I read two books last week and have been thinking about both of them. I liked them both, but liked one better and have been trying to figure out why.
The first was THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett.
The second was ROOM by Emma Donoghue.
THE HELP is set in the early 1960’s in Mississippi, and tells the stories of the black women who work in the houses of white families. The tone is accessible and the book is an easy read. I enjoyed the characters and their voices, and the craft with which the story was constructed. This book is commercial fiction – it is, in fact, a Book Club Book. You can tell by the questions for discussion included in the back.
I have to admit one bias – all books set in the US south in the 1960’s seem to me to be derivative of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That’s probably because it’s not my world and I first encountered it in that book. It’s probably also because that book is brilliant and was incredibly daring when it was published. It’s the kind of fiction I most admire. It shone a spotlight on a reality that people preferred to ignore. So, THE HELP did evoke TKAM for me. (So did WHISTLING IN THE DARK, another book club book, which was set in the US but not in the south.)
ROOM, in contrast, is literary fiction. It was a finalist for a number of awards including the Man Booker. It’s a contemporary story of a woman who has been kept captive as a sex slave by a kidnapper, but escapes with the help of her five-year old son. I expected it to be less accessible and more troubling than it is – but the decision to have the five year old boy narrate the story was a brilliant one. It both insulates us as readers from the true horror of the young woman’s story (because the child doesn’t know anything different) and lets us experience his discovery of the world outside his prison. At times, the book is very funny. At other times, it’s haunting and sad. I much preferred this book, and not just because I like fiction that addresses difficult issues. (I was curious about the dynamic between captor and captive, which wasn’t within the scope of the book. That probably could have taken an entirely different book to explore, maybe one in the woman’s POV.)
I suspect the issue is the book club thing. I frequently enjoy the books marketed as book club books, but find it a bit off-putting that they are so very polished. In fact, the prose is buffed to such a consistent shine that the author’s voice is often difficult to discern. (THE HELP has strong voices, but they are the voices of the characters.) This makes book club books feel more like products – of course, all books are products, but successful book club books generate a great deal of revenue. The stakes are high in this niche – it’s all or nothing. This polish seems to be part of the appeal, or at least it’s perceived to be part of it by publishers who market to this niche. Often the ideas behind book club books are wonderful, so I wonder if they were more interesting reads before they were polished to such smoothness. I also struggle against the sense with book club books that they are all written by the same author, the author who has the book club book voice.
Of course, they aren’t. Most authors fortunate enough to publish a successful book club book never experience the same commercial success again. These books may be cultural phenomenon but they are seldom the cornerstone of a career. That simply increases the stakes – every book is by a debut author and the risk is high that it won’t succeed. This probably encourages publishers to polish the works even more.
The bottom line is that I pretty much forget book club books. I read them quickly, then forget them. I won’t be forgetting ROOM any time soon.
What do you think of book club books? Do you prefer books that are safe, or ones that take chances? Do you prefer books with strong author voices, or not? I suspect I’m a weird reader, but am curious. I’d love to see a big daring book with a bold voice come out of nowhere and take the world by storm, but maybe that’s just me.