I read widely from many genres. Perhaps this blog will feature fewer ratings and reviews, but I certainly intend to write about my reading life - it's the subject I most find myself wanting to talk about.
In this post, I'm going to eschew a lot of language about cultural studies and literature, but be assured, I could make appropriate references to theoreticians and critics. My education is bona fide, but I will try to wear it lightly here.
In one of her "Bad Feminist" essays, Roxane Gay takes to task the film and novel "The Help," primarily for indulging deeply in the trope of the "magical negro." I don't disagree, but it wasn't the thing that made me most uncomfortable with either the book or the film.
I'm also not going to argue that a white author shouldn't write about characters of another race. Race, gender, class, religion - any category - should be open to any writer. Whether any writer can write that character well is certainly another question.
With "The Help," my problem was with dialect. Both the African-American and white characters spoke in dialect - with the African-American characters' being far less traditionally grammatical, of course, due to their education levels. That would have been uncomfortable enough.
But Stockett hops around in point-of-view during the novel, dedicating chapters and sections either to Aibileen, Minny, or Skeeter's head space. Of course, (sorry, here's a literary critical term) that means we're also in some free indirect discourse from time to time. So not only is the dialogue written in dialect (say that five times fast) but so are the characters' thoughts and, sometimes, the free indirect discourse around them. I suppose it's the voice of the book.
But for me, it's weird. Would it be less weird if "The Help" were written by an African-American author instead of a white author? I don't know. Maybe. But I also think it would be a different book. Darker, maybe? Angrier? Perhaps a writer of color wouldn't give a crud about including a white character's point of view?
The whole issue bothered me less in the film - probably because film allows for less reader interpretation or decoding, as choices already have been made by actors to mediate the text.
Don't get me wrong - I liked these characters and this story. But it was uncomfortable. And not necessarily in the way it needed to be.