Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help”–Better as a movie script than as a book?

After trying to purchase the audiobook and getting the book itself by mistake (a gift for my mother a year or so ago), I finally took it upon myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s book about an aspect of civil rights in the American South of the last mid-century, The Help.  I was curious as to why so many people, most of whom I knew had feelings and politics on the correct side of the civil rights question, seemed lukewarm about the book.  Why, hadn’t it been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by more than one of the reviewers?  Wasn’t it a genuine effort to capture the voices and sentiments of the women who worked as maids and nannies for the southern white supremacists?

Well, the voices weren’t the problem, as it turned out.  The voices, once one got over that rather ordinary reader’s annoyance with having to follow a dialect, a perplexing dilemma from Mark Twain on up, the voices, I say, were a delight.  They seemed genuine, and insightful, and heartfelt.  Once I hit my stride with following the dialect and spelling, it was far less troublesome than Mark Twain himself, and I got into the rhythm of it, eager to read more of what the women had to say.

But the truth is, since reading the book, I’ve realized that no, it isn’t like Harper Lee, who was writing more or less at the same time as some major civil rights changes were arduously making their way onto the scene.  Harper Lee’s book was courageous, whereas unfortunately, as popular and right as The Help is, it’s got a much larger choir to preach to, and by that much is the more run-of-the-mill.  As my brother put it, “It’s been done before, been done better, and I guess I have to say I’m just tired of seeing yet another privileged white slowly clue in to what’s at stake.”  He wasn’t talking about Kathryn Stockett herself, the author, I don’t think, but about the character of “Miss Skeeter,” who helps the maids publish their book so that the world will know what actually goes on from their point of view in the houses of their white employers.

This is why I think that the book quite possibly is better as a movie, though I never thought I would say that about any book.  I’m planning to see the movie to verify my impressions, but somehow I think that once the topic is as mainstream as this one is, a movie is the proper venue for it.  This is a form that allows people to congregate in a public space and share what they (by this time) almost certainly all agree about, which is the uncontestable opinion that civil rights is an important and valid endeavor with which to engage and something that has a continued reality and force whose ever rights we’re talking about.  And if there are some who don’t agree, in all likelihood they will be shamed into silence by the internal logic of the characters’ modest demands, though they may possibly continue to defy public opinion in private.

While I realize that this book has become the darling of book clubs all over the country, I would just ask this question about its literary quality:  is there that sense that the author had to pay the penalty of serious insight in order to write it, or is it a little flimsy, a little thin?  Though To Kill a Mockingbird is uplifting in the end, there is a sense of genuine penalty paid about it, a feeling of tragedy and at the same time a feeling of being borne aloft.  Though the intentions of The Help may not have been exactly the same, what penalty is actually paid by Miss Skeeter for what she does?  She goes to NYC and becomes a writer, at least that is what is predicted of her future.  She escapes the consequences of at least some of her actions, and though her mother is dying, for some reason this is not played upon in the same way we can imagine Harper Lee using it.  It’s instead a sort of “feel good” book.  So, maybe this is a good book-to-movie script, but after all, let’s not exaggerate and compare it to something it cannot reach to.  It’s a well-written, workmanlike bit of writing, which follows all the rules and touches most of the bases, but it’s not a great American novel.  It’s enjoyable seeing the white supremacists–particularly a real bitch named “Miss Hilly”–get their comeuppance, but it’s important to remember that the challenges that were there when Harper Lee was writing are far less now than they were then, and by that much exactly is The Help the lesser novel.

It’s still worth reading, however, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period and in the stories and feelings of the ordinary people who stood in the shadows of the great integrationists and civil rights leaders, for they too have their stories, real or imagined, and this is a capable imagining of some things we know from other documents to be true.  I did enjoy the book, and we can all use some reinforcement of what we already believe to be true, as long as what we believe is on the fair side of things.  But we should also find books that enable us to be challenged in the fair things we have difficulty believing at first, in the things which provoke our imagination to allow us to grow closer and closer to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.  It is only then that we can award the highest accolades to a work of art and place it in the pantheon of great works.

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13 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

13 responses to “Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help”–Better as a movie script than as a book?

  1. Richard Gilbert

    An interesting assessment, Victoria. Thank you. I have not yet read the book, which is also famous for how many times it was rejected by agents. About that story, what I really want to know is whether, for most of that, the book was really ready. Hard to believe it was rejected over 100 times or whatever in its current and movie-worthy form.

    • Hi, Richard. I have also to thank YOU for the information about the number of times it was rejected. It’s an “okay” book, I don’t really know what the rationale would be for rejecting it, unless the editors shared the lukewarm commitment to it that I’ve noticed among some of its readers. But it’s interesting to know, anyway.

  2. I’ve read a scathing review on a book blog and stayed away from it ever since. I think the person who wrote it had a problem with the use of the vernacular. I think she was from the South. I’m not sure. Your review makes me interested again. I’m curious to hear whether the movie is better. There are books like that, which work much better as movies.
    I was surprised how much scorn Stockett got from the society of African-American women historians (can’t remember the exact name).

    • I’m interested to hear that a society of African American female historians disliked the book. Of course, Stockett did take a certain risk, and she’s aware of it (mentions it in the book as something that crosses her character Skeeter’s mind), and that’s the risk any white person takes when attempting to write about the American slave experience of black people in the South. Styron also got heavily criticized for writing “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and yet I didn’t think he’d done a really bad job of it. But then, with the best will in the world to try and understand, I’m still just a white person from a state that split off from the South during the Civil War and went with the North, and many people I know from that state still consider themselves to have southern ties, thought I myself don’t. But whether you think that an act of imagination is sufficient to itself if one has a good enough will or whether you feel that only people of the same descent or ethnic group have the right to write about their group’s sorrows and travails, Stockett’s book was just not quite “there” enough. I want to see what the African American actresses make of the roles they have, and also how the white roles are handled, which is why I still plan to see the movie. Thanks for your comments: you many times contribute interesting info I wasn’t aware of!

      • I didn’t want to withold the information but I simply couldn’t remember the blog where I’ve read about it and now I found it.
        It’s very interesting and I was also glad that they included a list of books one should read instead of The Help. http://amckiereads.com/the-real-help/
        the link to the historical society I mentioned should be on her blog as well.
        I started a PhD on religion in the literature of Haiti and one of the major struggles was that I’m white and that people felt it was indecent to study “their” literature. Not exactly the same topic but similar.

      • I would be very sorry to hear that people of color feel as a whole that it’s wrong for white people as a whole to study their literature, because I just started reading someone whom I’ve heard of as highly acclaimed, Edwidge Dandicat, and I think she’s Caribbean African American, though perhaps that isn’t the correct designation for someone from the islands of the Caribbean. So far, I’m reading “The Farming of Bones,” and I think it hits where Stockett’s book misses, but I wonder whether it’s quite fair to say that it’s because one is white and one isn’t, because that leaves out of account the effort of imagination that went into Dandicat’s work as well, and the many magical moments that she constructed as a conscious writer. It would be a sad world indeed if we felt that no one at all could by any effort of the imagination ever transcend their own roots, but instead could only write about their own daily treadmill of existence. It’s a problem that requires serious thought. I thank you for the link, though it may take me a while to read some of the books recommended. I’m sorry that you felt unwelcome to write about the literature of Haiti, but maybe you could work on what you want to write with someone else (or a couple of someone elses) whose turf it actually is, and receive part of the credit for an group independent study. It might be quite enlightening.

      • I gave up on my PhD a longer while ago. For many different reasons.
        I studied Danticat – she’s actually Haitian.
        I haven’t read Farming the Bones but I got it here. She was one of a very few writing in English and 99% of Haitian Literature is written in French or Creole.
        I bought her memoir recently, which sounds really good.

  3. An understandable assertion that Lee fought against ingrained prejudice when writing TKAM, while Stockett wrote a similar-train-of-thought story when the idea of equality is more readily accepted. Do you think it has something to do with the belief that you have to ‘suffer for your art’ to truly make something great, be it a novel or painting or music piece?

    • Well, I wouldn’t want to insist that people, real people, “suffer” for art, but something riskier than just repeating what’s been done before needs to happen before it can be perhaps considered real art. It’s not a bad book at all, very humorous in places, but there’s a sort of lack of creative tension (and I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that term, but TKAM has it quite definitely). This has situational and dramatic tension, but not creative tension, not something which calls for a similar act of creativity on the reader’s part to meet it halfway. I may be talking through my hat, but I just think this book is sort of middle-brow and full of expected moments, not that it doesn’t take a good idea and run with it, but that it’s a sort of one-trick pony. But even a one-trick pony can have its good points, which is why I’m planning to see the movie.

  4. I’ve never heard of this book and your point ‘While I realize that this book has become the darling of book clubs all over the country, I would just ask this question about its literary quality’, is one I struggle with whenever I see a book that is on the bestseller list.

    • Yes, I can understand that. While one doesn’t want to be an elitist, one must have certain standards for compositional quality, and the good topic alone cannot pull the weight of the whole book, style and the rest of the bag of tricks literarily speaking count for a lot too.

      • The BBC did a book night a few years ago but instead of pushing readers into more challenging books they had a programme on bestsellers and why people read them and then a programme straight after on the three most popular genres…naturally nothing was mentioned about more literary books as that would put people off…I mean they’ll release a film at some point right?

  5. Yes, I too hate to be cynical, but it’s hard to get a good popular discussion of literary quality these days. This book had a grasp of voices which I could see being transformed into a lot of good dialogue in a script, which was part of the point of my remarks, but it wasn’t a heavyweight literary challenge.

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