Sparrow's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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Oct 21, 12

bookshelves: abandoned, reviewed, disturbing, punching-tour
Recommended to Sparrow by: Linda Harrison, Gibney
Recommended for: read Coming of Age in Mississippi instead, please
Read from July 20 to 25, 2010

I have this terrible, dreary feeling in my diaphragm area this morning, and I’m not positive what it’s about, but I blame some of it on this book, which I am not going to finish. I have a friend who is mad at me right now for liking stupid stuff, but the thing is that I do like stupid stuff sometimes, and I think it would be really boring to only like smart things. What I don’t like is when smart (or even middle-brained) writers take an important topic and make it petty through guessing about what they don’t know. I can list you any number of these writers who would be fine if they weren't reaching into topics about which they have no personal experience (incidentally, all writers I'm pretty sure my angry friend loves. For example, The Lovely Bones, The Kite Runner, Water for Elephants, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc.). These are the books for which I have no patience, topics that maybe someone with more imagination or self-awareness could have written about compassionately, without exploiting the victimization of the characters. They’re books that hide lazy writing behind a topic you can’t criticize. The Help is one of these.

You’ve got this narrative telephone game in this book. The telephone game is pretty fun sometimes, and it is really beautiful in monster stories like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights because what they are telling me is not intended as trustworthy or earnest. All of the seriousness in monster stories is an impression or an emotion reflected back through the layers of narrative. I don’t feel that way about the topic of The Help, though. In this book, a white woman writes from the point of view of a black woman during the Civil Rights movement, who overhears the conversations of white women. It's an important topic, and I don't want to hear it through untrustworthy narrators.

So, I can basically get on board with the dialect of the black maids, but what throws me off as a reader is when the black maid is quoting the white women and they’re all speaking perfect English without a trace of an accent. It becomes particularly weird when one of the black maids starts to comment on the extreme accent of one of the white women, Celia Foote, whose written dialogue continues to be impeccable. Who is this narrator? Why does she choose not to speak proper English if she can speak it? Why does she choose to give proper English to someone else who she has told me doesn't speak it? Also, usually the layers of narration in a telephone-game book are only within the book. In this case, it’s the author’s voice stabbing through the story. I am convinced it is her whose brain hears the white woman speaking TV English, and the black women speaking in dialect. It gives away the game.

Even the quotes from the movie have an example of this. A conversation between her and Minnie goes like this:

Celia Foote: They don't like me because of what they think I did.
Minny Jackson: They don't like you 'cause they think you white trash.

Celia speaks in a proper sentence, but Minny misses the "are" in the second part of the sentence. Celia says "because," but Minny says "'cause." If the reader were supposed to understand that Celia does not speak in dialect, that would make sense, but since it specifically states that she does, it doesn't make sense.

To attempt to be clear, I didn't have a problem that the book was in dialect. I had a problem that the book said, "This white woman speaks in an extreme dialect," and then wrote the woman's dialog not in dialect. Aerin points out in message 111 that I am talking about eye dialect, which is about spelling, not pronunciation, as in the example above. Everyone, in real life, speaks in some form of non-standard English. Though I have seen some really beautiful uses of eye dialect, as Aerin points out, writers typically use it to show subservience of characters or that they are uneducated, which often has racist overtones. If it troubles you that I'm saying this, and you would like to comment on this thread, you may want to read other comments because it is likely someone has already said what you are going to say.

I’m not finishing this one, and it’s not because I think people shouldn’t like it, but rather because I’m almost 100 pages in and I can see the end, and it’s failed to engage me. When a few IRL friends have asked what I thought of the book and I said I didn't care for it, they have told me that I am taking it too seriously, that it is just a silly, fluff book, not a serious study of Civil Rights. Again, I don’t have a problem with stupid books, but when it’s a stupid book disguised as an Important Work of Cultural History, all I want to do the whole time is tear its mask off. And a book about Civil Rights is always important cultural history to me. Anyway, the book becomes unpleasant; I become unpleasant; it’s bad news. If you loved this book, though, (or, really, even if you hated it) I would recommend Coming of Age in Mississippi. I think that book is one of the more important records of American history. Plus, it’s beautifully written, inspirational, and shocking. It's been years since I read it, so I might be giving it an undeserved halo, but I can’t say enough good things about it.


"You should finish the book before you talk about it": comment 150 (second paragraph); comments 198 and 199.

“Stockett did experience the Civil Rights Era”: comment 154; comment 343.

“The author of The Lovely Bones was raped”: comment 190.

“The author of The Kite Runner is from Afghanistan”: comment 560.

"Memoirs of a Geisha is accurate and not comparable to The Help": comment 574.

“Don’t be so critical!”: comment 475.

“Have you written a bestseller?”: comment 515.

“Fiction doesn’t have to be a history lesson”: comments 157 through 162.

“Having grown up in the South during this era and having had a maid, I could relate to the emotional nuances of this book”: comments 222 and 223.

"Minny and Aibileen are relatable": comment 626

“You are trying to silence authors”: comment 317 and comments 306 through 316.

“Why do you want to read a Civil Rights book about racism and hatred? I would prefer one about friendship and working together”: comment 464.

“Why are there so many votes for such a half-assed review?”: comment 534.

“Authors can write outside of their personal experiences”: comments 569 through 587.
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Reading Progress

07/24/2010 page 63
14.0% "This feels really Ya Ya Sisterhood to me. I don't know if I should give up or not."
07/25/2010 page 85
19.0% "Not for me." 2 comments

Comments (showing 501-550 of 773) (773 new)

message 501: by Sparrow (last edited Oct 21, 2012 04:39PM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Hmmm, those are some good suggestions. I find there is simultaneously too much and not enough to talk about. Also, braindead.

I know, the vote count is ridiculous. I've probably said this like 27 times on this absurd thread, but every time someone votes for this, I'm like, "REALLY????!!!" This review is a symbol of the recipe for votes:

The Book
1 c. hot topic
2 T. simple writing
1/2 c. nostalgia
1 t. Jeff Foxworthy
generous sprinkle of period clothing

The Review
1 hater review
4 bags of hater comments

Cooking Instructions
Preheat your oven to a lukewarm 70 degrees. Combine the hot topic with the nostalgia and reaffirm dominant social values. In a separate bowl prepare your simple writing.

Whisk the contents of the first bowl briskly into the simple writing without paying too much attention to the actual definition of words and glazing over any minority character perspective. Once you have a nice froth, include half of your Jeff Foxworthy, but you will want to save the rest of your Jeff Foxworthy for the end because that is really where the punch of your ending will be.

Line your baking sheet with the period clothing, as that is the base of your flavor. Bake for no more than 2 minutes. Too much baking can lead to death.

Serve the dish on one hater review. Before it has cooled, pile on as many hater comments as possible. At least five votes for every hater comment.

message 502: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow So disillusioning.

message 503: by Jason (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason Where's the teaspoon of Jeff Foxworthy in this review? I never saw it.

And yeah, TEH ANGER!! It probably makes me seem like a more angry person than I really am, but fuck it. Those comments drive me up the wall. Mostly it's because I can't identify with going on someone else's thread just to insult them.

message 504: by Jason (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason The other comment I hate is the "you need to be more balanced in your review and not just talk about the negative" because somehow we have an obligation to follow some unwritten set of reviewing rules? Because the insinuation there is that people have a right to put us in our place for not reviewing correctly, which I ARRGGGH cannot even handle.

message 505: by Sparrow (last edited Oct 21, 2012 04:58PM) (new) - added it

Sparrow tommie wrote: "haha well id vote for that comment if i could. maybe im too loose with my voting."

haha! I would vote for it, too. I'm pretty pleased with myself. Just sitting here, cracking myself up.

Jason wrote: "Where's the teaspoon of Jeff Foxworthy in this review? I never saw it."

Oh, I clarified the recipe.

Hmm, yeah, I kind of get being angry if it's your own review or if somebody's feelings are actually hurt, but I don't get being angry over the usual hater comments. To me, that kind of anger seems like the writers who get all up in a reviewer's business about writing a hater review.

message 506: by Jason (last edited Oct 21, 2012 05:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason I don't think that's a fair comparison. I'm not going onto someone else's review to insult the reviewer. And I'm not putting my career reputation at risk, either. I'm commenting on a comment, and not even to defend you, Sparrow—you don't strike me as a person who needs or wants defending—but because those comments irritate me. I think in terms of anger, I could be a lot worse. For example, I could be like Paquita Maria!!!

message 507: by Jason (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason =)

message 508: by Sparrow (last edited Oct 21, 2012 05:15PM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Hmm, I think it is similar. you are going on someone else's review to insult the commenter. Like this:

Author writes book ---> Reviewer hates on book in review ----> Other author hates on review ----> Other reviewer hates on other-author's comment in a comment.

I'm not saying it's unfair to hate on a commenter. I just think it all becomes somewhat futile, and a commenter hating on my review is as impersonal as me hating on the book.

It would be cool and circular if someday the author was the reviewer who hated on the other-author-commenter. If I ever have a book on the bestseller list, I'm totally going to do that.

message 509: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Or, obvs, it doesn't have to be an other author who is the commenter, but it sounds cooler that way.

message 510: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Futility is my favorite game! I mean, shit, it's Sunday, and the new Dexter episode won't be posted online for at least two hours. What to do, what to do? Oh, hey, calling people a-holes is fun! Especially when they sorta, like, beg for it. It's an even trade, you see: they get the attention they want, and I get to blow off steam while passing time!

message 511: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Shoot, I just realized I'm about to make the 545th comment. I thought this was page one. Because I'm dumb.

message 512: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow hahaha, yay futility! Booo to no notifications!

And, oh geez, do I need to get caught up on Dexter, or what?

This is a cool review that I think is sort of tangentially related to the idea that someone on a bestseller list would be more qualified to critique:

message 513: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Mary Lois wrote: "Wench is an interesting book about the race question in the U.S. It takes place in slavery days and deals with the relationship of slave women who were "kept" by their masters. Well-written, sad book."

Although I did like this book, I liked Wenchmuch, much less.

message 514: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Oh, I totally missed that comment. Whoa, yikes. That sounds disturbing.

message 515: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Wait. Did you really miss a comment here? How could you? Really, Sparrow, there's only half a thousand of them here.

message 516: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow I am a bad thread mom! I am neglectful and overly stern at the same time!

message 517: by Jen (last edited Oct 21, 2012 07:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen It is not entirely your fault, though. You have unruly comment children popping in to visit at all, give your mom a break.

(I say that last line almost every day. Sometimes if you whisper it, carefully over-enunciating every syllable, it works!)

message 518: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow They do give me a run for my money. But, what would life be without them? *mom-sigh that is affectionate while somewhat eerily resembling the sigh of a locked up mental patient*

message 519: by Marcus (new)

Marcus P i think the same thing as sparrow

message 520: by Caleesha (new)

Caleesha This is an inspiring book not a horrible one. It shows the harshness of being african american during this time period. But we all have our own opinions :)

message 521: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Yep, to each her own.

message 522: by Lily (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lily Thanks for your wonderful review - I think it's so nice that you would spend so much time writing this review. Personally, I love the book and am only 6% the ought on my Kindle, but your opinions have gotten me thinking about the mechanics of books and reading to really understand and notice the little things, not just skim. Thanks again!

message 523: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Thanks for your comment! That is nice of you to say.

message 524: by Rita (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rita By the way the guy who wrote "The Kite Runner" is an Afghan American who lives in Fremont, Ca, which has the largest Afghan population in the US. I think he has a lot of personal experience. Didn't realize authors had to be experts before they could write entertaining novels.

Spider the Doof Warrior Kite Runner is all writing 101 anyway. Not that good.

message 526: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 22, 2012 12:22AM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Rita wrote: "By the way the guy who wrote "The Kite Runner" is an Afghan American who lives in Fremont, Ca, which has the largest Afghan population in the US. I think he has a lot of personal experience. Didn..."

I don't think the problem with The Kite Runner is him not knowing about Afghanistan. I think the problem with it is exploiting another person's brutal rape to show what a bummer the rape is for a spoiled rich kid. It is somewhat inconceivable to me that anyone who has ever experienced that kind of victimization would give so little voice to a victim in a story, and that leads me to believe that the author of The Kite Runner does not have experience being victimized. That is what I mean with all of those authors lacking experience. I am not criticizing factual errors, I am criticizing exploitation.

Spider the Doof Warrior That too.

message 528: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow 300. The recipe continues to prevail.

message 529: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, hot Christ.

message 530: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow hahaha. Is it comment 124 that is the reference for this totally original question? lemme check. Also, how do I make the sarcasm mark again?

message 531: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 29, 2012 11:10PM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Oh, It looks like it is comment 190, and I think comment 560 above is also on point. It is not the details I have a problem with, but it is the fact that I think the victims are exploited in those stories for other, shallower storylines. I feel like if the authors had experienced the type of pain they are writing about, it would make more sense. In the Lovely Bones, for example, I am not talking about the rape, but the mourning process of the family, which I think the book focuses on. To me, it felt shallow and gross.

message 532: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 03:53AM) (new)

Jessica I have been trying not to enter into this debate-thread, but I can't help being bothered by this deduction, that an author who has not experienced something--pain or otherwise--cannot authentically write about it. I haven't read The Help and didn't like The Kite Runner as it didn't feel authentic to me, but a good writer relies on empathy and imagination to write about people's lives other than his/her own. If the fiction is not believable, it is not because the writer hasn't experienced it himself, but rather because his imagination, research, empathy and writing skills failed to reproduce a believable version of that experience.
Of course what is believable to one reader will not necessarily be to another. But I think great works of literature stand the test of time in this regard.

message 533: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 09:46AM) (new)

Jessica I did read (listened to on tape) Memoirs of a Geisha and found it very moving, very impressive (since this work's been brought up).
I would also argue that Frankenstein is much more than a "monster story" and does deal with some very real issues, issues to do with the advent of science, of the capacity to love, even of giving birth. But perhaps what's being argued here--in part--is the validity of the novel to deal with "serious" issues, to get at real truths, and to do so by using the tools of imagination, empathy and compassion, among others.
But then we come back to one author's skill versus another's and there will never be total consensus on that point (i.e: Stockett) since what's believable, rings true, for one reader may not for another.

message 534: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 30, 2012 09:43AM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Well, I am not attempting to say a writer can't write a good book without having experienced what the book is about, that is just an explanation that I've come up with for why these authors would write so unfeelingly about really serious victimization or other emotional crisis. Maybe if they have not experienced it, it is easy to exploit it. I am guessing it was easier for Stockett to write maids who were so, "aww shucks, those silly white wimmins" and who were not dignified, even in their internal thoughts about their oppression because she had not experienced it.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, my problem is with the end. It's been a little while since I read it, but my memory is that there is some trick at the end that turns the whole book around to be about the magical white-guy savior whom she just worships. It has something to do with a pretense about her having sex with someone that I found very ridiculous. I did like a lot of that book, but when it got to a certain point, I started to find it exploitative.

message 535: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow To me, "monster story" is a compliment, and merely meant to be descriptive, not reductive. When I say it doesn't have anything "serious" to tell me, I mean it doesn't tell me things earnestly, but rather in a sideways manner and down mazes and paths. I don't mean that it doesn't have anything important to tell me.

message 536: by Jessica (new)

Jessica well I would say your nomenclature is misleading.

message 537: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Sparrow wrote: "Well, I am not attempting to say a writer can't write a good book without having experienced what the book is about, that is just an explanation that I've come up with for why these authors would w..."

I think this whole argument works best when applied to this novel--the one being reviewed--and not when brought to cover a number of others--whose issues as you describe yourself w/ Memoirs--are very different.

message 538: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 09:59AM) (new)

Jessica If you recall, Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, and I would argue that the letters are indeed earnest.

message 539: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 30, 2012 10:46AM) (new) - added it

Sparrow As my brother would say, your mom is misleading. I will edit, though. But, I am not going to thank you for the correction because I hate this review, and I have already edited it twice for people. Instead, I think I should be able to write a throwaway review about a book I don't care about and whose fans describe the book to me as just a silly story that I shouldn't care about. I think, rather, that this is just a silly review that people shouldn't care about.

I do think the issue I had with Memoirs stems from the fact that he was writing outside of his gender and race. I think that in encountering women and Japanese people, he took any deference they expressed to him as genuine, and existing purely, without any other emotions to complicate it, and I think that is what Stockett has done with the black maids in this book, so I do think it is comparable.

On Frankenstein, I don't care for the book, actually, not because I have an issue with it comparable to the issue I have with this book, but because I think it is boring. You could definitely be right, and despite the objective untrustworthiness of the narrative frequently going through so many perspectives before it comes to the reader, Shelley's purpose could have been to simplify it and present it as a trustworthy narrative. That makes me feel even more bored with Frankenstein, but I think it is a story that could work with either a reliable or unreliable narrator.

message 540: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow I do not think it is a bad thing. I think those authors failed at it, and so maybe for them it would have been better to aim for something different.

message 541: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 11:11AM) (new)

Jessica Listen, if you post a review, people are going to comment on it. If it's a throwaway review, just delete it.
I didn't expect you to thank me and am not asking for that sort of acknowledgment at all.
(in fact, I didn't expect you to edit anything).

message 542: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Jessica wrote: "Listen, if you post a review, people are going to comment on it."

That is clearly not the case with most reviews. I think it is the case with this review because the topic is important and people feel defensive of their own position in culture.

message 543: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Jonathan wrote: "How is writing outside of gender or race a bad thing? Agatha Christie wrote from the perspective of men, yet she was able to portray men realistically. Anne Rice has done so as well. James Patte..."

One of my favorite novels is Giovanni's Room in which Baldwin writes about a relationship between 2 gay men (who are white). Elsewhere he writes from the pov of white folks too. In G's Room, he felt the issue of race would complicate or marginalize the opted for the 'majority race.'

message 544: by Cory (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cory That's rather sad he had to do that, IMO.

message 545: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 11:16AM) (new)

Jessica Instead, I think I should be able to write a throwaway review about a book I don't care about and whose fans describe the book to me as just a silly story that I shouldn't care about. I think, rather, that this is just a silly review that people shouldn't care about.

I don't care about the book or even the review. But I do care about comments you made about how writers should stick to writing about their own experience. Even if this is a simplification of what you wrote in the review and thread, it's what's implied. And I find that disturbing and was unable, finally, to let it go unaddressed.
Hence, my responses.

message 546: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Cory wrote: "That's rather sad he had to do that, IMO."

yes, it speaks to the era. But it was enough at the time to be writing openly about a love affair between men.

message 547: by Jessica (last edited Dec 30, 2012 11:20AM) (new)

Jessica Sparrow wrote: "Jessica wrote: "Listen, if you post a review, people are going to comment on it."

That is clearly not the case with most reviews. I think it is the case with this review because the topic is impo..."

Well, people like the book and want to defend it. (I am not one of those people since I haven't read it. I suspect I wouldn't like it in fact). But you also make comments one feels compelled to respond to. So, it's a review that incites discussion. And I don't see anything wrong with that.
I mean, discussion can be fruitful.
If you find it's not, you can choose not to respond or delete the review or thread...

message 548: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Ironically, Atonement was one novel I just didn't buy. Really did not believe the nurse and war section... And then it turned out McEwan had relied heavily (too heavily, many felt) on a nurse's diary kept during that time. In any case, I have liked others of his novels, but not that one.

message 549: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 30, 2012 12:51PM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Jessica wrote: "Even if this is a simplification of what you wrote in the review and thread, it's what's implied. And I find that disturbing and was unable, finally, to let it go unaddressed."

Well, hopefully you have found some clarity and peace from addressing it. I do not think it is a basic standard of writing to be able to compassionately talk about victimization or oppression you haven't experienced, and I don't expect that from writers, so I do not think it makes these authors bad writers to write something that feels exploitative to me. But, I do think that if an author takes on such a topic, it is lazy writing to exploit the victimized character for another character's shallow benefit.

I do take issue with the fact that you say I'm implying no one should write outside of their experience. I think commenters have Jonathan has misconstrued what I am saying and implied that, but that seems like a completely ridiculous thing to think. I think I have been reluctant to even address arguments against the alleged implication that I'm saying that no one should write outside of their experience because by addressing that straw man, I might somehow validate the argument that I'm saying that in any way. If it is supported by something I have actually written, then I assure you that my fingers were working on their own, without my brain, but I do not believe I have written or thought that. I think that is what has tripped up the books I listed and made them exploitative, where they could have been complex, but I do not think that is the case with every writer writing outside of experience. But, I do think that when writing about a sensitive cultural topic fails, it tends to be a very offensive fail.

message 550: by Sparrow (last edited Dec 30, 2012 11:39AM) (new) - added it

Sparrow Jonathan wrote: "Sparrow wrote: "I do not think it is a bad thing. I think those authors failed at it, and so maybe for them it would have been better to aim for something different."

Looking at your list of 5 St..."

Exactly. I think authors can be successful at it, and I think the authors I listed were not, but that they could have been more successful had they been more aware of their own perspective.

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