First Post: The LitHacker Philosophy, Explained
Waaaaaay back in 2010, before the movie version of The Help came out, I read the book because of many word-of-mouth recommendations from friends. This was before I became a member of GoodReads, and before I started this blog (obvs). I felt so strongly about this book that I left a (very rare) Amazon Review to express my dismay about the many, many shortcomings I perceived in what I characterized as an “amateurish” first novel.
I want to be fair about what I thought worked and didn’t work about the book, so in addition to mentioning what I liked, I listed 8 things that I thought were problematic, and the first (and only) person to object to my review said: “Simply enjoying a good story instead of ripping it to shreds might be too much to ask of you. (C’mon … listing 8 reasons?!!)”
But this comment was followed by a different person who agreed with my review and said, “This book really needed a more experienced and educated editor to guide the author’s good intentions and promise.”
Yes! Exactly! So I decided: I will be that book’s (totally inexperienced) editor….in fact, I will be the unsolicited editor of all the YA-friendly books I read.
So here, dear readers, is my very first LitHack:
I give major props to Stockett for having the introspection and retrospection to explore the relationships and power differentials between poor black maids and rich white housewives, as well as the complicated and often ironic relationships between the black domestics and the white children they care for. Stockett has talked of her shame and guilt about not recognizing how much her own childhood black maid, Demetrie, was treated like a second-class citizen in Stockett’s own home especially since Stockett received so much in the way of love and support from Demetrie. It is clear that Stockett had every good intention to be sensitive and thoughtful about this topic, and it is great that this book has spawned many conversations about it. Stockett’s obvious love for Demetrie and her desire to memorialize her in some way resulted in…
Aibileen’s narrative voice is strong, intelligent, and wonderful, and I wish that the whole novel had been told from her perspective. After all, if Stockett wished to “give voice” to the experiences of black maids, why not only have black maids narrate? I appreciate the humor and anger of Minnie as well, and would have been OK with both maids being the narrators, but I always felt most connected to the book during Aibileen’s narration. On the other hand, the book would have been a lot better without…
Ugh, Skeeter. Where do I begin? Much like the journalist-stud-hero Blomkvist in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (written by a journalist), it seems like Skeeter exists as a sort of cathartic wish-fulfillment for the author’s behalf: Stockett, a writer with self-esteem issues, feels guilty about never having the chance to apologize or at least talk candidly with her former nanny Demetrie, but white Skeeter, an aspiring writer with self-esteem issues, not only is able to form an empathetic and satisfying relationship with black maids, she also becomes the clear hero of the book. After all, at the end of the book, the black maids are left in a potentially perilous position, while Skeeter basically gets all her heart’s desires. Maybe this outcome is realistic for the time and place, but it seemed like in the end, Skeeter was the “real” main character of the book, not the black maids. Also, Skeeter was also fairly unappealing in both personality and looks and yet all these people seem to like her – but for what reason?
So my first hack would be to rewrite and diminish the character of Skeeter. I would scrap the entire romance bit, or even, if there needs to be romance, give romance to Aibileen! Yeah! And as satisfying as it was to see the comeuppance of some of the other white characters, it would have been even better if Skeeter’s selfish machinations to use Aibileen’s household knowledge to advance her own journalistic career have some kind of negative consequence for Skeeter herself, even if that consequence is only lifelong guilt. But more galling than Skeeter were…
In the afterword, the author admits to using “The Times the are A-Changing” and “Shake-n-Bake” anachronistically, but there are so many more examples. The book is set in 1960-1964, which are not the Hippie Sixties, but rather then tail-end of how we imagine the Fifties. Yet people in this small southern town reference hippie culture, and that just jarred.
There were also un-subtle use of historical events. Even the historical events that did happen during this time period were used like a bludgeon to reinforce the author’s intention to depict change. I think that’s probably why she moved some of the late 60s stuff forward. But as a fan of Mad Men, I know that it is possible to weave history into plot in more subtle, authentic ways. I also have a pet peeve about the way Rosa Parks and MLK Jr and Medgar Evers were pretty much the only people mentioned in terms of civil rights action. Yes, they played significant roles, but Rosa Parks was not the first or only person to protest bus laws. And she didn’t do it as a spur of the moment heroic thing. She was part of a much wider, very organized network of activists. I got little sense of this network in Stockett’s portrayal of the black community.
So my second hack would be to remove the anachronisms, but more importantly, have the black maids be more politically aware and even politically active. Instead of Skeeter playing the savior role of helping to (sorta) empower the black maids through her expose, it would have been far better to have had the maids empower themselves. In fact it would have been more interesting to have had Skeeter awkwardly attempt to help empower the maids, only for the maids to surprise Skeeter about their secret political lives. Then Skeeter could be the one getting the education. And maybe the maids could have asked Skeeter to put her life and position at risk instead of the other way around.
And finally there was the…
Yes, liking someone’s writing is terribly subjective, but there definitely could have been some editorial guidance for this first-time author. First of all, there was a lot of telling how a character was feeling or what a character was like, instead of the writing showing the reader. I may be white, and I may not be from the South, but I also felt that the black dialect was “off” in many places. There are actually syntactic rules to African American Vernacular English, and the writing seemed to break these rules frequently. It actually made me cringe in several places.