Friday, December 23, 2011

The Help

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett

Let me cut to the chase. I liked this book. This surprises me since it is the sort of Oprah-ish novel that I usually detest. It was only a few shades above Henry's Sisters and yet I found myself blasting through 100 pages a day because it was just that readable. It certainly wasn't the best book I read this year and it won't be making any top ten lists but it managed to sit me down for hours on end, sending me into fits at points because I desperately needed to know what happened next.

Of course, the book is full of faults, some of which are inexcusable. For example, far too many characters are two-dimensional caricatures of Southern women. I find it difficult to believe that real Southern white women could be this shallow and vindictive nor do I believe that Southern black women are all so universally noble. The character of Hilly Holbrook, a white women and the president of the Jackson Women's League, is especially grating. Stockett creates a virtually unlikable, unsympathetic banshee of a women who seems to grow in monstrosity throughout the novel. On the one hand, a wonderfully crafted villain, on the other a totally unbelievable human. I dislike characters who are entirely defined by a particular character quirk and Hilly is exactly that. Her entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to provide a sounding board for the segregationist establishment in 1960s Mississippi. There is no nuance, no complexity to her character. She was simply evil. Evil to the point where I was often left wondering why she was able to acheive her status in the community in the first place, much less maintain it. Not even the most mindless drone of a person could be blind to this woman's issues. Hilly isn't the only example of this two-dimensional characterization, but she is the most blatant. There were times when I thought I was reading a Disney cartoon.

Furthermore, Stockett seems to have issues with conclusions. While I will try to avoid spoilers, the end was a travesty. There were far too many loose ends that could have been tied up. A lot of sub-plots were left unresolved, least of which involved the characters of Celia and Minny. I appreciate an open-ended conclusion but I also need a modicum of closure, especially in a novel such as this. Stockett wasn't writing high literature. There is no need to leave so much ambiguity in the end of a novel. The end should have had the antagonist with egg on her face for the world to see and the protagonists riding off into the beautiful Mississippi sunset. The novel was cartoonish from start to finish, why infuse it with reality on the last ten pages. Readers stuck it out mainly for the hust desserts. Provide them, Stockett! I'll leave that there lest I give too much away.

Of course none of this matters, I guess. Like Harry Potter or a good John Grisham story, if a book makes to turn the pages and engrosses you to the degree that The Help did for me, then you must excuse its faults and own up to the fact that it was enjoyable. The Help is most certainly a fun read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something that won't tax their brain too much. My fundamental problem with The Help has nothing to do with the book itself nor does it have anything to do with Kathryn Stockett. It has to do with its testimonials... specifically this one:

"This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill A Mockingbird... If you read only one book... let this be it." --

Now, I love me some NPR. I'm an avid listener of Fresh Air (I think Terry Gross just might be the best interviewer of her era) and Science Friday but whoever it was that wrote this testimonial has some explaining to do.

I'm not a fan of comparing good new fiction to other, older, more important literature. I don't think it's fair to the book or the author to make premature comparisons to established novels. It's a recipe for disappointment. Comparing mediocre fiction to classic literature is simply wrong. It not only sets the mediocre fiction up for ridicule and mockery but it cheapens the legacy of the said classic, even if for a few moments.

Let's put it this way: Comparing The Help to To Kill A Mockingbird is akin to comparing the science fiction film Avatar to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. While I'm not implying that Avatar was a bad film, I am implying that Avatar doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Lang's genre defining work. Perhaps, in time, it will. But it is time, not comparisons, that will determine its place. Let the piece establish its place based on its own cultural merits.

This is not a knock on critics. Unlike so many others, I understand the need for critical response to pop culture. There is so much music, literature, film and television to sift through these days that critics often serve as a cultural guide for those searching for their next cultural fix. While I would never use critical response as an absolute gauge, it does serve to steer cultural consumers in the right directions. However, critics often overstate their case by comparing (unfairly) recent servings of culture with established canon. How many rock and roll bands have suffered under the moniker of "the next Nirvana," or "the next White Stripes?" How many films have flopped because a critic said something like: "If you liked Lawrence of Arabia, you're going to love Ishtar"?


This leaves The Help in an awkward position. A potential buyer reads that it is comparable to To Kill A Mockingbird, buys the novel, reads it and discovers that it is, in fact, not at all like Harper Lee's classic (Surprise!). In fact, The Help is nothing close to Lee's compassionate take on the South under the Jim Crow Laws. Skeeter has nothing on Boo Radley. Lee created a far more subtle world shaded in all sorts of grays while Stockett has written a very readable black and white (pardon the pun) soap opera for the Oprah set. This sort of gushing testimonial colors an opinion faster than any other platitudes a critic might write. As soon as you place a book along side another, tangible book, the reader has no choice but to spent their time making comparisons they may not have otherwise made. Disappointment abounds.

I tried very hard not to let this testimonial color my opinion of The Help, but if I had, I would have shredded this book in this space. The Help is no in the same league as To Kill A Mockingbird. It's not even playing the same game. But that's fine. there are all sorts of fiction. Not everything is going to be James Joyce or Harper Lee The Help is an enjoyable read and nothing more.

I have to wonder about that reviewer for What was his motivation for writing sure an over-wrought blurb? Was his or her goal to get people to read Stockett's novel or was his/her goal to get their blurb on the cover of the book and, therefore, further their own career. If it's the latter, that's perhaps the most pathetic thing of all. The sort oftransparent, two-dimensional career advancement that Hilly Holbrook would have employed. I shudder to think of the implications of such irony.


Sharon Henning said...

A friend recommended this book and before I read it, I read the reviews. Interesting how many black people hated it. They thought it was a typical stereotype of black English (and why don't the white women speak in dialect-they're from MS too, aren't they.)
In short, I think the book is rehashing a subject that hasn't been relevant for many years-but it's exactly what Hollywood and NPR want the rest of us to think about black and white relations in the south.

Ryan said...

There is a real disconnect between the reviews and the actual strength of the novel. Like I said, I enjoyed it (I have to be honest with myself, I found myself turning pages at an extraordinary rate) but I also liked Spaceballs and that's not winning any Oscars. Hyperbole should be used very sparingly in reviews.

Fairday Morrow said...

I enjoyed this very honest review. I think it is nice to stumble upon a book that makes you turn pages quickly. That means there is something about the story that keeps you interested. The fact that you read about a hundred pages at a time says something- that despite some flaws the writing is great. I read an interview with this author that was very inspiring. She was turned down by 60 agents before the 61st signed her on. She explained what kept her going and it made me interested in reading The Help. I haven't read it yet- but I would love to read a fast paced page turner. After reading your review I plan to go out an get this book this week. Thanks for sharing!


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