Over at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit has a follow-up to her recent and provocative "80 Books No Woman Should Read"
called "Men Explain Lolita to Me."
You should read it. Everybody
should read it.
A sample, with added boldface:
It all came down to Lolita.
“Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To
read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely
misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me, which made me wonder
if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The
popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy
assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re
wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s
just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book
about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.
Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this
is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no
relationship to your own experience? This man thinks so, which is
probably his way of saying that I made him uncomfortable.
. . . .
But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters
is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my volunteer
instructors. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and
another nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was
actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and
it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and
over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came
along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I
wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around
castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably
more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if
the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book
after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of
castration, it might have made an impact on him.
What she says so well is what I was trying to get at here
Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes
of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced
because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex
d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and
feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct
and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves. See,
she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then,
emotionally speaking, [and I don't buy it now] but I know a party line when I hear one and after
one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.
Solnit's "nice liberal men" mansplaining the book to her as though she just didn't get it--well, it took me back a few decades to when I had the same losing argument. I shut up, because I was a student and it was already a timeless classic, and if I couldn't see that, guess who was wrong?
There were only two possibilities:
1. You ignored Lolita's plight and reveled in all the nuances and games-playing and puzzles, etc. etc. etc.
2. You expressed discomfort at Lolita's plight, which revealed your obvious inability to "get it"--just as Solnit's commenters have said to her.
Literary criticism has developed many ways of shutting people up, but this one is the most common. If you express discomfort at the subject matter, you just don't get it. Irony, satire, subtlety--all are beyond you because you're expressing emotion, like a fool (or a woman?) rather than reason and being smart. Remember, the adjective we prize most as academics is "smart" ("it's a
smart book," "that's a smart argument") meant in a very specific way.
Criticism loves the transgressive and gruesome, of course -- still does -- and this was transgressive for the time.* It was the same mindset that said if you don't laugh along with Hemingway at the comical spectacle of the horses gored in Death in the Afternoon
and The Sun Also Rises,
you just didn't get it. You don't have aficion.
You're not Lady Brett Ashley, as you should be.
What we find transgressive today isn't what was transgressive then, but it's the same impulse. "Don't be sentimental,"
we hear, although the single most sentimental thing I ever saw was the movie Leaving Las Vegas,
much praised for its unsentimental toughness because its subject was a male alcoholic writer (which critics love as a subject, because alcohol + writer = tough and manly) drowning in self-pity, or what would have been called self-pity if he had been a woman.
But as with tech enthusiasts (I am one, really), to balk at something doesn't mean that you don't get it. Maybe it means that you're operating from a whole different set of ethical or social premises, and maybe, just maybe, those stirrings of discomfort deserve a second look.
* Exhibit A: Current literary darling Mary Gaitskill. From Alexandra Schwartz's "Uneasy Rider," The New Yorker
9 November 2015, p. 77: "By reputation, Mary Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse." Critical jackpot: "immune to sentiment" and