Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why Writers Can’t Please Everyone

Cover of "The Help"
Cover of The Help
Several scenes in Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, depict the verbal and physical abuse of one of the black maids by her own husband. Two other maids who figure prominently in the story were abandoned by their husbands long ago.

Some contend that the novel promotes stereotypes of black men being abusive or absent.  In “An Open Letter to Fans of The Help,”  Ida Jones, national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, and four co-authors level this and several other charges against the novel.

Jones claims The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” relies on “an irreverent depiction of black vernacular” and downplays the sexual abuse black maids often faced from white employers.

Whether or not the criticisms are justified is a topic for another blogger.  But, to this blogger, they illustrate how no writer can afford to please everyone and how any piece of writing, regardless of its intent, is bound to offend someone.

I don’t wish to downplay the very real issues Jones addresses.  As she asserts, the history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi  is much more complex than depicted in the novel and deserving of in-depth examination in both fictional and nonfictional works.

However, Jones seems to want The Help to be all things to all people.  She writes,
. . . the film [version of the novel] is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi . . . . Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.
Which would be well and good had Stockett written an academic treatise on the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi.

Instead, she wrote a work of popular fiction told through the viewpoints of three characters—two black maids and a white woman who aspires to being a journalist. Thus, the story is necessarily limited to the "dangerous racists" and "individual acts of meanness" they encountered—acts such as being fired capriciously, being accused of stealing, and being forced to submit to sexual advances (which is mentioned in the novel, albeit briefly).

Stockett made several critical choices in writing The Help, including who to focus on.  For example, it isn’t just black men who are absent and abusive—it is men in general.

Most of the male characters in The Help are minor or have little bearing on the story.

  • Skeeter’s father, probably the most sympathetic male figure, remains oblivious to his daughter’s clandestine adventures and his wife’s self-serving machinations. 
  • Skeeter’s boyfriend is a drunk. 
  • His father, a senator, also drinks to excess and upholds racial policies with which he personally disagrees.
  • The husbands of Aibileen’s and Minny’s employers are largely absent, and though the latter turns out to be a good guy, he comes off as one-dimensional.

As a male reader—if I took Jones’ message to heart—I should be offended that there are no positive, well-rounded male figures in the story.

Instead, I got an altogether different message from the book. I understood that I was reading a fictional story told from one writer’s point of view—and particularly from the points of view of three characters who saw the men in their lives in these ways. I understood that Stockett’s larger intent was to highlight the nobility of black and white women who faced up to the unfair system under which they lived. 

One might quibble over the manner in which they “faced up” to that system—writing an anonymous book—but this development highlights the fears which prevented blacks and whites (particularly the former) from telling the truth about the conditions under which they lived and worked. 

In other words, the heroes of Stockett’s novel aren’t Civil Rights activitists, as Jones seems to prefer, but ordinary women  living ordinary lives in a society suppressed both color and gender.

Stockett, I believe, chose to focus exclusively on female characters because women in the 1960s South, and elsewhere, had little personal choice in their lives. They were expected to become wives and mothers, not to hold careers such as journalism. 

Black women had even less ability to change their lives. A telling moment in the novel occurs when Skeeter asks Aibileen if she ever wanted to be anything other than a maid, and Aibileen answers no. This moment calls into sharp relief the fact that white, rich Skeeter—in spite of her overbearing mother’s dreams for her—has had opportunities denied women in Aibileen’s position.

Stockett doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes so much as she shines a harsh light on a one-sided reality.

As a male reader, I was not turned off by the absence of sympathetic male characters. Rather, I was drawn into the fictional lives of vivid characters whose universal desires transcend time, geography, and even gender. This ability to bridge differences lies at the heart of all good writing.

The novel brilliantly shows how all three women face difficult decisions which lead to turning points in their lives. The novel is not, as Jones asserts, a simplistic "coming of age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own." Rather, it shows how people from different walks of life can overcome prejudice and fear to learn from one another.

No story can be everything to all people. Stockett's refusal to address some of the issues Jones brings to light is far from a failing. Rather, it shows how she understood and stayed true to her purpose.

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