This morning the very fun, very talented Beth Wareham posted to Shadow Teams what I’m sure was meant to be a post to get people talking about how most men don’t succeed at writing erotica, with their noted exceptions. [I share the link for context. This isn’t to incite angry comments on either page, and please do not engage in any argumentative way.]
As a professional writer of romance (some might define it as erotica because, you know, it’s about The Gays), that got my attention…but not in the way it was intentioned. Please note that this isn’t an attack on one person. This is my anger with a particular work and how often it’s held up as a “gold standard” of “erotic” writing, and most often by male academia.
Lolita is a book about molestation, foremost and above all. It’s about gaslighting, it’s about manipulation, and it’s about the disgusting lie that a twelve-year-old girl is “sexually precocious” and on the same level mentally as a thirty-eight year old man. There is a built-in assumption that she has any measure of power.
“But it’s about language! Nabokov is at the top of his writing game! He set out to see if people would feel for a monster! It’s ART!”
This is what I’ve always heard in rebuttal. (And always from men. Always.) Nabokov set out to create a protagonist who is the worst sort of person and still make you care about him. And I’ll just say this: if you sympathize with a pedophile, you need to do some self-examining.
Because make no mistake: this book is responsible for teaching pedophiles and pederasts the world over how better to groom their victims. This book is responsible for normalizing rape culture.
Delores–how many even remember “Lolita’s” name?–is a victim. Delores is groomed at the young age of twelve–that’s sixth grade, folks, that’s elementary school in most parts of America–to be the sexual plaything of a grown-ass man. I want you to look around at twelve-year-olds if you’re an adult, especially if you’re pushing forty. I hope it makes you feel a little sick to think of someone your age wanting to have sex with those children.
Humbert Humbert, our main character, states upfront that his preferred sex partner is a child from nine–NINE!–to maybe the old age of fourteen, because once they get hair down there…. Well, the beauty is ruined. Jesus jumped up Christ. But yes, Nabokov writes this with excellent sentence structure and powerful imagery. Imagery of a grown man being sexually aroused by a prepubescent child.
…have you never considered that? Or is it just too unimportant to focus on? (This is focused on male readers, honestly, because I don’t know many women who don’t understand this.) I’ve heard “that’s not the point” in arguments propping up the “importance” of this work.
“Nabokov set out to make you sympathize with the worst sort of person ever!”
…okay? But I don’t understand how you can ignore that the book is about a man being sexually aroused–and acting on that sexual arousal–by the thought of fucking a child. And for god’s sake, the book title is the child’s “sexual” name. It isn’t even her real name!
AND WHO DO WE TALK ABOUT WHEN DISCUSSING THE BOOK? Humbert. Never Delores, never her. And that’s important.
It’s important because poor Delores’ mother is killed; she reads Humbert’s diary, learns of his predilections, and in a panic rushes out of their house and is struck and killed by a car, leaving him free to be in complete control of a pre-teen for his own sexual pleasure. He’s giddy with it.
It’s important that Delores is now trapped with a man who wants to have sex with her, who plans on and follows through with drugging her to get what he wants from her unconscious body.
It’s important that it’s not at all necessary for her to be involved in his having sex with her—he just wants to do things to her, because she is a literal object. She’s manipulated into believing she has any sort of power over him (refusing him in a hotel as they travel the countryside) but she’s still trapped in a hotel with a man who wants to have sex with her, and eventually trapped for years with a man who wants to control her body for his own sexual gratification and desires. That’s important.
It’s important because this very mindset of a “sexually promiscuous child” is what made it okay for some folks when Roman Polanski drugged and anally raped a thirteen-year-old child–a seventh grader, for better context–when he was forty-one. Some people still say it’s okay, because that thirteen-year-old swished her hips. She wore short-shorts. She sucked suggestively on a lollipop. She was a “party girl”. I mean, hey. She’s asking for it!
Did you maybe consider that she was just wearing shorts, she was just walking, and she was just sucking a lollipop and that the perception of it being sexually suggestive is on the person observing? Because that, too, is important. That’s the most important part, actually.
Oh, but Delores is aware of her power, because she eventually leaves him for Humbert’s pedophile pal, Quilty! She knows what she’s doing, guys say with a wry grin. Really? Or is she maybe a child going with the man who says he’ll take her away from the nasty man, Humbert? Because that’s how it’s actually written. That’s the actual story. He’s going to take her away from creepy ol’ Humbert and put her in the movie picture shows. Also fun fact: it’s revealed that Quilty is actually a pornographer and wants to put Delores in those films, not some bobby-soxer ’50s romp, like she thinks. Ha, just another man using her to get what he wants… what art!
Fun plot twist for Delores: she then dies at the old age of seventeen in childbirth. (See: fridging.) Ha, okay I see it now, black comedy, right! (What I’ve been told this book truly is for decades.) This book is hilarious. Why, I’m laughing so hard I’m crying!
Lolita is repeatedly defined in modern times as a freaking comedy, a black, wicked romp. And that is always by men. I’ve only heard a woman once in my forty-
three five years on this earth praise this book, and that was this morning, first printing of this article. Every woman I know despises it. Every woman I know hates that men snigger and praise it, getting off on the male power, the male gaze, the male desires allowed to run rampant within its pages, dangerous and destructive. It’s all too familiar to many of us.
Those of us who have suffered as Delores has or who know women who at a similar age were groomed by men such as Humbert and Quilty, we cannot see this in the same way that men who praise it can. And we sure as hell can’t see it as a “black comedy”.
Lolita isn’t about language or the ability to create a sympathetic character. It’s not sensual. It’s not erotic. This book is about a pedophile and about how destructive that is to the child on which he preys. That’s literally what the book is about, what Nabokov set out to write.
But okay, sure. [throws hands up] It’s well-written.
Words have power. Literature matters. Society changes based on the power of literature. (Don’t believe me? Here’s an excellent article about the good Harry Potter has achieved culturally.) This book is responsible for continuing the incredibly wrong idea that a child has sexual power over an adult. That is legally, morally, and ethically false.
The point Lolita sets out to make according to its author (caring about a despicable man who sexually preys on pre-pubescent children) is important because of how often it’s taught, who teaches it (middle-aged males, typically) and because of how easily it became a “classic”. How it reinforces this morally reprehensible idea that a child can be sexually powerful over an adult, leaving us to sympathize with the “poor adult.”
And it’s incredibly important to remember that the book wants you to sympathize with a child rapist, and makes him, not the victim of his abuse, who you sympathize with. But yeah, I guess the language used is pretty well-typed onto the page.
This is where the internet puts that .gif of Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park saying “You were so preoccupied with whether [you] could, [you] didn’t stop to think if [you] should.” Nothing good comes from this book. I stand by that. Nothing.
Sound off (respectfully!!) in comments. Should all art be respected by virtue of being art? Or is it important to acknowledge the effect art can negatively–if perhaps unknowingly–produce?
AND PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS BOOK IS ALMOST LITERALLY MOMENT BY MOMENT TAKEN FROM A REAL LIFE STORY OF A YOUNG GIRL ABDUCTED BY AN OLDER MAN, SALLY HORNER. So. No “creatively genius” at all, huh?