The Help: Kathryn Stockett's Controversial Hit
First-time author Kathryn Stockett's recent book, The Help, has risen quickly through the bestseller lists despite Stockett being previously unknown and the book initially rejected by close to 50 literary agents. The New York Times spoke with Stockett about the book, and also detailed some of the controversy in the blogging world over the successful new book. The Times quotes blogger Melissa McCurdy who called the book "racist" on her blog, and who said, "I want to read the African-American version of The Help."
Responses have been generally very positive towards The Help, which details the lives of black maids in 60's Mississippi and the white women they work for, but some seem disconcerted by the idea of Stockett, a white woman, writing, with heavy dialect, in the voices of black women.
Writing for Ms. Magazine, Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders, "Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett's white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?" The Christian Science Monitor notes the same problem, wondering about the "decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped 'g' among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters."
Still, the Monitor and others generally seem to find that the novel rises above these flaws, and others don't see them as flaws at all. In The Washington Post, Sybil Steinberg finds that one of "Stockett's accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue."
A review by Karen Valby at Entertainment Weekly says that, while the book "could have turned out goofily earnest or shamefully offensive" Stockett instead pulls off something that's "graceful and real," despite the concept of a young white author writing about the struggles of black maids in the 60's being "cringeworthy."
The range of opinions on The Help span from distaste to wholehearted praise, and, as the Times article notes, the book has been compared by many to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. One such comparison comes from Jesse Kornbluth, writing for the Huffington Post, who says that "The Help is about something. That is, something real. Something that matters. Most of all, something that matters to women, who are, as it happens, America's most dedicated readers."
Clearly, as the book enjoys its 30th week at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, something in this new author's words is working.