We Just Can’t Avoid The Help

The Help UK Cover

This book will not just quietly die.

We first were notified about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help back in 2010. A few readers asked us if we had read it. If we had heard the NPR interview. One blogger, Onyx M, started a critique blog. We’ve been silent for a while on the book world – outside of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, we haven’t reviewed a book in a long time. Probably because the stack of books that people have sent in still teeters on my desk. And all of the books are good, so they deserve a thorough discussion. But stealing time away to read a book, analyze it, and write about it doesn’t come easy.

And that process is even harder when one enters a book with as much trepidation as I enter The Help. Now that ads for the movie adaptation are all over TV, it’s time to go ahead and put this to rights. I have a new book review format that may help with timeliness. Now, if I can only get over my reluctance.

Even skimming the reviews makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit.

The Huffington Post checks out the controversy, noting:

Writing for Ms. Magazine, Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” The Christian Science Monitor notes the same problem, wondering about the “decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped ‘g’ among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.”

Still, the Monitor and others generally seem to find that the novel rises above these flaws, and others don’t see them as flaws at all. In The Washington Post, Sybil Steinberg finds that one of “Stockett’s accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue.”

Why do I get the feeling that Steinberg’s idea of African American vernacular and a linguist’s opinion on the matter would be two entirely different things?

Over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, Trisha R. Thomas puts up a review of The Help noting:

It’s true that readers are a narcissistic bunch. We find the characters who most resemble us and our thoughts to agree with, cheer for, and feel for in their deepest pain. We celebrate their victories as our own. The Help tells an honest story of women taking a chance and stepping out of old beliefs. You can’t help but love a story when the ones you care about win in the end. Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now. Would a black author have experienced living with a maid all her life and know the life of Skeeter, Abilene, or Minny? I don’t know about you, but my only care giver was my mother and the public school system. I’m black, an author, and could not have written The Help. We are who we are. This novel struck the nerves of both black and white readers. It especially hit mine remembering my first novel and being judged as not “black enough” What did I know about nappy? How dare I write on the subject at all? I soldiered on, ignoring the critics. I wrote what I knew to be true from my experiences. We write what we know. If we’re lucky, we do it well. Judging a book by it’s color has to end somewhere. We have to be the change we want to see in others. Open minds mean open pages. The door needs to stay unlocked for all of us. Freedom to write whatever we want. Freedom to read whatever, whomever we want.

Thomas brings up a good point – of empathy and honest storytelling. One does not need to have the same experience as a character to be able to identify with them. There are many books I love, stories of people I am not. I loved Oscar Wao, though I am not Dominican-American or from Jersey. It spoke to me anyway. I loved Free Food for Millionaires, though I am not Korean-American, nor did I go to college, nor do I work in finance. Spoke to me anyway.

But there is a difference, I think, between allowing yourself to embrace lives and experiences not ones own and being forced through what is essentially literary waterboarding. Thomas mentions the Secret Life of Bees as a book she enjoyed – I didn’t make it all the way through the book. There was something about being repeatedly plunged into the character of Lily, but being kept arm’s length from August, June, and May was aggravating for me. This didn’t happen when I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird – but perhaps it is because Scout’s world started white and stayed white. She merely observed what was happening most of the book, and did not act as an agent, until far later. In some ways, I found that less condescending. Mockingbird is still problematic, but in some ways, for the same reason I enjoyed it – it used scenes to describe what was happening to the black characters, instead of trying to recreate their voices in an extended, intimate narrative. I remember that my thoughts kept straying while reading the Secret Life of Bees – how Lily’s actions were dangerous, why she was so reckless when the lives of others could be on the line, what was going on in the minds of the other women? I kept drifting away from the character, my own experiences, past readings, and thoughts keeping me from sinking into her. So in that way, Lily’s narrative was like a straight-jacket I couldn’t escape from.

I think that’s my hesitancy about The Help. I have read stories where white authors can convincingly craft characters of color. When they do it well, I forget who is writing. But I generally that is not the case. I used to hate reading Patricia Cornwell writing black characters in her narrative. They were generally jerky side characters, and did things that were inexplicable to me, like “unraveling [their] long dreadlocks.” After I read that line, I spent hours trying to figure out what the hell she was trying to say. Did she mean braids? Unraveling was a weird word. Did she even know the difference between dreads, braids, and twists? It’s these little jarring moments that remind me that a writer is creating a world, and that world may not actually include me. James Patterson is better with Alex Cross. His portrayals were a bit lopsided at times – I remember the whole “blood and bones of my ancestors” speech in one of the early Cross novels that had me also perplexed. The way many white writers discuss and interpret racism is just straight up different – and it’s rarely ever subtle. Whereas reading Benilde Little’s Good Hair, the protagonist is trying to confront her white boss about favoring less seasoned white reporters over her without setting off the angry black woman alarm. Needless to say, she presses her boss, but race doesn’t come up in the actual conversation. Too risky. Just like in real life. Your boss may be racist, but you are the one dealing with the consequences.

This isn’t to say The Help does any of this – I can’t judge a book I haven’t read, full stop.

But I am not really looking forward to the experience. I hope I’m wrong, and we’ve come to a point in America where a white woman can write in a real authentic way about race, and other white women will love it, not because it’s been “properly translated” but because it allows them to access their thoughts and memories of a time in the not-too-distant past. Maybe this is a way of healing. To admit that things were fucked up and white women did their share in perpetuating that while still being oppressed by white men, and as we acknowledge this part of our pasts, we can start shaping our present and correcting for the future.

Then I read “Ten Issues that Tarnish the Help” (complete with citations from the text) and realize that I’m going to need a big bottle of wine for this one.

  • http://bytheirstrangefruit.com StrngeFruit

    Perhaps more related to a previous Racialicious post (http://tiny.cc/zeq55) that is now closed to comments:

    As we watch the trailer for the upcoming movie, it illustrates who this story is about, and to whom it is being marketed. We see seven white faces before any of the main black characters appear, 30 seconds into to clip. The ad has a few short moments of dialogue for the black characters, surrounded by a dominating white narrative. The producers make clear their priorities for who gets to tell this story, before we have even entered the theater. (http://tiny.cc/txw7n)

  • Jadebabi88

    you know if i was white i probably would read this book and enjoy it.. but i am not so i can not

  • Pingback: My Problem With “The Help” « Imagine Today

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure how this plays into the racial issues, but I thought it was weird that the book treated the publishing of the book inside the book as the end.  I felt like the book spent a lot of meandering time with Skeeter and then just when it was getting interesting (everyone up in arms about the book; what ends up happening to the maids who become associated with the book) the book ends.  I don’t know exactly how to articulate it, but I felt like the arc of the book was off, and I think part of that was because of centering Skeeter.  For Skeeter, the publishing of the book was the big deal.  But she didn’t really have to deal with the consequences.  And then the book just ended without really exploring the consequences.  I mean, the immediate consequences were described, but it just felt rushed and cut off and like the boring middle ate up too much of the book. 

  • Anonymous

    Oddly enough, the trailer for the movie didn’t seem to skimp on the white Southern accents. Hopefully it’ll do a better job? (I’m not counting on it.)

    Another thing to think about is that a person probably reads and writes standard written English with their native accent in mind. The “g” would automatically be written but silent to her when spoken. Which is a blind-spot, undoubtedly, but one that’s pretty common with majority dialects of a language.

  • http://mondaysbaby.com Monday’s Baby

    I thought about this a bit more last night. Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised that Stockett’s work is given more credence, more publicity, etc. In Black Looks: Race and Representation bell hooks devotes a chapter to how black people interrogate and view whiteness. She mentions that in some of her undergraduate classes, white people were always very surprised to find out that they could also play the role of the other. Quoting hooks: “In these classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc…white student respond with naive amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where ‘whiteness’ is the privileged signifier. ”

    So, maybe this information is easier for white people to digest when it’s presented by someone who is also white. Less guilt; less discomfort with being made “The Other.”

  • Anonymous

    Talk about a nice way of “thanking” the help. Compare ‘em to cockroaches! 

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    Latoya,

    Many thanks for the link in your article. My blog, A Critical Review of The Help has been blowing up ever since. I mean, I woke up to find the stats were sky high!

    Just wanted to say that I know some people will read the novel and wonder what all the fuss is about. They’ll even laugh at the jokes and self effacing humor coming out of the mouths of the primary maids, Aibileen, Minny and Constantine.

    What many don’t realize is that lines such as  “Don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” , “Spoilt Cootchie” as well as the characters mangling the english language have a historical precedent. Bigots used demeaning slurs such as blacks being immoral, that we were illiterate and that we carried as well as spread venereal disease in order to block integration.

    My blog has links and information so that no student need be embaressed when their teacher assigns this novel (and it has been) and that student needs a rebuttal if they didn’t enjoy the book.  

    I made sure to research the same newspaper Kathryn Stockett used, the Clarion-Ledger. In many of my later posts I have screen shots of actual citizens as well as links to other non-fiction articles that referenced the ignorant and malicious gossip being spread during the dark days of segregation.

    I do realize the book is not the movie. But the movie is based on the “Sensational Bestseller” as the trailer states, and while its my understanding the movie has changed much of what was in the novel, there’s no way to change the book.
    It’s still being sold, still spreading a depiction of the black culture that imho is demeaning and offensive.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/Y2O6KUC4OOE3AWBZCBJDYUWSEQ SweetieBear

    This reminds me of that time when the only to get an award in”Do the Right Thing” was a white guy and “Driving Miss Daisy” won best picture that same year. White folks getting all nostalgic for “the way things used to be” is nothing new. What’s worse is when they get to rewriting that they actually gave a damn  when more likely they were, at best, patently disinterested and at worst, downright supportive of the status quo. It makes me wonder if this race thing can ever be resolved and it sure isn’t for black folks lack of trying.

  • http://twitter.com/blankettegirl tentativelyfrank

    Thanks for your article. I think it is worth reading, but there are definitely MANY problematic aspects to the way the book is written, which I go into at more detail here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2010/12/kathryn-stockett-help.html

    That said, I do feel the movie will correct many of the problems in the book.

  • Ike

    Wait, this is not the story of two black lesbians who adopt a white kid? Damn cover lied to me!

    • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

      I would’ve bought that book!

    • Ladyguerita

       you can’t judge a book by it’s cover but can darn well judge it from the title.

    • Anonymous

      That would have made great book club reading material. :) 

  • I_Sell_Books

    I work in a lefty Feminist bookstore and 3 of us loved The Help.  I’m the only POC here and I didn’t have a problem with the dialogue, but my (white, Jewish) boss did.  She feels that white people shouldn’t write dialogue, full stop, while I don’t care so long as it’s readable.  Keep in mind, too, that the main character is white and has just returned home from college – no doubt she’s edited those Southernism out of her own language, just as the author has, and presumably edited out the rest as a matter of course (then again, I’m an unpublished writer and am probably making assumptions). 

    The movie, on the other hand, looks like crap, even though it stars Viola Davis as Aibileen.

    I don’t think this is spoiler-y at all, but just in case:

    SPOILER

    Stockett mentions in her end note that The Help grew out of her  childhood and adult experiences as her own family had a maid.  If I recall rightly she felt guilty that she herself had never kept up with the maid’s life even though (in her child’s mind) she was a beloved member of her family.  A case of (white?) guilt perhaps, but for me the book feels like she is trying to make reparations to that maid (which, judging by the lawsuit, has not worked).

    END SPOILER

  • Mocha

    I’m in total agreement with Mona with promoting the book, but right now it’s not only everywhere it seems but it’s on the lips of people I know. “Are you gonna see that movie “The Help”? when it comes out?”

    No. No, I won’t. But I wrote about it myself a few weeks ago on my blog and pointed out the very same disappointments that you mentioned. And Mona is right: I also posted other books to read that haven’t gotten the backing of publishers and bestseller lists – because they can’t. They think no one wants to read those. Isn’t a former maid suing Stockett because she used her likeness without her permission? If she had written it herself would it have been published?

    The whole time I listened to it on tape I had a bad feeling and struggled through it because I felt like it was going to get better. It was impossible to detach myself from reality and immerse myself in the book because it was just so horribly biased. There’s not one black family member of mine who would ever compare herself to a cockroach. Really? That was just over the line for me. 

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    Why am I having “The Color Purple” flashbacks to that “Will you be my maid?” part?

  • Val R.

    My question is why do Black actresses take roles like the ones in this and in The Secret Life Of Bees? I know that it’s especially hard in Hollywood for Black actresses but is it so hard that they can find major actresses like Viola Davis to play in this? Sigh.

    • Banji Lawal

      People need to make a living.

      • hmmm

        so thats why its okay to sell your soul for it.

    • Anonymous

      Could be the promise of an Oscar Nomination. Now wouldn’t that be a surprise? /sarcasm 

      That’s the only way you get an Oscar as a black woman in this business. 

  • Mona Pily

    Here’s  my question: why feel the need to read the book at all?  Rather than inadvertantly promoting a book that is disappointing in its representation of people of color, why not seek out and promote those books and writers that depict experiences that fall more in line with something you do identify with?  As a reader of this *awesome* blog, I’m far more interested in learning about new things to read.  On first glance at the book synopsis for The Help, I rolled my eyes and left it on the shelf. (I initially picked it up because I thought it might be about Latina domestic workers. Silly me.)  It just looks awful, as in sentimental drviel and not particularly well written. The film trailer is no different.
    I think it’s perfectly normal and okay not to want to read The Help.  And I’m not gonna.
    And as far as expecting a white woman to write in a real, authentic way about race, it looks like Ms. Stockett has, as far as her experience will allow.  Her version of race is mostly likely not going to ring true to someone with actual melanin in their skin.   As individuals we identify with the stories and characters that make sense to us for whatever reason, not because someone writes them specifically for us.  Example: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao resonated with me way more than anything like The House on Mango Street ever did for a number of reasons, race notwithstanding.

    I think it’s good to be aware of what’s popular, and maybe hazard guesses as to why a particular book like The Help resonnates with popular culture.  But books like that aren’t the only option anymore.  We can choose to ignore things that don’t hold our intellectual interests. We have that power.

    (*Love* this post, btw!)

    • Figarophillips

      I think the reason posts like this are necessary though at the very least to warn other readers who might otherwise be tempted by the hype or otherwise, to signal to readers who were alienated by the book that they are not alone in feeling that way.

      Racialicious does have a lot of posts on artists of color, culturally sensitive works, etc. as well. 

  • http://www.meetup.com/Philly-BBW/ Phillyplus

    I’m reading it now.  There are books I read just for the escape – I turn off my critical eye,
    get immersed and I forget everything else.  Then there are the books I
    read for the pure joy of the language and the artistry.  Hopefully, a
    book will be so well written that my critical eye will have just as much
    fun as the escapist.  This book isn’t so well written but I have been able to
    escape in the reading.  I have had a huge problem overcoming the dialect the author chose for the black characters. My womanist sensibilities are all messed up – a white woman telling black women’s stories!  I couldn’t hear my grandmother or great aunt’s voices in it because she just get’s the sounds wrong most of the time.  But I am actually enjoying the book. 

  • Kate

    This review totally confirms why I have not been able to bring myself to pick this book up, even for an overseas flight.  It just had wrong written all over it.
     
    On this topic, though, I have a broader question (as a writer and a white woman) — CAN white writers write (phew) authentic characters of color, and if so, how?  Personally, I can’t write about an entirely white world if I’m writing what I know, because I’m a white woman with a black partner and a multiracial family.  These are the themes that generally appear in my writing.  Nonetheless, I’M still white, and can only know my own inner world, so I often ask myself if I have the ability, and/or the right, to write of the inner worlds of characters of color.  But leaving them out doesn’t feel like the right solution either.  Stockett hasn’t gotten it right (and as Latoya says, most white authors don’t). 

    Is it enough, or at least a start, to talk honestly with friends/colleagues/loved ones/people on a blog, who can provide firsthand perspectives on the experiences of characters that I don’t share?  Is that act of seeking advice on characters of color from POC something most white writers are simply afraid to do, or think is unnecessary?  (Or dare I say, don’t think about at all…which is definitely the case for a lot of white folks.)  Or is there just a fundamental disconnect that can’t be bridged in fiction, and can white authors, as a general rule, only write characters of color that appeal to white readers?

    • MichelleToo

      I am convinced that White women….let me start over….I don’t agree that one’s sexuality, race, gender, socio-economic background or ethnicity make them incapable of writing complex characters with backgrounds vastly different from their own.  

      The trick of it is that as artist’s you always have to find the area, however small, where you and the character are one.  And then navigate through the differences as you glean valuable information about the character.  

      I do think that privilege, White, male, hetero…any kind of privilege can impede that journey.  But it is not impossible nor even improbable.  It is just so easy to rely on stereotypes.  In essence, people can be lazy and get away with it.  Which I think has happened in the case of The Help.

      I think the answer is to always challenge oneself to find the essential humanity of their characters.  Look if a woman can create a world of wizards and witches all seen through the eyes of a growing teenage boy, well…..

    • Anonymous

      I pretty much agree with MichelleToo, it’s not impossible. However, doing it with full regard for the people interwoven into the story is necessary lest you find yourself in Stockett’s position. 

      I think this has been covered on Racialicious before. There are good examples of white writers who have written very inclusive stories or stories that feature prominent non-white figures. 

      But I do believe some stories should be off-limits, like certain cultural property. Just out of respect. Never assume you are the first to want to write a certain story. You don’t have a right to all stories. No one does. Some are just not for you and some you wouldn’t be able to understand. In the case of “The Help,” I feel this woman would have been much better to encourage one of the descendants of these women to pen are much more humanizing and honorable tale. Or she could have actually looked up any of them or their progeny instead of taking it upon herself to write their likeness however she saw fit. 

      Or being far removed from that time period, she should have seriously questioned what these women endured and really reflected on their words. All I know is that if I grew up with a nanny, a woman I likely spent 3/4 of my time with compared to my mom I would never compare her to a cockroach. You don’t take people for granted like that. 

      So I really think it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. 

      But you can most certainly create non-white characters. It isn’t impossible. I think it depends on several things. One being why this person in this particular story. What is their significance at this point in time? It may not even be related to his/her culture/race. But if it is, there should be a wealth of knowledge out there to inform you. And if you can’t draw from real life experience or your research still leaves something to be desired then I think you can ask other writers, friends, family, and peers for help. 

      But it’s good that you’ve asked because many people, even non-white people writing characters outside of their racial/cultural group, should have these concerns. 

  • http://twitter.com/RVCBard RVCBard

    Personally, I don’t see why I need to read a book about something I can, y’know, ask my family about.

    • honeybrown1976

      I read the book. I wish I didn’t. It’s a fantastical take on a very serious time. Ugh! Brain bleach.

  • http://twitter.com/RVCBard RVCBard

    Fuck wine. I’m gonna need whiskey.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IGJI54A2GQPPW4HKNU5BGU7E7I Marie

    I haven’t read it either and don’t plan on it. A friend of mine got it from the library and hated it. But my problem with the publishing industry (whole other subject I know) but why not publish and strongly market a book written by people of color. Really I feel it’s still people really want to know what we think. My grandmother used to take care of white children and household back in the day. And if she wrote the book, she would’ve written, I hate you  and your kids but I have to act like I love you because my own kids are hungry.

    • Ladyguerita

       I would read that book!  The fact the title is called “THE HELP” is a warning sign. 

    • miga

      My dad recommended The Help to me, because he said it reminded me about his mom’s story as a maid.  I couldn’t get through it for many of the reasons listed in this article…and when I told my dad that he said: Yeah, it took me a while too.  It sounds like a white woman’s idea of how a black woman’s supposed to sound- at times it was stilted, and rubbed me the wrong way.  
      My grandma became good friends with her boss though.  They ended up being old friends, and the lady spoke at my grandma’s funeral.

  • AJ

    I can’t believe I forgot they’re making this into a movie. Wait…yes I can because I clearly remember how far my unease went while watching the trailer. Now I’m off to repress some more.

  • Anonymous

    I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that blurb on the cover caused a cacophany of crickets on my end.

    Ms. Latoya, what gallon of wine shall I mail to you?

    • Anonymous

      Please note, that cover is the UK version – the US version has some fucking birds on a line – mofos, let’s just be real about this. You called the book “The Help.”

      And some 2 buck chuck from Trader Joe’s will do nicely. Cheap and easy.

      • Digital Coyote

        I’m just glad they weren’t crows.

      • miga

        Ya know, Latoya…if you ever need someone to read your books for you…and drink your wine…..I know a woman with lots of time and sobriety on her hands ;)

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, what is up with the US cover? Totally prevented me from reading the book. 

  • Anonymous

    I have no plans on reading this.  I, like you, threw up in my mouth a little when the accolades were first coming out.

    This made me LOL a little: “Would a black author have experienced living with a maid all her life and know the life of Skeeter, Abilene, or Minny?”

    Um, “Skeeter”, “Abilene”, and “Minny” were my grandmother, and I think I probably knew her _real_ life better than the children of the white family she cleaned house for. 

    • Anonymous

      Thank you! Skeeter, Abilene, and Minny were my maternal aunts. lucky_bamboo, I felt the gauntlet was thrown down when I read that statement.

  • Adavisbd

    I cannot wait to read this review. I’m just gonna put the popcorn on now.

    I listened to The Help first and then read it (all for free) – problematic from jump and exhausting.  As much as I love Viola Davis (and need to see her working) the only way I’m going to see this movie is through theft.

  • Banji Lawal

    I was looking for part two of the review of The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao and could not find it.

    • Anonymous

      Oh man, I never actually finished it…I think the draft is still in there…

      • Banji Lawal

        I really liked your review.  I think I enjoyed it as much as the book.

  • Ciolaw

    I hated the book.  It was patronizing.  I intensely dislike the idea of black women using a white woman for their voice.  Just like the protagonist in the book.  She does not care about the help.  She cares about herself.  I also found it upsetting that the one black person who was interested in writing a similar story was killed within the book.  Great job and how convenient.  This should have never been made into a movie.

  • http://twitter.com/NomadiCat NomadiCat

    Wow, I’m doubly excited by this post. Racialicious does The Help *and* a new book review format! Thanks for all the links in this post– I’ve never heard of White Readers Meet Black Authors or A Critical Review of The Help or their #100voicesrespondtoTheHelp, and I plan to spend the rest of the day catching up on both.

  • http://www.adventuresinbabywearing.com/ Stephanie Precourt

    I am so thankful to come across this as I haven’t been able to finish reading The Help. I was really starting to feel uncomfortable and was wondering why I hadn’t heard more praises from non-whites about the book. I’m glad you spoke up. I’d really love to hear what you think of it if you do read it!

    Steph