Friday, April 13, 2012

Please Tell Me You're Smarter Than This: Discussion Question at the Back of The Help

I've been trying to read The Help.  I wanted to read something less depressingly introverted and self-loathing than Of Human Bondage, and more uplifting than Skippy Dies. (I don't know if I'll ever be able to finish Skippy Dies.  I don't think anyone will be redeemed.)

The Help is...well...banal.  I'm sorry.  I don't care what NPR and the Entire Universe said.  It's banal.  It's horribly horrible.  It smashes vases on your head and screams. "THINGS WERE BAD IN THE SOUTH IN THE 60s!"  It has all the subtlety of an eighteen wheeler with LED decorations.

It was so bad that midway through a sentence I took a moment to go to the back of the book and check the race and background of the author.  (I was pretty sure the author was white and -- sure enough! -- I was right. So there.)

It was as I was searching for the author bio that I discovered the Discussion Questions.  (As an aside, this is why books are better than eBooks.)

Look, I don't know who you are reading this blog.  I know someone is reading this because of the occasional comments and because Blogger tells me that about 10 people per week read it.   I know that half of you are looking for that quote from When Harry Met Sally ("That symptom is fucking my wife!"), or searching for "Bondage" and landed on my posts about Of Human Bondage (Google fail), but at least some of you want to talk books, right?  Brontë Sisters fans read my post about Villette, so there's that.

So tell me (or don't), has the state of reading groups gotten so bad that they need discussion questions -- banal discussion questions -- suggested to them at the back of books?  Isn't just reading the book stimulating enough to generate a discussion?

I've only read about a quarter of the way through The Help and already I want to find someone else who's read it and say, "Did you not feel that the conflicts were a bit contrived and obvious?  Didn't you find the characters to be caricatures, without subtlety?  Wasn't the way the perspective switched distracting and unnecessarily dramatic, like they were creating cliffhangers for a movie?  I've never seen a book yell 'Movie adaptation -- Please option me!' so much since The DaVinci Code."

Then again I did buy the book at Walmart, so what did I expect?

I guess I expected that it wouldn't contain discussion questions that were reminiscent of high school English classes lead by lazy teachers.

Here are some of the questions (and I quote):
  •  Who was your favourite character?  Why?
  •  What did you think motivated Hilly?  On one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can't control her.  Yet she's a wonderful mother.  Do you think one can be a good mother and, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?  [I don't know...Can you be a question about one thing, as well as a leading question about something else?]
  • How much of a person's character would you say is shaped by the time in which he or she lives?
  • The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her.  How do you think she does this?  [What you mean is that she created this character using the oldest Black Stereotype in The Book, right?]
This book had already insulted my intelligence by being unsubtle (why didn't you just hire a sky writer, Kathryn Stocket?). And now this book's publisher has insulted my intelligence by providing these "discussion" questions devoid of critical thought.

I don't know if I can get past this.

Addendum:  After writing this, I decided to check whether book clubs were actually using these dumbass questions and what did I discover?  These are from the Oprah Book Club.  Oprah.  Oprah!  The Color Purple Oprah.   

I am going to go into a corner now and weep.


Either way.

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