S4L Book Club – The Help

The Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) criticizes The Help, claiming that “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”

There is a response to this criticism of The Help here, but before you read it, what is your response to the ABWH’s open letter?

As a white woman, I wondered throughout the story what African American women were thinking as they read it. I would love to have a more diverse group of readers chiming in here. I have no doubt that different people will respond differently to the story, and plenty will resent and take offense at part or all of it. I can imagine white southern women resenting how shallow and mean their counterparts in the story are drawn. Everyone, of course, is entitled to an opinion.

As a writer, though, I think the criticism is weak. I think it expects too much of a single story. It seems to be asking that the story include a more complete portrayal of the life and times of black women in the service of whites in the 1960s and claiming that anything less is a disservice to those women.

If the book were claiming to be an exhaustive nonfiction portrayal of the people and subject, I would have to agree. But it’s not. It’s a work of fiction exploring and illuminating a small part of a time, a place, a situation, and people that have been explored many times before and will continue to be explored, from many perspectives.

People are complex. Personally, I think it’s impossible to fully understand all the factors that contribute to feelings and actions and situations. I certainly don’t expect a story to acknowledge or address them all. I’m not sure I’d want to read a story laden with such a burden. What a heavy, dense, and slow story that would be.

If a failure to include every contributing factor is reason to condemn a story, then every story ever written must be condemned.

I can see where omitting a factor can be problematic and worthy of criticism, but it would have to be an ever-present, highly-influential factor that is blatantly ignored, like ignoring the long hours of daylight when telling the story of a giant cabbage grown in Alaska. Sexual harassment of black female servants is certainly a highly-influential factor, but was it ever-present? Did every black female servant experience it? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I think it’s fair to show Aibileen and Minny as two women in service who were not sexually harassed by white men. I don’t think we get to know any of the others well enough to know if they were or weren’t. I would assume some were. In fact, when the story of Constantine’s fair-skinned daughter came up, I expected to learn that she was Skeeter’s half-sister. The story didn’t go that way, but it could have.

Or maybe this is precisely what Stockett wants us to think. Maybe that’s the background story, but it is never addressed directly because Mrs. Phelan refuses to acknowledge it. Maybe her dismissal of Constantine and her daughter is a ruse covering up an even more embarrassing situation. Hey, readers bring their own perspectives and imaginations to a story.

Instead of criticizing what the book doesn’t include, I think it’s more appropriate to ask whether what is included rings true. Are any claims or situations blatantly false?

The ABWH describes very well the bigger picture of the time and place and people, but to demand that a story encompass that bigger picture is wrong. I think it’s more appropriate to expect the book to fit within that big picture. Let other stories tell other parts.

In the final paragraph, the ABWH says, “In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”

Even if this is true, so what? Is there not room for this story in the arsenal of literature about this time and place and situation? Isn’t the perspective of a white protagonist trying to make sense of her life by contrasting it with the lives of the black women around her valid? And not being a black woman herself, isn’t her perspective bound to be influenced by myths?

There seem to always be problems when writers attempt to write about a culture other than their own, but different cultures overlap and intertwine. I would venture to say that it’s impossible to write a story without writing from different cultural perspectives. Am I really supposed to write stories only about white middle-aged women? If I cannot write about another culture, then I probably shouldn’t write about men or children, either. Should African American authors be limited to writing about only black characters?

I think a sincere effort to be accurate and sensitive when writing about a different culture is necessary, and I think Stockett made that effort.

I think it’s great to bring these ideas up while discussing the book, and I’d love to hear in more detail where the ABWH finds flaws and how they’d choose to write the story differently, but I do not agree that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” because of the “lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”

I thought the maids risking their lives and livelihoods to tell their stories was, in fact, civil rights activism, and their experiences were anything but trivial.

What do you think?

Categories: Reading

10 replies »

  1. Not having read the book — yet!– I can’t comment on the ABWH position. However, I am compelled to say that I am enormously impressed by your brilliant description of the writer’s point of view (or points of view). It is good to have one’s thinking pushed past that first, perhaps trivial, thought! Keep up the good work — and keep inspiring me to think more!

  2. I hope you will read it. It was Shelly’s recommendation, and I really enjoyed it.

    My motivation in starting a book club here was to think more about books and all the things books address.

    I’m grateful to the ABWH for leading this particular discussion and giving me something to think about. Maybe someone there will see the link back to them and come play.

  3. Your thoughts/arguments are spot-on. Your discussion was exhaustive and impressive. WOW!!!

  4. I think its certainly fine to wish a book had given more attention to a certain issue…but I think that’s different from criticizing a book because it didn’t tell the story the way you (and I mean that generally, not you specifically) wanted it to be told. Telling the story is the right of the author and she can bring anything to the table she wants.

    I completely agree with you when you mention it would be different if this were intended a be a nonfiction piece. I also really like your comment about looking at the appropriateness of a book, and if it rings true.

    I’d read the criticism about this book before – thanks for getting me to really think about it!

  5. You know, I find I do my best thinking by writing. That’s another way I related to Aibileen.

    Some author said something to the effect of “I don’t know what I think until I write it.” That’s true for me, too.

  6. Jen – I just finished reading Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan. It is a quick little gem of a children’s book, about writing. If you haven’t read it, I think you’d enjoy it.

  7. Ok, here it is: i fell in love already at/ with the first sentence of this book The Help. I still struggle to understand the text since it is written like in a talking manner, I just do not know all the words, but I get the feeling, the mood and the content. I had to see the film, so I did. i am still reading the book, becaus it is a though one, and I mean the content is though! So I read it bit by bit. I had to 🙂 go to a painting class this weekend and will finish the Script Frenzy Comic/ Grapic Novel of mine at April 30th. Then I hope I will talk about this book. So I am slurking a bit, again, sorry. But I stitch on a medival bookmark, so ther it is!

  8. @Amy – Oh, thanks for the recommendation! I’ve enjoyed many Patricia MacLachlan books but do not know this one. From the description, I think it’s going to fit right in with today’s post and question. It’s times like this when I wish I lived near a library and/or book store. I know the library has it; I’ve already looked.

  9. @Harriet – AHA! Of course the dialect is going to be hard for you. (If you don’t know, Harriet is Norwegian. English is her second language.) I wonder if the audio book would be as difficult, if the accents would muddle the words too much or make them clearer, as they do for me.

    And what about the history? How much do you know about the civil rights movement in the US, and was there something similar in Norway? What are the racial and cultural minorities in Norway?

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but will add it to my Netflix queue.