I’ve long cited Lolita as one of my top six favorite books (for the record, the others are : the collected works of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Alice Munro, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude and my forever nostalgia pick, The Phantom Tollbooth). Since I first picked it up in college, I have been enamored with Nabokov’s passionate love affair…with language. I’ve never come across another writer who loves language as much as Nabokov. Even in his memoir Speak, Memory, he is able to make poetry out of the most mundane acts. I’m convinced he ruined The Corrections for me because Franzen came off as too clinical after reading Nabokov. For this reason, always this reason, I have cited Lolita as one of my favorites.
Lately, though, I’ve been having a hard time defending Lolita–the book everyone knows without reading is the story of a pedophile and the young girl whose life he ruins. I’m trying to read through it for the third time, and I simply cannot. I picked it up last month to reread in preparation to attend a bookstore author’s panel called “Beyond Lolita.” Writers including Ashley Ford, Saeed Jones, and one of my heroes, Elissa Schappell, discussed Lolita and sexuality in fiction since the controversial book was first published. What struck me the most was a statement Schappell said about how the book makes us feel bad because it turns us on in a way we don’t want to be. By seeing everything through the protagonist Humbert Humbert’s POV, we’re essentially seeing the world as a pedophile and tricked into accepting that. We feel uncomfortable as we read it, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still engaging with Humbert’s perversity.
Coincidentally, not long after seeing this panel and while still slogging through my reread, I came across Rebecca Solnit’s eloquent essay processing the same feelings I’m having about how one can like a book that empathizes with a pedophile. In “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” Solnit sums up perfectly the experience of voicing (as a woman) your response to Lolita: “So much of feminism has been women speaking up about hitherto unacknowledged experiences, and so much of antifeminism has been men telling them these things don’t happen.”
A woman says, “I have a problem with Lolita being a part of the canon because it is about the repeated rape of a young girl.” A man responds, “But it’s art. We can’t censor art.” I draw the line of what I feel comfortable consuming at an artist’s real life: I stopped watching Woody Allen films, my once favorite director, and I don’t listen to music by R Kelley, for their crimes against young girls (though Allen’s has yet to be decided in a court, I side with the victim). But how can I, a writer and a reader and a supporter of free speech, want to stop reading a book based on its content? I’ve never drawn the line here before, and there is an internal debate raging inside of me over it.
I don’t want to be an advocate for censorship, but I do want to be a critic of a literary canon built on the backs of young girls. Girls are always the wives or the mistresses, the props and the playthings. In Lolita, we’re a living sex doll, a body meant for a man to use as he pleases, with no regard to the brain and the emotions and the spirit inside. What if Lolita had been told from her POV? Would TIME still consider the story “wildly funny”?
I don’t have the answers yet because I’m still figuring out the questions: When is censorship okay? What does it do for the reader to tell the story through the eyes of the “bad guy”? Can we like a piece of art that we’re morally opposed to and/or disgusted by? I don’t know, but for now I know that while I still believe Lolita is an important book, I no longer feel I have to read it again to know that. I also know that Lolita is just one book, but when you consider it beside rape on college campuses, the high rates of female genital mutilation, and violence against women inside every sphere–from football players to celebrities to police and politicians–it becomes harder to justify yet another instance of a man asserting his power over a woman through physical force, even if it is for “just art.”