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If a novel is a New York Times bestseller, on the list for fifty-six weeks and running, might it be too successful to be literary? The Help first appeared on the list March 29, 2009, and reached the number one spot January 24, 2010, for a total of six weeks. It was in the number two spot for ten weeks. Will Stockett’s novel, especially when the movie version arrives, become the Gone with the Wind of the twenty-first century? Mitchell’s novel, published in 1936 (the NYT list made its advent in 1942) broke publishing records of its day, is still a bestseller but was ignored by the academy until 1970.
This conference panel devoted to The Help seeks to bridge scholarship with popular book club literature. A naysayer might argue that the book is too “light” or too popular to analyze in a theoretical framework, but a popular book can also be a well-written book. Many approaches come to mind for serious consideration of The Help: using Deborah McDowell’s and Patricia Hill Collins’ analyses of black women’s bodies to discuss Aibileen and Minny; applying Shari Benstock’s theories of autobiography to Aibileen’s written stories and the other servants’ oral stories; using Adrienne Rich’s ideas of recovery and re-vision to address the way Skeeter sees her subjects’ stories; and analyzing mother figures. It would also be interesting to apply the Bildungsroman to Skeeter’s journey to freedom and social awareness, or to discuss the silence surrounding female illness (Skeeter’s mother and Celia), or to analyze narrative voice or the nonfiction texts (Help, Junior League Newsletter, Miss Myrna’s column) within the fiction. Comparative analysis of The Help with Anne Tyler’s 1975 short story “The Geologist’s Maid,” Ellen Douglas’s 1988 novel Can’t Quit You, Baby, Mary Romero’s 1992 study Maid in the U.S.A., or Sindiwe Magona’s 1994 story cycle, Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night would evoke critical discussion.
To contribute to the discussion, please submit proposals for 20-minute presentations to Jill Goad at firstname.lastname@example.org by July 1, 2010.