Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Help (in which I step off my high horse)

I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett - I shan't bother giving a full review, since I'm so late to the party that nearly everyone seems to have read it already, but it does provide a useful opportunity to talk about a general trend in my reading.

Very briefly, for those not in the know, The Help is about 1960s America - Jackson, Mississippi, specifically (which to me is chiefly notable for producing Eudora Welty and this wonderful song) - and the racial tensions of the time.  Particularly those between maid and employee - the cast of characters is almost exclusively women, including the three narrators Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter Phelan.  All three narrators are marvellously engaging, the whole novel is a terrific page-turner without sacrificing any narrative polish, and all in all it's a very good novel.  If it weren't tremendously popular already, I would be waxing evangelical about it to all and sundry.

It's not a flawless novel.  You think the characters are complex (and some are) but then you realise that some of the racist characters are unrealistically bad in all ways - and there is an incident involving a naked man and a poker which needn't have been in the novel at all (and isn't nearly as unpleasant as I've realised that sentence sounds.)  But it's an extremely impressive debut novel, and it's bewildering that 50 agents turned it down.

Simply to create three characters so empathetic and engaging (that word again; but it is appropriate) is an exceptional achievement.  Novels were multiple narrators usually end up having one who isn't as vibrant as the others, or one who is head and shoulders above the rest - not so, in Stockett's case.  I was always delighted to see any of them turn up in the next chapter - with perhaps a slight preference for irrepressible Minny. No, wise Aibileen might come top. Oh, but what about Skeeter's enthusiastic confusion and determination?  Oh, hang it, I love them all.

So why am I writing about The Help without reviewing it properly?  To expose one of my failings, I'm afraid.

I had assumed, since it was so popular, that it would be very poor.  If it hadn't been for my book group, I wouldn't have read it - and I'm grateful to the dovegreybooks ladies for giving me a copy (although I don't know which of the group it was!)

You can excuse me - or at least understand where I'm coming from.  If you've found your way to Stuck-in-a-Book, I wouldn't be surprised if you've experienced a similar thing.  Seeing Dan Brown and his ilk at the top of the bestseller charts, it's difficult to believe that anything of quality could sell millions of copies, in the way that The Help has.

I did love The Time Traveller's Wife, but other bestselling representatives of literary fiction have proven singularly disappointing to me.  Ian McEwan's recent output has been rather 'meh'; Lionel Shriver's fantastically popular We Have To Talk About Kevin was so dreadfully written that I gave up on p.50.  Things like The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner weren't exactly bad, but I found it difficult to call them good, either.  Bestselling literary fiction is usually vastly better than bestselling unliterary fiction (yes, Dan Brown, I'm looking at you) but it doesn't excite me.

Remember a little while ago I posted that quotation from Diana Athill, about the two types of reader, and how the second type created the bestseller?  Well, my experience had led me to believe that I'd never find a chart-topping novel that I really loved and admired.  Perhaps a few would be page-turners, but I couldn't imagine any would actually bear closer analysis too.

Well, reader, I was wrong.  While Kathryn Stockett isn't (yet, at least) on the scale of great prose writers like Virginia Woolf, she is certainly a cut above the usual.  I'm delighted that I stepped down from my high horse long enough to enjoy it - or, let's face it, that I was pushed off against my will.

49 comments:

  1. I remember being shocked once when going to buy a particular CD. I couldn't find it because it was on the chart wall, which rarely holds anything worth listening to.

    My point being.... Yes, your point of view makes sense to me.

    And yes, I enjoyed the book too.

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    1. We shall have to explore the mainstream, it seems, Phu!

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  2. "I had assumed, since it was so popular, that it would be very poor."

    Killer line.

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  3. I fall prey to this expectation as well. Thank goodness you've proved it wrong this time! And, I haven't read this one, and wouldn't have really considered reading it -- feeling like I've imbibed it by osmosis anyhow -- so interesting to hear your experience of it.

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    1. I think a lot of us who like niche or rare authors think along these lines - a head above the parapet occasionally is obviously a good idea ;)

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  4. I saw the film on a long overseas flight and really enjoyed it but I too have been putting it off bc of all the hype. I just can't come at books that get too much media exposure. I'm over it before I've even begun it and tend to move on to something unheard of. Enjoyed your post. Related to it completely. Pam

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    1. I still haven't managed to see the film since I borrowed it fro my bro, but maybe I will do next week...

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  5. I understand what you mean completely, Simon. Nothing turns me off something more than to hear that it is a top seller. I worked for a few years in a large bookstore and quickly grew to loathe the sight of the majority of the new books, mainly the "Bestsellers" and I developed a rather snobbish attitude over them, thinking them beneath me. It's a pleasant surprise to find new books that are really good and that one can get excited over! There are some good ones out there! Lori

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    1. The problem being, of course, that so many bestsellers ARE awful! It's difficult when we can't use popularity as a benchmark of quality - I'll have to relinquish it as a benchmark of poor quality.

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  6. I did not look at books quite like that! but this was one book which did not work for me. In the minority here.

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  7. I enjoyed this book as well. Have you seen the cover for the US version ... and the considered the reasons why? Diffferent to the UK. What does this say to us about attitudes to race, today in the the two countries?

    Richard.

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    1. I've just gone to look - how intriguing! (And, of course, they all have the film tie-in cover now.)

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  8. Ha ha, Simon, I felt exactly as you did. See here
    http://callmemadam.livejournal.com/tag/kathryn%20stockett

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    1. Great minds ;) I was amused by the aptness of the cartoon you included....

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  9. Just like me also. It was given to me by a friend and I let it gather dust for months--I mean, "a best seller" what kind of junk was it going to be? and then I began to read it knowing she would expect comments and...it was pretty good! I have lived in Georgia and South Caroline in the 60s and it rings true.

    If I hadn't already read "Life after Life" already I'd be avoiding it for the same reason. I have to remind myself that popular doesn't mean bad.

    Erika W.

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    1. It's nice that we can all come out of the woods together, and admit our prejudices!

      I've never even heard of Life After Life, I must admit..

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  10. I read this back in March, like you not expecting it to live up to its hype. But goodness was I wrong. One of the best books I've read in *years*. I have the movie to watch now, it'll be interesting to compare. I think one of the actresses won best supporting actress for the film.

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    1. Olivia Spencer did indeed - and apparently she was partly the inspiration for the novel, as she is a friend of Kathryn Stockett's. I should drop my prejudice about film adaptations, after realising I was wrong with this one!

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    2. I've now watched the film, Simon, and I have to say the book was better. MUCH better. I enjoyed the film, don't get me wrong, but often felt that if I hadn't read the book first I would not have understood what was happening and why. Good performances though, particulary from the two actresses that played Abeline and Minnie (Olivia Spencer?). Skeeter was not at all as I had imagined her in my head. Not a bad film though, much better than a lot of the dross that's around at the moment.

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  11. But we do look at more than the sales numbers, don't we? I mean, we read reviews to see if it's our kind of book, and to discover what the reviewer liked or didn't like about it.

    I enjoyed the book a lot, despite being initially put off by the written dialect. It worked, though. The only other aspect that disturbed me was it was pretty simplistic at the end. I suspected all those women would never have managed to keep things so quiet in such a violent and hate-filled era.

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    1. Well, I don't read reviews outside the blogosphere... and I might have been prejudiced enough to skip any reviews of The Help I saw about the blogosphere.

      I thought I'd hate the dialect - and did, for the first couple of pages - but after that I didn't even notice.

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  12. It is great to hear that you're changing your opinion of best sellers. There is good and bad in all lists. I hope you find some more books challenging your opinion soon. :-)

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    1. Ha! :) Well, hopefully... but it's hard to take the plunge when so much rubbish does well too. I still feel safer with the authors and period I know best, but I'll try the odd bestseller occasionally...

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  13. Oh, it's like a disease x_x I firmly believe that for something to be that popular there must be some kind of vagueness or oversimplification of some major topics. Murakami, for instance, gives every reader the impression of being remarkably thoughtful and deep, without, you know, having to actually think. Or in the case of non-literary fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, giving women the impression of being sexually liberated when in fact they're only reading cheap erotica.

    Except, I was forced to read Murakami for my book club and it wasn't that bad. And I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I stay as far away as possible from best-selling lists, so all my firmly believed notions are based on... air, pretty much. How did that happen?

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    1. Ha! I love the turnaround in this comment. Prejudices about literature are much easier to live with... I'm just realising the parallel of overcoming prejudices in The Help and about The Help...

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  14. Your review is just another indication that I need to read this one. It's been languishing on my Nook for years, unread, unloved.

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    1. Love it, Andi, it's time to love it!

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  15. Simon, every now and then I try to read something that is 'popular.' In that spirit, I started to read 'The Help' (or maybe it was to watch the movie, I can't really remember). What I do remember is thinking "Oh, I lived through this and don't really want to be reminded of the attitudes and actions of the time." And that was the end of that!

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    1. Well, fair enough! I suppose, having not lived in that time or country, it's all rather a foreign world to me.

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  16. Simon, your point of view definitely makes sense to me. If it wasn't for my senior year of honors English, I don't know when I would have tread into "popular" and "contemporary" fiction. But it made me realize that quality is still being produced and recognized. A few "popular" hilights for me (both scholastic and pleasure reads) are: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, Room by Emma Donaghue, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (who, with LBD Producer Hank Green, forms the Vlog Brothers :)

    Still need to read The Help :)

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    1. Thanks Samara! I keep meaning to try John Green - I do enjoy the vlogbrothers, but I don't quite count myself as a nerdfighter - in fact, I enjoy John Green's videos, and tolerate Hank's. I'd be intrigued to see how well John Green writes...

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    2. I've only watched a handful of their videos, but that makes sense. I reeeally enjoyed John Green's recent commencement address at Butler.

      But yes, I've only read The Fault in Our Stars (in one sitting, I might add) and have now introduced 4 other friends to the book. Quite an engaging read.

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  17. This reminds me of a wonderful Niles Crane-ism (don't know if you watch Frasier): "Popularity is the hallmark of mediocrity."

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  18. I've made the same assumption about popular books to, partly because I've read so many popular books that were terrible. But I've probably read just as many wildly popular books that I loved. Gone Girl was the one for me this year--there was no way it could be as good as the hype, but it was! I try to remind myself to pay more attention to whether the book looks good to me and whether people I trust like it.

    In the case of The Help, I know from the subject that I'm not likely to enjoy it, as most books about the American South really annoy me, and nothing I've read about this book convinces me it would be an exception. However, I know that's as much about my own personal preferences as it is about the book's quality.

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    1. I feel like I might have to crumble on Gone Girl soon, too... a friend was recommending it the other day...

      I know very little about regional differences in the US, so I tend not to have pre-determined thoughts about books set in various parts of it. And in the UK, I never notice where books are set, unless they're places I've lived!

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  19. I didn't get too far with this book. I'm not sure I gave it a fair trial, just the first couple of chapters, but it just didn't appeal. I've thought since that I should try it again - so many people I know rated it so highly.

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    1. Well, if it didn't work, it didn't work - no guilt in moving on!

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  20. I understand you so well, I always am very cautious when I hear of a best seller and often only read them because the book club chose it. In this case, I am very glad I found this book before it became so famous.

    You can see my review here.

    Marianne from Let's Read

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    1. Well done you, for finding it so early!

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  21. I know what you mean -- a lot of the books that get a lot of buzz, especially for book groups (which are primarily composed of women) tend to be mediocre crap (i.e., The Memory Keeper's Daughter which was such utter drivel I returned it, ranting and raving, to the store from whence it came). I did like The Help and thought the movie was pretty good, though they did downplay a major plot point, which annoyed me. And of course Emma Stone was much prettier than the main character is supposed to be, but that's Hollywood.

    I run two book groups at my library branch and sometimes it's a struggle to get people to read books that are not just on the best-seller list. Maybe my standards are just too high, but I don't want to read or discuss anything mediocre. There are too many good books out there to waste time on junk.

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    1. My book group does a lot of varied reading, mostly slightly older books - I was very keen not to join one which read chiefly modern issue-driven books, but the odd one obviously doesn't hurt!

      Your final line - yes, yes, yes!

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  22. I made it most of the way through but then lost interest. Read ahead to see if I'd predicted the ending correctly, and I had. Not a bad book; some bits were excellent. Just kind of, hmm... going over old ground and not in a particularly creative way, perhaps? I never had any "Wow!" moments, regarding either the writing or the story itself. But that's just one person's opinion, of course!

    Bestseller-ism isn't ALWAYS a sign of mediocrity; there's a reason things catch the public attention, apart from the hype-machine, of course. On this note, I'm reading Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers right now, which was a stunningly popular bestseller over here in Canada the last year or two, and I'm finding it extremely engaging, as did the other three members of the family who passed it from person to person before pressing it on slightly reluctant me.

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    1. Well, it's in the same league as something like To Kill A Mockingbird, and obviously it didn't have anything new to say about racism - but I find the characters so enthralling.

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  23. I must confess to having a similar prejudice against bestsellers. I too read "The Help" as part of my book group and found it very patch. It did little to shake my prejudice! I just love finding books that are forgotten gems. How exciting it is to approach a book, without any prior knowledge, with just a faded book jacket to hint of its promise.

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    1. Forgotten gems will always be much more delicious, won't they?

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  24. I just found the end to be too incomplete. I felt it ended somewhat abruptly and wanted to know the fate of some of the pivotal characters. I will not give anything away in terms of plot.
    AC Repair Garland service

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