Don’t miss Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent essay on Lolita and female characters in literature and reading while female, Men Explain Lolita to Me.
The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.
Straight white men don’t, so much, because Ishmael and Dirty Harry and Holden Caulfield can stand in for them to some extent. The rest of us don’t have that. Whole movies are about men only; most movies are like that. It’s unpleasantly clear that many men imagine the world as populated by men. They’re men to want to fuck women, to be sure, but that doesn’t make the women real people who matter.
There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.
The men with the stunted imaginations and defective ability to notice the world around them are doing their fellow men no favors by portraying the world as populated almost exclusively by men.
I sort of kicked the hornets’ nest the other day, by expressing feminist opinions about books. 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.
You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…” And the women who read Nabokov’s novel in repressive Iran, says Azar Nafisi of Reading Lolita in Tehran, identified too: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.”
When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.
Dilbert comic Scott Adams wrote last month that we live in a matriarchy because, “access to sex is strictly controlled by the woman.” Meaning that you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you, which if we say it without any gender pronouns sounds completely reasonable.
It also means that Scott Adams too is thinking of the world as populated by men. He’s thinking of the point of view, the receptor for his remark, is male. By “access to sex” he means “a penis’s access to a vagina.” Women don’t “control access to sex” across the board, or for women or for gay men – women “control access” to themselves. Scott Adams sees women’s expectation of being able to say no to sex as strictly controlling access to sex in general – which betrays an incredibly stunted ability to realize that people not like him exist.
But if you assume that sex with a female body is a right that heterosexual men have, then women are just these crazy illegitimate gatekeepers always trying to get in between you and your rights. Which means you have failed to recognize that women are people, and perhaps that comes from the books and movies you have—and haven’t—been exposed to, as well as the direct inculcation of the people and systems around you.
Yep. That’s why culture matters, and that’s why we get to say what’s wrong with it.
Investigative journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong just published a long piece about how police caught a serial rapist (and how one of his victims was not only disbelieved for years but was bullied into saying she lied and then prosecuted for lying). The rapist told them, “Deviant fantasies had gripped him since he was a kid, way back to when he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia.” Culture shapes us. Miller and Armstrong’s grim and gripping essay, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” bears witness to both the impact of popular culture and of women’s stories being discounted and discredited.
Oh look there, she picked out exactly the passage I picked out. We’re passage-noticing buddies! But yeah: that stuff matters.
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.
It’s the same failure to notice. There is no such body of literature, but there is a massive body of literature of rape, and that’s not just some random fact.
I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita. I’ve read it more than once. I joked that there should be a list of books no woman should read, because quite a few lionized books are rather nasty about my gender, but I’d also said “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.” And then I’d had fun throwing out some opinions about books and writers. But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.
It’s worth being serious about this.