Taking on the Reviews for The Help

Posted on December 4, 2010

1


The rush by many reviewers to crown The Help as a feel good, crowd pleasing take on race relations with authentic sounding dialect never materialized for me.

I can’t  figure out how some reviewers read the book and totally missed sections that should have been caught (like Skeeter, on Pg 277 saying Medgar Evers was bludgeoned).

But even with the differences of opinion on the novel,  it’s not Kathryn Stockett’s fault that affection or dissent on the book has taken on a life of its own. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering where all this criticism was during the showering of accolades phase for the book.

So do I.

UK Cover of the Help

And also how many reviewers even failed to note the criticism brought up by not only those in the black community but white readers, especially since the author gives voice to two main African American characters. I doubt if it would have been overlooked if the Jewish, Hispanic, or Asian community voiced similar complaints. Perhaps it would have been easier to spot then.

Far too many reviewers ignored the very passages I’ve pointed out on this blog.  The passages are there for all to read. It’s not what was really “intented” to say but what was put on the written page even after numerous edits.

I do note that some reviews are finally including the dialect controversy.

From Bookmarks Magazine

“In writing about such a troubled time in American history, Southern-born Stockett takes a big risk, one that paid off enormously. Critics praised Stockett’s skillful depiction of the ironies and hypocrisies that defined an era, without resorting to depressing or controversial clichés. Rather, Stockett focuses on the fascinating and complex relationships between vastly different members of a household. Additionally, reviewers loved (and loathed) Stockett’s three-dimensional characters—and cheered and hissed their favorites to the end. Several critics questioned Stockett’s decision to use a heavy dialect solely for the black characters. Overall, however, The Help is a compassionate, original story, as well as an excellent choice for book groups.”

Compassionate and original? Maybe to some who haven’t read Showboat, Imitation of Life, and a few other novels that have an author “Writing while black”.  The problems within the pages of The Help make the dialect controversy just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve got an earlier post where I discuss some of the disturbing images and blunders Kathryn Stockett resurrects here:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/the-biggest-blunders-kathryn-stockett-made/

So this post was a long time coming, but here it goes:

First up is Jesse Kornbluth,  with one of the more passionate reviews  and whose initial review of the book  and second post (where he discusses it with a commenter) are listed below:

Reviewer Jesse Kornbluth, Editor of HeadButler.com. Cross posted in the Huffington Post

Excerpt:

Smartest of all, Stockett has downplayed the horror that was Mississippi in 1962. Back then, it wasn’t just Medgar Evans shot in the back outside his home, it was the leaders of state government defining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as ”Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons and Possums.” And more, and worse.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/is-the-help-more-than-a-s_b_333448.html

 

Yes, He almost had me up until “Medgar Evans”

The man’s name is Medgar Evers. And after well over a year of both posts still listing the erroneous spelling, I really think it’s time to correct it (the original review was posted on 10/29/09 on Head Butler.com and cross posted on Huffington)

Why is it important that the man’s name be right? Because he was tireless activist for civil rights. He gave his life for the cause.

Say for example, I wrote an article for Huffington and spelled Robert Kennedy as Robert Kerney, it would have  been quickly caught and edited.

Even as articulate and detailed as Kornbluth is about the book, seems its easy enough to glide by Stockett  as Minny giving a far reaching assessment on African American males:

Plenty a black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We got the kids to think about. (Pg 311)

Wonder if it had been written like this:

“Plenty of Jewish men leave their children behind like trash in a dump” or “Plenty of White men leave their children behind like trash in a dump” or well, I think by now if you haven’t got the picture, you do now. 

The “black” character is making a sociological assessment during a time period where black men were routinely forced to grovel and grin just to stay alive. Until finally, their protests against this mistreatment were heard:

I AM A MAN

 

After reading enough of Stockett’s interviews, it’s clear both Leroy, Minny’s husband and Clyde, Aibileen’s “no-account” spouse are based on Demetrie, her grandparent’s real life maid’s husband Clyde AKA Plunk.

One man became the basis for the behavior of several African American males.

That’s not to say there should not have been an African American villain. There were real life examples of African Americans who spied on civil rights activists and reported their findings for monetary gain.

The problem in the novel is, either a black character is sugary sweet (Aibileen) or grumbling “sassy” (Minny) or the abusive, baby making brute (Leroy). These are stereotypes. And they’re prevalent in other novels of this type, something reviewers who read novels should know about. Stockett’s black characters are almost carbon copies of Edna Ferber’s in Showboat (the original novel, because the stage version has been altered over the years to reflect the outcry of how the African American dialogue and characterizations were offensive) Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life, and Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster Gone With The Wind.

To Kornbluth’s credit, he did retract his original statement that the black dialect would “one day seem mawkish”.

As far as I’m concerned, that day is now. Thankfully, Kornbluth at least states:

“My review, I now see, is wrong about one thing — “The black Southern dialect will someday seem mawkish; today, it still sounds right,” I wrote in my review — and I am indebted to “Concerned” for the correction.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/an-african-american-woman_b_653983.html

At least he went in depth and was direct about his rationale (and that of others):

1) The book was written for whites.
2) She took a huge chance writing “black” talk? Not really. Blacks were not likely readers.
3) She (kinda) got those white bitches right.
4) Her readers cared less about the blacks (except as victims to pity) than about women (kinda) like themselves.

So…..you nailed it — that is, for smart African-American readers like you.
BUT…..this book did a WORLD OF GOOD.
Because a lot of women who read it had to confront/overcome their own prejudices.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/an-african-american-woman_b_653983.html

But what is up with the “you nailed it — that is, for smart African-American readers like you.”

I also don’t think the commenter deserved the quips,  especially since the individual’s questions and opinion were respectful and concerned enough to contact him. It marred the response and “white bitches” was clearly uncalled for.

And now, after seeing her novel high on the NY Times Best seller list for a great many months, has the criticism finally sunk in?

In her defense, Stockett explains:

” ‘People say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she would try to represent black women that way.’ Demetrie didn’t go past sixth grade. She lived in a shack. I wasn’t trying to represent a whole race or people,’ she says.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/12/AR2010081206721_2.html?sid=ST2010081302928

There again, she misses the point. That’s exactly what she did, even though it may not have been the intent.

Time Magazine interview:

Why did you decide to write The Help?
I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, “Hmm, that’s good.” As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren’t in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That’s [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book.

Link: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html#ixzz18D2J5FBm

 

It wasn’t only done using  Demetrie as an starting point, but also by using the negative traits of Demetrie’s husband Clyde. From there she expanded it to include Octavia Spencer, but only focused on the humorous antics she believes she found in her new “friend”. Which explain s why Minny sounds like a wanna be Nell Carter from the 80s sit-com “Gimme a Break”

(A show that didn’t do justice to Carter’s larger than life talent. And now, in 2010 the regression back to stereotypes begins anew) 

 
 

Gimmee A Break leading lady Nell Carter

 

 In a Barnes and Noble audio interview where she was recorded saying “Medgar Evans” (sorry, I just had to put that in). In this interview Stockett repeats that Medgar Evers had been bludgeoned, and here’s what else Stockett said:

 “I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical.  And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know,  Octavia, she will tell you like it is.

And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”

 “Oh Gosh, she was so nice, she went on tour with me. She read the African American parts and I read the white parts. And it was quite a show.”

Link: Audio interview with Barnes and Noble:

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

AND . . .

“Aibileen is my favorite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie. But Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress in Los Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, “Well, good for you.” Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television. That said, I think I enjoyed writing Skeeter’s memories of Constantine more than any other part of the book.

Link: interview with bookbrowse:

http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=1663

Maybe Stockett should go back an re-read her old interviews, because in fairness, she may not realize just how much she revealed.

In one review she laughs about not wanting too much trauma and trying to be funny in her writing:

Interview with UK site BookRabbit

Excerpt:

“I couldn’t stand to write a book that wasn’t funny or at least trying to be funny. And part of what I wanted to do was show the absurdity of the situation. But I really enjoyed trying to make people laugh, I can’t handle too much trauma!”

http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

Oh…see, she can’t handle too much trauma. This is a author writing about a traumatic and violatile time period in American history.

It’s hard for many who’ve experienced segregation to find her sentiments humorous. I doubt if a book on 9/11 or Katrina would be considered “humorous” by those affected.

Like Stockett, far too many reviewers want to focus on how the book makes them laugh, and don’t realize that the prior historical images of African Americans were created by whites just for that purpose.

A few examples:

Stepin Fetchit

 

Stepin Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Yet for millions of movie goers, he twisted himself into the bumbling, often confused worker who needed a good talking to.

Stepin was so popular, he became the first African American millionare in the field of acting.

His posture became synonymous with his name, as in this cartoon depiction:

Drawing of Stepin Fetchit from the Disney movie "Mother Goose in Hollywood"

 

Actors that followed in Stepin’s footsteps were Willie Best and Mantan Mooreland. There were even child stars created to promote laughter at the expense of the black culture:

Willie Best AKA Sleep 'n Eat

Mantan Moreland and his famous expression

 

Alan Hoskins as Farina

 

And really, I can understand that many people may not know about these images. But a writer, especially one who wants to depict the already strained relationship between blacks and whites during segregation should make it their business to know.

Because this was a mindset. An idealogy of how African Americans actually were. It was even depicted in advertising and cartoons that children watched:

Aunt Jemima will forever smile

 

animated black woman

 

What also struck me is where some reviewers saw “beauty” in passages that read as offensive.

It made me wonder if Stockett had even entertained that there was beauty in the African American culture, and if she could possibly stretch herself to write of it. A few examples that are overkill on the “blackness” of African Americans:

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums (Pg 65) – Skeeter

While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls  who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter

The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told,  you’ll never get hired The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter

I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. –  Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)

Stockett has recently been quoted as wishing she’d been more nuanced.

I think that’s an understatement. And I wonder how one reviewer read the above and still believed:

Review by Sybil Steinberg from The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com

“. . .one of Stockett’s accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/31/AR2009033103552.html

So conversations like this:

Where Skeeter says “I was in the attic, looking down at the farm. . .I could see the tops of the trees.”

And Constantine replies: “You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63)

No, I suppose that’s not stilted. That’s just plain ignorant.

Or this scene, one which Stockett appears, at least on video here to really get a kick out of voicing:

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up with her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”

My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?” (Pg 24)

This is not only one of the dumbest conversations as written, but it brings up another stereotype of African Americans. That no matter if we’re professed Christians, we still fall back on pagan beliefs like “black magic”. These are supposed to be two church going, God fearing women but in many scenes they read as anything but.

How “Black magic” and even talk of “spoilt cootchies” would come up in their conversation is something that’s not humorous but offensive in the various connotations. And it reminds me once again, that the writer is white and attempting to take on a black persona.

No one is saying Stockett shouldn’t write black characters. The problem is, they aren’t very credible characters. They’re caricatures.

Steretotypes from another time and place.

For example:

 Edna Ferber’s original dialogue from the novel Showboat:

Queenie: “That shif’less, no-’count Jo knew about cookin’ like you do, Cap’n Andy, Ah’d git to rest mah feet now an’ again, Ah sure would.” (Pg 118)

Kathryn Stockett, as Aibileen describing her estranged husband Clyde:

One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off with his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known. (Pg 5)

 

Ironically, when  Showboat first appeared in print,  on screen and on stage, the chorus of dissenting voices and criticisms from the African American community were initially ignored by mainstream reviewers.  The same held true for Imitiation of Life. (I’ll post some old reviews I found on these books in a bit)

Now it appears as if history is repeating.

To be continued, when I can stomach it. . .

Posted in: Blog