There’s been a lot of drama in the publishing world lately, although it’s not the hysterical censorship wars you may have seen it portrayed as. The young adult world has seen a few titles face pushback from critics and bloggers over culturally insensitive content and that has led some authors to either pull the books from release or delay their publication until rewrites can be done. All in all, none of this is especially shocking or unusual in publishing. Advanced reader copies are sent out into the world, readers offer their opinions, and publishers respond accordingly. It’s basic stuff, but in the YA category, it’s become the new pop culture battering ram for the usual suspects to cry foul. That’s a post for another day and one that requires much more detail and context than I can give right now, but rest assured that you should be very careful about taking the same side on an issue as Jesse Singal.
But this debate has sparked an unexpected development in terms of the ever-exhausting conversations surrounding social and political justice in pop culture. If you thought the Captain Marvel forced outrage was bad enough, wait until you hear this! In an attempt to drum up some fury over absolutely nothing, Rachel Johnson (yes, sister of Boris), writing in Spectator, decried the over-sensitive cultural sphere of today and claimed that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita would never be published today. After invoking the current YA publishing issues and #MeToo (because of course), Johnson smarmily declared ‘Would any publisher have the balls to publish a book by an old white man about an old white man rogering an underage girl’.
Oh, and she also gets angry at people for being mad at author Dan Mallory, who was recently exposed in a profile by the New Yorker as a serial liar and manipulator, because apparently that’s just the fun of being a writer or something? But I digress.
I read Lolita for the first time when I was 16. I was enraptured by Nabokov’s sumptuous prose and fascinated by this story of a serial manipulator who uses his intellect to justify the most abhorrent crimes. I also knew that this book was not about a man ‘rogering’ a girl. It was about a child rapist. A lot of people treat Lolita as this impenetrable piece of academic-level fiction, something that can only be understood by the most elite of intellects, but in reality, it’s actually a very easy to follow story about an unreliable narrator. You’re not supposed to be won over by Humbert Humbert, no matter how hard he tries, and you’re not supposed to buy into his version of reality where a 12-year-old girl is a ‘nymphet’ seductress.
Of course, Lolita has been through its fair share of controversies, and a lot of that happened long before us filthy oat milk loving over-sensitive millennials got our hands on it. It remains hilarious to me that this current crop of rabble-rousing right-wing wannabe provocateurs have latched onto Nabokov’s book as the bastion of boundary-pushing free speech that could never happen in 2019 because it almost didn’t happen in 1955. A quick ten minutes of Googling would have revealed to Johnson and company that it took two years of endless rejections from almost every major publisher before Lolita found a home, and even then, he still had to go to France to get it published. Some critics called it pure pornographic filth. British customs offices were told to seize all copies of the book entering the country, and it wouldn’t be published in Britain until 1959. It’s not unusual to hear stories of the book being pulled from local libraries and schools to this day.
Right-wing braggers can get on their soapbox all day and rant about how today’s youth are too sensitive for a book like Lolita, but this historical rewrite of the past as the bastion of sexual, political and intellectual freedom is laughable at best. The past few years haven’t exactly been short of acclaimed and beloved books chock full of controversial content. My Absolute Darling, a best-seller and award winner, features graphic incestuous child abuse. A Little Life, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a near ceaseless spectacle of rape, child abuse and self-harm. Last year, Zofka Zinovieff published Putney, a novel about a woman coming to realize that the ‘relationship’ she had as a pre-teen with a 40-year-old man was not consensual.
A lot of people who love to use Lolita as their cultural straw-man don’t seem to have actually read Lolita. They confuse its portrayal of abuse for one of sex, which may explain why I have seen way too many people list the book as a ‘sexy read’. It doesn’t help that we’ve spent decades publishing this book with covers so salacious that you cannot help but think that people want potential readers to think of this story as something steamy. The most famous redesigns of the Lolita cover include one with a little girl’s legs on show, one with the now iconic image from the Stanley Kubrick adaptation with Sue Lyon in those heart-shaped glasses licking a lollipop, one of the corner of a pink room designed to evoke a very clear parallel, and way too many with pubescent girls giving come-hither looks to the camera. Whole generations of people missed the damn point of that book, so it doesn’t seem all that surprising to me that many are put off of reading Lolita based on that.
Lolita joins the ranks of Blazing Saddles in becoming the new cultural talking point mostly used by people who haven’t read/seen it or have no idea how the entertainment industry works. Maybe Mel Brooks couldn’t make Blazing Saddles in the studio system of 2019, but Jordan Peele could. Lolita would probably have an easier time getting published now than in 1955, and I doubt it would be the millennials leading the censorship charges against it. No, that would come from the same people who are trying to use it as their cultural shield today, the same people who think describing a book about child rape with the term ‘rogering’ is acceptable.
Come on guys, read a book.
Header Image Source: Corgi Books