The Help by Kathryn Stockett is review-proof; it has spent 50 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and has almost 2 million copies in print. Add to that the 797341283764123 book club guides and blog reactions, and there’s not much left to be said on the recommendation side. (Though you might be interested in a brief plot summary)
What remains interesting to us here at the Ape, though, is why did it become so popular? And what does that mean? Literary phenomena like The Help are as fascinating as they are inscrutable, though the The Help does seem to a trend among recent literary hits (The Lovely Bones, The Kite Runner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Water for Elephants, among others) in that while they are likely not going to enter the literary canon, they are also not exactly disposable.
In fact, “betweenness” describes much of what The Help does (and doesn’t). It is a story about what it was like to be a black servant in the South during the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s also a story of a young white woman using that story to start her writing career. It is a story of racial oppression that somehow doesn’t want to acknowledge the social consequences of race as “real”:
Lines between black and white aint there…Some folks just made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white-trash and the so-ciety ladies too.
Like the book itself, this view is both noble and reductive, aligning “constructed” social ideas with evil and “authentic” identity, like being able to cook and having a charming dialect, as “good.” This strategy allows the book to deal with difficult problems without actually being difficult, without challenging already agreed upon social ideas. Clearly, racism is bad. Clearly, classism and snobbery are bad. Clearly, friendship and affection are good. But to describe the origins of racism as “just being made up” abdicates our own role in the continuing struggle for civil rights and social equality. If racism is someone else’s “fault,” then we, the kind of people who are demographically inclined to read novels and join books clubs, are not at fault.
Stockett, much to her credit, acknowledges the problems of tackling American racism: “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi.” Still, when relating the line in the novel that she “truly prize[s],” she reveals a certain fantasy of understanding:
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.
Again, the novel finds itself in-between; Stockett recognizes the impossibility of understanding, even as she fantasizes about somehow transcending that impossibility.
Perhaps, though, this tension reflects our cultural moment. Racism is now figured as somehow in the past, but we also know that it is not gone. Reading about racism in the South during the Civil Rights Movement feels almost like a moral holiday, a reprieve from the complexity and intransigence of contemporary racism. Thus, the frustration of The Help is that while it is very readable and rich, it is, for a book about racism, unbelievably safe.
One last note. Within three weeks of its publication, Richard Wright’s Native Son had sold more than 250,000 copies and was an official Book of the Month Club selection. Seventy years later, The Help is enjoying similar, if not even greater, commercial success, and our country’s ideas about race certainly have progressed. We do wonder, though, if the same can be said about our willingness to be challenged by literature.