Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Helping Yourself

I've heard the arguments about Kathryn Stockett's The Help--that it's pandering, trivializing of the Civil Rights movement, and especially that there's something squicky about a white woman writing a story like this, where colorful black folks are given their power and their voice by a non-racist white lady.  Most of the things that I've hard in those conversations are factually true, and I can't argue with them.

The HelpBut I have to say, I'm enjoying the book.  I think its redeeming feature is the fact that it's not trying--not at all--to be an insightful discussion of race or the Civil Rights struggle.  It doesn't claim to be the Great American Novel.  It's not literary fiction--it's popular fiction. 

This is a mainstream, feel-good novel about women being friends and touching each other's lives.  It's a Fried Green Tomatoes book, a Ya-Ya Sisterhood book.  By setting it in an historically important, tense, pivotal time--and by filling it with lists of cultural touchstones like Bob Dylan and To Kill a Mockingbird and Medgar Evers (which, to be fair, took place within the context of the story)--the author gives the book more of a promise of heft than it really earns, which opens it up to the criticism it's received.

I'm not the first person to say this (although many of them are talking about the movie).  Not even remotely.  It's worth linking to the New York Times's take on it.  I really don't have anything to add to the argument, except that I agree that the book tells a very narrow story--the experiences of a few women--and that some of the treatments are, if not actually icky, then almost shamefully naive.

But I'm enjoying the book.  And not just, I think, on a white guilt level, but also on the kind of level where I'm pretty sure everyone will get what's coming to them.  (Note: I'm about halfway through, so these predictions aren't spoilers.)  It's soothing, like all feel-good stories are--Skeeter will get published, and Aibileen will find her voice and justice will be served and the bad guys will come to nothing and poo on them.  This is a book about the schoolgirl cruelties of adult women--not the true viciousness that people are capable of.  It's not about racial problems, it's about suburban ones.

The more I think about it, the more I think that it does overreach, and that there's some irresponsibility in--I want to call it "opening a can of worms," but then there's my problem.  The phrase itself is kind of dismissive, kind of ugly.  If you want to write a book that ISN'T profound, is it right or wrong to let it anywhere near a powder keg like race in the '60s in Jackson, Mississippi? 

Ultimately, Stockett wrote the book she wanted to write, and succeeded enormously at what she was trying to do.  The fallout is about whether that was a worthy, respectable, respectful thing to do, and whether all of us who are reading it and enjoying it are cretins or racists or both.  If the book hadn't been so enjoyable, no one would ever have asked the question.

1 comment:

Linden said...

I like your take on this book. When you're finished, go back and read what you wrote - you will find that you made an unintentionally very funny joke...:)