Why I didn’t like “The Help”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I just finished reading The Help. So many people read it and raved about it. I was always a little suspicious, but when my boss offered me her copy this past week, I thought I might as well give it a try. I admit that I liked it more than I thought I was going to. There were moments of insight and emotionally riveting sections. The maids especially tug at your heartstrings. Overall, however, I wouldn’t recommend The Help to anyone.

I am tired of reading books where white people are acting as the saviors for black people.

I am tired of reading books in which characters are either 100 percent good or 100 percent evil; people are not that plainly defined in real life. With the exception of a few minor characters, everyone in this book is either a hero or a villain. That gets very tiresome very quickly and it makes for two-dimensional, predictable characters. (Not to mention that Stockett never addresses the fact as to why her hero is close friends with the top villain. Somehow this is rational.)

I am tired of white people appropriating the voices of black people and using bad grammar and slang to do it. This is 2011, Kathryn Stockett. Your chance to be Harriet Beecher Stowe has long passed. There is, of course, the question as to whether the young, rich, white Stockett can tell these stories. She can tell them–she is from Jackson, after all–but should she? I lean toward the fact that she shouldn’t. This is an ethical and theoretical dilemma that could lead to all sorts of philosophical, critical tumbleweeds, but I’ll just say that, for me, I mistrusted Stockett’s representation because of who she was. This, perhaps, is not fair. But what, really, does 42-year-old Stockett know about being a black maid in Mississippi a full decade before she was even born? Her presumption sets a hurdle that is nearly too high for me to climb.

It is a breezy read, but it is not a new or meaningful novel. (And don’t even get me started on that lazy ending.) At the end of the day, The Help is just another book about Southern white people patting themselves on their backs for what they did and didn’t do for black people. It’s high time we stopped repeating variations of that fable.

3 thoughts on “Why I didn’t like “The Help”

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Abby, and I agree about the quality of Stockett’s writing – The Help is a far cry from literature, and it irritated me sometimes too. But I also think you’re mistaken to presume the book is self-congratulatory. Stockett isn’t presuming to tell the story of the civil rights movement and saying it’s how whites helped blacks. In telling the story of one decent white woman, a writer, she may just be imagining herself into that time and place and telling the story of how she hopes she herself would have acted. I don’t agree that she presents Skeeter as a savior – she’s a character who, for all her good will, stirs up trouble. Stockett even makes it clear that Skeeter’s motives are mixed.

    You whack Stockett coming and going. She shouldn’t write about a well-meaning white woman (were there none?) and she shouldn’t presume to understand black maids. Writers routinely appropriate other voices and tell stories through them. Other writers are free to write their own books and add their own stories. I have an African-American neighbor, a retired professional, who was so touched by the book (her mother, she said, was the help) she made a point of lending it to my wife. In fact she bought an extra copy so she could lend out two at a time. And I know another African-American woman in her sixties who actually cleans for a living – and uses bad grammar, as most uneducated people do – and who also liked it. The book was meaningful for them, and if anyone has a right to criticize Stockett, they do. When you’re knocking Stockett’s perspective, you’re knocking theirs.

  2. Amen. This was one of the few books in recent memory that I gave up on before hitting page 100, let alone finishing it, for that very reason. Left a super-icky taste in my mouth.

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