‘Why is “Lolita” considered a literary classic?’

I wouldn’t consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita a classic or say there’s more value to it than in a Michael Bay film.

It’s an impressive technical achievement, and it’s formally beautiful; if that justifies its existence, I don’t see how that’s enough to justify its study.

I once read an essay arguing that if there were a story about someone obsessed with chopping off dicks, it wouldn’t matter how gorgeous the prose was: no one would assign it. Instead, this is about lusting after and raping a young girl, so we can call it literature. If hedged, ‘provocative literature’.

There’s a lot of literature that’s beautifully written. This one in particular is studied because it allows people to lust after a teenage girl under the pretense of art, from within the gaze a sexual predator they’re allowed to empathize with without feeling guilty of it themselves.

It’s like the 19th Century paintings and sculptures being pornography for upper-class Victorians, except not, because the subject matter is some Greek or biblical myth. So it’s purely classy. Scholarly.

I enjoyed many passages in Lolita (‘Loleeta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo.Lee. Ta.’), but John Updike’s Brazil is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read sentence-to-sentence. It’s still widely considered one of his lesser works because people tend to need some further justification than beauty when canonizing and saying a thing should be read as a literary classic. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is even showier and full of purple passages, and there’s no child rape in that, either.

So I don’t think Lolita should be banned, but I also don’t see a compelling argument that it should be canonized or even recommended.

It’s dumb as hell to restrict literature to having a “message” or “point”. That’s a high school English class mentality.

It can exist as a work of art any way it wants to even if it doesn’t give you a life lesson to take away from it.

Not everything has to have a point. Some things can just be beautiful for their own sake.

Yet Lolita is a book about child rape and your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy the prose. If you like it, that’s fine. There are things to appreciate. But I can’t agree that it deserve to be studied or regarded as a classic.

Just because of the subject?
It’s also not just about child rape, it’s about Humbert Humbert’s fucked mind and relationship with Lolita.

The book is hardly “about child rape”. You really have an agenda against it if that somehow became the #1 thing you took away from it.

Its’ prose can be studied, so there you go again having no clue what goes into the actual field of literature in academia.

You call it beautiful and successful, but not a classic because it doesn’t give you a certain feeling that other books did. Dumb.

To borrow Rebecca Solnit‘s analogy again, if the book were about someone’s castration fetish and mental processes justifying it, it would be assumed to be a work of feminist propaganda. The author couldn’t dodge by saying, ‘It’s just a subject I was interested in for no reason’. It’s unlikely that it would be widely read, regardless of what technical mastery it demonstrated.

Again: Lolita‘s writing is beautiful, and if you want to read it, by all means do so.

But in the same way, Bay’s Transformers films are not as satisfying (to me) as Dredd (2012), despite the amount of technical proficiency in the direction, CGI, and individual actors. Dredd is really pretty, and it has great action scenes, and it manages to impart something within the framework of a straightforward plot with interesting characters.

It’s beautiful and.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess has all kinds of horrendous stuff that its protagonist does and witnesses and endures; some will say it’s unnecessary there, too, but there’s a point to it. There’s a reason for it happening and the author is asking questions, trying to answer them while offering different convincing answers.

So I like A Clockwork Orange for being beautiful and interesting, and if the beauty doesn’t appeal to you, there are ideas to grapple with and consider. There’s something non-subjective going on and you can talk about it even if you think Nadsat is distracting and serves Burgess’ ego more than the story.

For what it’s worth, Nabokov was able within his lifetime to defend against this sort of criticism directly.

 I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called “powerful” and “stark” by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash…

Lest the little statement I am making here seem an airing of grudges, I must hasten to add that besides the lambs who read the typescript of Lolita or its Olympia Press edition in a spirit of “Why did he have to write it?” or “Why should I read about maniacs?” there have been a number of wise, sensitive, and staunch people who understood my book much better than I can explain its mechanism here.

But to this I still have to say, ‘You chose to write about child rape.’ He could just as easily written about any subject, and in fact, had he chosen something more boring, like, say, pig farming, this line of reasoning would make more sense.

Instead, as his previous attempt at the subject and consistently artists and publishers have chosen to present as the novel’s cover has shown, the reason for the interest and attraction is a focus on the character of Dolores Haze as an object of lust and leering, a seductive nymphet that an adult man might pursue.

If the idea was so particularly intriguing, he just as easily could have tried to put the reader in the mind of a girl who is kidnapped and raped by an adult man. That story wasn’t being told at that time, despite happening in real life, and was no less capable of being populated by beautiful art for art’s sake prose.

But Nabokov apparently couldn’t write that novel. If he could, it’s no coincidence that out of all of his written works, this is the one that has been chosen to be studied and canonized.

It’s my assertion that if Lolita were about a subject other than an adult man being attracted to a child and forcing her to have sex with him, it wouldn’t be widely read today. This is supposedly incidental to the creation of the book, but it’s central to its endurance.

3 thoughts on “‘Why is “Lolita” considered a literary classic?’”

  1. Great article, David., I really enjoyed this! Would you be interested in sharing this post with our writers/readers on creators.co? Would love to promote this on our homepage!


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