Book Club. Sometimes she just picks really good books.) Barbara Kingsolver’s novel takes place in Belgian Congo/Republic of Congo during the 1960s and 70’s. Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher, uproots his wife and four daughters from their home in Georgia to do missionary work in the politically unstable Belgian Congo. Price sacrifices his family’s happiness and physical well-being to remain in Belgian Congo despite the turbulent leadership crisis and military coup. Kingsolver writes gorgeous prose, and she portrays the Price women’s ambivalence towards Nathan and each other skillfully.

    So what about you guys? Let us know your favorite family dysfunction novels below.


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

    0 0 votes
    Article Rating
    Notify of

    Newest Most Voted
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments
    Justine Tal Goldberg

    There are defintely some Faulkner titles that offer some good old fashioned family dysfunction. Bruce Machart’s “The Wake of Forgiveness” comes to mind, too. (And how.) Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty.” Oops, and can’t forget Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.” You know, mother jumping off Chicago skyscraper while holding on to her kids. Fairly dysfunctional.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    FYI, the comment above (and this one) is from David, who is using Justine’s computer but didn’t bother to check under whose name he was leaving the comment. So direct any/all above-comment-related vitriol my way.

    As you were.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    “Catcher in the Rye,” “Franny and Zooey,” “Nine Stories,” really anything Salinger/Glass-Family-style.

    Raise your hand if you think David should favor his own damn name and get his filthy paws off my computer. Anyone?


    I love Faulkner…Light in August is one of my favs. Are the titles you suggested short stories or novels?


    Hmmm…Medea, the entire Oedipus trilogy, Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury…Okay, pretty much anything written by Faulkner….That goes for Stephen King, too…James’s Portrait of a Lady…for that matter, James’s What Maisie Knew…Okay, pretty much anything written by Faulkner…Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a pretty screwed up brood…Oh no, we haven’t even delved into Dickens, George Eliot…Okay, I’m just going to go with pretty much anything written by the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, any Victorian author, Faulkner, Stephen KIng, or Henry James…That should cover it.

    Laura Roberts

    Aren’t all families dysfunctional? Like the Tolstoy line from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, as far as I can tell, is fraught with dysfunctional families. And I’ve only read halfway! I love David Sedaris’ stories, since at least he can make dysfunction seem funny. Another super messed-up family? LOLITA. I’ve got a copy of We The Animals waiting for me, as well, which is supposed to be semi-autobiographical AND dysfunctional. I think Tolstoy probably had it right. There are many, many ways of being messed up. It’s… Read more »


    Russian authors sure know how to write about dysfunctional people and families :) We The Animals sounds great–I put it on my reading list.

    David Duhr

    We have two copies, if you wanna grab it next time you’re here.

    Laura Roberts, let me know what you think of it. I’ve read the first couple of pieces, and enjoy them, but have never been able to gather enough momentum to continue on.

    And I say “pieces” because that book is a story collection, no matter how they package it. Story collections don’t sell, so they call it a novel. They call “Novel,” I call “Bullshit.”

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x