Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who Needs the Help?
A Bestseller Backlash Case Study

now finished: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
(this blog post backdated to the day I finished the book)
The very concept of bestseller backlash was made for books like The Help. I discovered bestseller backlash in early 2000 when I was at the beginning of my approximately six-year Borders career. People flock to certain books in a very "nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd" way (thanks, Soul Asylum). And those books are rarely worth the hype. To be clear, a book does not fall into the category of bestseller backlash just because it is a bestseller. There's a certain intangible quality to these books, a certain skepticism about their place on the bestseller list, a certain lack of need to read them felt by me and other Readers, as opposed to the breathless "you-have-to-read-this" masses. Sometimes the bestseller backlash is a mistake and the book is good or even great (The Life of Pi, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Dogs of Babel, Freakonomics) and sometimes the book is terrible (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Who Moved My Cheese?) but most often the book is incredibly average and, much like Top 40 pop music, the throngs of devoted fans are blind to its mediocrity (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Men Who Hate Women, Water for Elephants, etc. etc. etc....and, notably, The Help).

The Help has the added bestseller backlash "advantage" of being not just ridiculously popular but also being thought to be important. Social issues, race, the South, the Civil Rights Era, change we can believe in (oops, wrong decade) you can just feel the self-pronounced importance oozing from the reaction to this book. However, it has actually generated some actual backlash (in the world at large) for telling the African-American stories from a very white, very limited point of view. I myself wrote about feminism in The Help because the feminist issues are there, even when the author seems to be oblivious to them, despite having written this "important" novel. And if there is one thing I hate ("one thing?!" - Clue), it is people/institutions that miss their own point. (See also: most of religion.) I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog, which explains a lot of what is wrong with The Help.

The Help straight up gets some things wrong. For example, when people started becoming long-hair hippies. That was one of the first things to rub me the wrong way, when she had a character in Mississippi in 1963 refer to a long-hair Yankee throwing a peace sign. "No way," I thought. That is way too early! In her afterword, which the abovementioned blog calls her Too Little Too Late section, she casually states, "I took liberty with time, like using Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' even though it didn't come out until a year or two later." Um - why? You specifically set this novel to swirl around the events of 1962-1963, like Medgar Evers, JFK, MLK, etc. And then you decide to go ahead and switch up history - because - why, again? You're just too good for it? You can't think of a song that was out in 1963? You don't really remember this world you are so haughtily evoking, as you want us all to believe you do?

There were other mistakes/willful errors.  And they weren't the only annoying thing about this book. One annoying thing is the condescension inherent in writing this story the way she chose to do. Another is that no one who lives on the colored side of town seems particularly empowered, ever. They just do good things and get patted on the head by the occasional liberal white person. I think Ms. Stockett was trying to do something awesome here, but it turns out to be another bestseller that ought to be anything but.

As I read, I wanted to know what would happen; I am not going to write a spoiler review because I am more concerned with telling you to PLEASE DON'T BUY this book. Borrow it from a friend or the library or whatever, but please do not throw any more money to this book/author/publisher/entity

I want someone to write this novel better. I am fairly certain the author did not at ALL learn the lessons she is apparently trying to teach the rest of us.

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