This bestseller “analysis” is for THE HELP, Ms. Kathryn Stockett’s treatment of love and hate and racial hypocrisy in the Deep South in the early ’60s. As always, my reasons for liking or not caring for a story seldom fit the model defined by the critical mass, one way or the other. However, the first aspect of the story I found spectacular was Ms. Stockett’s ability to write Black cant in a way that was patently readable. Yet while saying this I realize this opens up an enormous can or worms. First, Ms. Stockett is not a woman of color, and there’s a bloc that says she, like William Styron, no matter how well she or he might have written, should not be “considered capable” of expressing Black diction. When I was doing my research on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, which I analyzed in my previous Newsletter, there were many complaints that Steig Larsson’s dialogue was horribly bastardized, and that no good Swede should ever accept what the holograph morphed into via translation. I say, get a life. And this goes for anyone who’s criticizing Ms. Stockett for her treatment of Black cant. Yes, I might feel different if I were of color, but what her style achieves is a text that’s easy to read. And this should be the first goal for any writer wishing to sell a lot of his or her own work.
What I liked about her treatment was the elimination of apostrophes, and I was immediately impressed by the ease of assimilating “gone” for “going” instead ” of “goin'”that’s popular among noted Black writers. The only way to understand this, and I’m not insinuating I do–but I can express what I found easiest to read–is to spend time with the great Black writers, taking in Mr. Ellison and others such as Ms. Morrison and Ms. Hurston. Then make a decision. And I ask any person of color to do the same thing, keeping in mind that not only are all these writers wishing to capture the essence of Black cant, they are also–each in her or his way–trying to write dialogue that’s patently readable. It’s not that easy, regardless of which heritage is writing about which heritage, whether it’s one’s own or someone else’s.
Now that I’ve beaten cant to death, one reason I believe THE HELP worked so well is that people of any color or background became immediately engaged with Aibileen. Then it was easy (again, that magic word that writers must understand if they want to attract a mass audience) to have enormous sympathy for Minnie and the other women who essentially worked in servitude for their white masters. THE HELP, and I’ve looked at it as closely as I’m capable, is a clear picture of the way many people continue to think–and what people can ultimately expect if they lie to those around them. And my opinion is that Ailbileen and Minnie and Constantine and the others were horribly lied to every day they came to work as servants. None of the white families respected their help in any way, and probably the only one whose true colors always came through was the abhorrent Hilly. I’m not giving away any of the story because my hope is that folks will read the material and learn from it in their own ways. It’s the brutal honesty of THE HELP that I feel influenced readers to talk among themselves to create the buzz which allowed this book to sell in the millions. But my reason for believing this book resonated the most with readers was because many people not only wanted to be like Skeeter, they were already a lot like her character but afraid to admit it. And I’m of the opinion that Ms. Stockett modeled Skeeter in large measure after herself.
The only person who knows if what I’ve said about Skeeter’s being Ms. Stockett is the author herself, and I’m certain she’s not going write me and say one way or the other if I’m correct in believing this aspect of the material autobiographical. Regardless, I commend Ms. Stockett for spending a decade or more to develop this brilliant composite of race in a way that also depicts the beauty of the human spirit. Writing really can tell a lot more than just the words on a page, and THE HELP is undeniably emblematic of this edict.