Rebecca Solnit Doesn’t Explain Lolita to Anyone

Rebecca Solnit writes in The Lit Hub that she’s gotten what she considers ill-founded pushback on an essay she wrote in response to Esquire’s list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” specifically with regard to Lolita: “some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion.”

In my experience very few people, even among cultural and moral relativists, actually espouse a view from nowhere in most of their daily life, pretending essentially that they have no preferences or personality. And Solnit herself does not do so here: instead she falls into the unfortunate position of holding the strong opinion that it’s wrong for other people to hold strong opinions.

The essay irked me when I first read it on December 17, the day it was published, but it irks me even more that I’m drawn to write rebuttals of things that seem so ultimately boring. Over the next few days, I seemed to see more organizations sharing the essay, though, praising it as…well, I’m not sure. Because what’s really here?

The 2,900-word essay takes more than 1,100 words to mention Lolita, and by my count less than 400 words are (generously) about the novel. There are about another 500 that could be fairly characterized as comparing other books to Lolita. Gamergate and pickup artists get more than half as much space as Lolita itself. Most of the essay is devoted to theorizing about empathy and the emotional state of people (men) who made negative comments about her previous Lit Hub essay.

(The Lolita essay includes only four links throughout: one to her previous Lit Hub essay on 80 books no woman should read, one to a story in The Atlantic on college students and microaggressions, one to a 1988 essay by Arthur C. Danto, and one to an essay about “women’s stories being discounted and discredited. There were no links to anything written by anyone who disagreed with her. She does not even clearly say that this essay is a counter to responses to her essay on the Esquire list; perhaps all the criticisms she is talking about are in the comments to that, but she never says.)

So what does she have to say about Lolita? That should, of course, be the interesting question. There are two main points: that men say it’s wrong to “identify with” a character, and she says they’re wrong about that (she doesn’t explain whether it’s correct, necessary, okay, one possible thing to do, etc.); and that it’s a book about “a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” At no point does she explain what that is supposed to mean.

It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience?

If the answer to both of those questions is “no,” then what? What does that mean about Lolita and why it shouldn’t be on a list of books men should read?

Challenged by one man with the idea that Lolita is an allegory, she responds: “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.” What does that mean? There is not much hope of finding out. All she really said about Lolita in the first essay was that it was a “masterpiece of Humbert Humbert’s failure of empathy,” which makes me wonder if she forgot about the frame.

The other issue is the one of “identification,” and whether it’s—what? acceptable? necessary? To support that, Solnit draws on the “currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but” notes that “if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not.” But does that theory really do the work Solnit needs it to?

The idea is that by reading a novel with characters who are different from you, and learning about how they might think and feel and be in the world, you will empathize with them better. But Solnit seems to take that to mean that you will sympathize with them more. It doesn’t occur to her that empathy could breed anything else, but of course not all understanding brings people closer together. Sometimes understanding someone better clarifies how different you really are. I have frequently felt more alienated by reading novels with characters who are truly different from me; their stories prove we are far apart.

And that really goes to the heart of it: Solnit makes a lot of unsupported claims about what empathy does, about what it means for novels to induce it, about how readers and critics react (“no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett”), and most of all around what automatically happens to someone’s epistemology because they, for apparently the first time, needed to develop a theory of other minds.

Curiously, she seems to undermine most of her point about Lolita itself:

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…”

This would suggest that there is not only a possible reading generally in line with the way Solnit thinks of the world, but that in fact it was there all along, intended by the author or at least discussed with his wife, who was well known as a major influence on his work. Perhaps, in fact, the whole point of Lolita (or at least a point of it, and an important one) is Solnit’s reading—so why on earth is she pissed that Esquire thinks people should read it? Why not, instead, talk up how valuable it would be for men to read it and identify with Lo?

Because that wouldn’t be playing a team sport, I guess.

A commenter on that original piece complaining about Esquire seems perceptive:

I disagree — I think the books named for the “80 Books No Woman Should Ever Read” list should be on an “80 Books Every Woman Should Read and Talk With Men About”. I initially agreed with the article, and then I went to Esquire list to see what other absurd tidbits I could pick up from it. But Esquire’s point about For Whom the Bell Tolls (a book I disliked) says men should read it not for the guns or drinking or sex but for “A lesson in manhood: Even when you’re damned, you press on.”

And that made me realize something: I didn’t get that from the book at all, but many men probably did. Whereas I saw dumb machismo, they saw perseverance and purity of purpose. I’d be interested to hear why intelligent men think Hemingway embodies manliness– is it the penis thing? Or is there something more profound that doesn’t occur to me because I’m coming at it from a different perspective? What is it about penis-gun-death that is so appealing to some people but so ugly to others?

Intelligent and curious women should read these books because we are fascinated about a perspective that is alien to us, and because, for whatever reason, many men we share this earth with DO love these books and see something valuable in them. Let’s ask what it is. Let’s start a conversation. Let’s really absorb and try to understand perspectives that repel us, rather than giving them a label that allows us to dismiss them.

The constant psychopathologizing is, let’s say, just not to my taste. Passages like this seem so obviously hypocritical that it’s hard to see how others found the essay:

Saying this upset some men. Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it (see: privelobliviousness). They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.

If the entire piece isn’t about how her interlocutors are wrong and sometimes also evil, I don’t know what it is about.

Because I have no idea what Solnit thinks of Lolita and why. Perhaps if she herself had a clearer opinion on the book, she would understand better when others defend theirs like they actually believe in them.

3 comments to Rebecca Solnit Doesn’t Explain Lolita to Anyone

  • Lizzie

    Thanks for writing this!

  • scratchie

    I don’t think the point of the essay was to explain Lolita.

  • Zizi

    Good points. I hated Solnit’s “80 Books” essay and left comments civilly criticizing it. Her “Lolita” essay was so baffling and so tangential that I was unable to finish it. Yes, “Lolita” is about a child-rapist. No kidding, Sherlock! Why is Solnit explaining the obvious? Why is she unwilling to consider the novel’s allegorical dimensions? Doesn’t she see Nabokov’s mastery of the art of creating an unreliable narrator and taking us inside the mind of a manipulator? I hope to God she isn’t confusing the character with the author, as so many people do when discussing “Lolita.” It sounds as if she believes that the people who praise the book most highly are empathizing with Humbert and condoning his actions, because that’s her primary means of interpretation. In fact, that’s a huge mistake.

    I don’t think there’s much to be gained from Solnit’s literary essays. They don’t seem particularly intelligent or insightful in any way.