Friday, February 25, 2011

Depicting Real People in Fiction: Legal Controversy over The Help

Coincidentally, after I wrote about The Help yesterday, I discovered that NPR and others were talking about the book as well. Ablene Cooper, who works for the author, Kathryn Stockett's brother's family is suing her for representing her likeness in one of the books main characters, Aibileen. Their names are almost identical and they share some distinctive characteristics. Cooper believes that she was misrepresented and portrayed in a negative light, and is seeking compensation. Stockett, however, maintains that her book is a work of fiction. She stated that she did not know Cooper well, and that although she drew certain elements from real life into her books, the characters are not representative of any real-life person.

The NPR show, Tell Me More, conducted an interview with several authors about the issue. The participants in the conversation brought a breadth of experience and perspectives to the debate. Personally, I immediately felt a sense of solidarity with Stockett when I first read about the controversy, probably because I loved the book so much. One of the authors interviewed expressed similar sentiments. Another, however, already had problems with the book (although she agreed it was a great work of literature) and felt that Stockett was clearly in the wrong with regards to the lawsuit. I encourage you to listen to the interview or to read over the transcript as it is an enlightening presentation of different opinion.

And as it turns out, opinion on the law suit issue, the author, and the book itself are largely divided along racial lines. Many black readers do not care for the book, and some seem to be troubled by a white woman's attempt to tell a story from the perspectives of black domestics in the 1960s South. I understand that position, but am almost ashamed to admit that it had not occurred to me until it was pointed out. Everyone I talked to loved the book. But then again, I never sought or found the opinion of a black reader.

I continued to want to defend Stockett until I heard that Cooper specifically requested that she not be depicted in the book. I still do not believe that Stockett intentionally meant to portray Cooper directly in the book, but it seems apparent that Cooper was among those whom Stockett drew on for her character. The similarity in the names seems particularly blatant. But of course, none of us knows what was inside Stockett's head at the time of writing.

What do you think? Have you heard about this recent controversy regarding The Help? Does it change your mind on the book if you have already read it? Or change your decision to pick it up and read it for the first time? What is appropriate when authors draw from real life to create their own literary worlds? What to they owe those that inspire their characters?

I have not sorted out my own feelings on the subject, but I plan to continue reading about the issue. I will share my findings with you all here. In the meantime, I would love to know what you think.


Elaine Ray said...

I am a black woman writer who liked the book, though I can appreciate some sentiments regarding the fact that a book by a white writer about black women gets so much buzz, maybe less buzz than it would get were it written by a black woman. That may be more of an issue with the publishing industry than with this particular book or its author. I would say that adding a few letters to the name of your brother's housekeeper and then saying "it's fiction" seems a bit careless or disingenuous. That said, I doubt the lawsuit will stand up in court.

Elaine Ray

Elaine Ray said...

Sorry, that sentence should have said, "maybe MORE buzz than it would get were it written by a black woman"

Dominika said...

Hi :) I am the student of the III DP. I need to write an essay on a chosen subject. I chose the subject of the controversy over 'The Help'. For this reason I am asking you for support. I prepared the short survey which will allow me to make my work reliable and credible. I promise I will not publish the results anywhere, I will only analyze it and put the results in my schoolwork. (Without any names!) It is really short and won't take much time. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make the online version so it would be fantastic if you could send me your answers by e-mail. ( It is really important for me. Thanks in advance!

1.Have you seen or read 'The Help'
Yes/ No

2. If you saw/read it: do you think it was controversial?


3. What was controversial in your opinion? (You can choose more than one answer)
a) Nothing
b) That it touches the topic of racial segregation
c) That it doesn't focus on history/It whitewashes the history
d) That it shows Black people in a bad light/ That it is a perpetuation of a 'Mammy stereotype'.
e) That the author of the book is a white women, thus she has absolutely no idea how the Black women could feel and she tells their story; moreover she is a little bit to young to remember how it was in 1960's
f) Altough it is supposed to be about Black women history, there is a white heroine who is the most important character
g) Aibeleen's figure is a depiction of a real woman Ableen Cooper made without her permission
h) Black actresses in Hollywood are forced to play such roles even 50 years later (and they win an Oscar for that)
i) Another:..........................................................................................................................................................

4.a) Does this picture influence your opinion about black people?


b) If so, in which way does it influence your opinion?

Positive / Negative

5. Choose the correct answer or fill in the gap:
a) I am a black/white
b) I am............years old
c) I am a man/woman

Please send the answers to:
Thank you for your help!!! :)