Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: a Reflection

By now, 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.


  1. Dear Ape, thank you for articulating some of my unformed thoughts on this novel. I read The Help with a sense of discomfort, even as I admired the attempt, often successful, at navigating the tricky racial boundaries of this book. All along, I found there was an element of fantasy in the deep chasms of race and class that the characters in this novel were supposed to have closed. Based on personal experience, I think it is a little too early to congratulate ourselves on a post-racial society...

  2. I hear you. I meant to mention in the post that the novel ends just when things are about to get really interesting; the book has been published and the most sympathetic character is out of work and will be actively persecuted by the white matriarch of the town. Now THAT would have been interesting...

  3. I held off reading the book...racial issues are too volatile for me, and it's really disruptive to the rest of the family when I sit and yell at the book I'm reading.

    I did have the good fortune to go to a signing recently and I found Kathryn Stockett to be genuine, soft-spoken, and really funny! I read the book with trepidation, but will read her next book.

  4. It is interesting for you to compare those books. As a reader I can see exactly why the books you mention become best-sellers - they are all original, gripping books with a fantastic story to tell. It is so hard to find books which tell a good story, without being too light or packed with literary elements. I wish that there were many more books like this, but it seems as though it is very hard for authors to manage it as they rarely get it right.

  5. Very good essay!

    I'm hopping around finding new blogs, visiting old favorites, and spreading the word that I am giving away A Small Fortune on Rose City Reader. It's my first-ever give away, so I am excited about it.

    I signed up as a follower.

  6. I like your review on the book although I have to say, I am one of those thousands who did like it. I gave it a 4/5 stars and included it on my list. But I am just an average reader, and I guess, that's who she is aiming for.
    Anyhow, I'm glad I found you through the hop. Have to check in for your recommendations. Stop by my blog sometime:

  7. Book Quoter- I should say that there was much about the book I liked, and I can understand why so many people are reading it. Stockett does well with characters and her sentences are fluid. My point was to try to look beyond the pleasurable elements of the novel to see what ideas informed the story.

  8. Skip, this book was a big hit with my book club. I decided not to blog about it, however, because I grew up in the South in the 50s and 60s and found (1)the lines in The Help too clearly drawn and (2) the characters, both good and bad, too archetypal. I felt at the time that it might be disrespectful to the opinions of my group to go so public with my concerns. I enjoyed reading the book for its sheer readability, but couldn't say it added anything new to the conversation. Thanks for your review!

  9. Dear Ape, just hopping over, and found your review of The Help. It's a brilliant review, my own much lighter review is here:

    I read this for my RL book group here in The Netherlands.

  10. Just hopping by - hop on over to The Wormhole!
    Happy Reading – have a great weekend!
    I have heard a lot about this one - I haven't read it yet, but I plan to got to it this summer.