Rebecca Solnit Takes on Male Literary Crybabies in “Men Explain Lolita to Me”

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Rebecca Solnit knows all about mansplaining. After all, she’s the one who coined the term in her now-classic 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” It appears that since then, need for the term hasn’t decreased at all. Men continue to explain why her opinions are wrong—treating their own tenuous opinions as fact—as she explains and illustrates in her recent essay, “Men Explain Lolita to Me.”

What’s kind of hilarious is that this essay on being mansplained to is the product of an essay she wrote in response to a piece in which men were being mansplained to. (See? Patriarchy hurts everyone!) It all started when Esquire Magazine published their recurring list, “80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” which gives illuminating literary criticism like the fact that men should read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath “because it’s all about the titty.”

She understandably took issue with the list, not only because it seemed only a step above the Little Rascals’ “He-Man Woman Haters Club,” but because of the eighty books listed, only one was written by a woman (and only one by an out gay man), and most of the books on the list in some way acts as an instruction manual in toxic masculinity.

Solnit responded to this with “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” a tongue-in-cheek list of “masculine” books in which she ultimately says that people should read whatever the hell they want, and that maybe all readers would be better served if they diversified the things they read, or looked at them more critically. In her piece, there’s a portion in which she briefly mentions Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

Speaking of instructions on women as nonpersons, when I first read On the Road (which isn’t on this list, though The Dharma Bums is), I realized that the book assumed you identified with the protagonist who is so convinced he’s sensitive and deep even as he leaves the young Latina farmworker he got involved with to whatever trouble he’s created. It assumes that you do not identify with the woman herself, who is not on the road and not treated very much like anything other than a discardable depository. Of course I identified with her, as I did with Lolita (and Lolita, that masterpiece of Humbert Humbert’s failure of empathy, is on the Esquire list with a coy description). I forgave Kerouac eventually, just as I forgave Jim Harrison his lecherousness on the page, because they have redeeming qualities. And there’s a wholesome midwesterness about his lechery, unlike Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller’s.

That is the one and only time she mentions Lolita in the entire essay, and yet that’s the portion that got her the most backlash, entirely from men.

lolita cover

Solnit recounts the experience this way:

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. [W]hen 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?

All I had actually said was that, just as I had identified with a character who’s dismissively treated in On the Road, so I’d identified with Lolita. [A] novel centered around the serial rape of a kidnapped child, back when I was near that child’s age was a little reminder how hostile the world, or rather the men in it, could be. Which is not a pleasure.

No, it is not. I remember the sick feelings I got when I first read Lolita in my mid-teens as I found myself sympathizing with Humbert Humbert only to remember: Lolita is younger than me! It doesn’t matter that she’s “flirting” (because Humbert has taught her that seduction is the only power she has in the world, which is really no power at all), because he’s an adult and should know better! How dare he talk about ‘loving’ her! He’s ruining her life! Back and forth I’d go between marveling at this finely-etched, but thoroughly reprehensible literary character, and hating that Dolores never got the chance to speak up for herself, or that no one saw their ‘relationship’ for what it was except another pedophile!

In any case, Solnit uses her experience with the responses to her piece to talk about the fact that despite what many seem to believe about feminists, people of color, or LGBTQ+ – that they’re humorless and “can’t take a joke,” that they look for offense to take that isn’t actually there, that they need “coddling” – that it seems that straight, white men are the ones who are humorless and need coddling, especially when you call out their behavior.

Solnit writes:

The Atlantic, a strange publication that veers from progressive to regressive and back again like a weighty pendulum recently did a piece on “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It tells us that, “Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke,” with the invocation of these two white guys as definitive authorities.

But seriously, you know who can’t take a joke? White guys. Not if it implicates them and their universe, and when you see the rage, the pettiness, the meltdowns and fountains of male tears of fury, you’re seeing people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days.

You should definitely check out Solnit’s piece in its entirety. It’s sad that there are so many men who are so oblivious to the fact that there are other points of view in the world, that when they hear even a prominent writer/critic like Solnit identify with a character or a story or a theme that is not them, their heads seem to explode and their worlds seem so easily turned upside-down. It’s as though they’ve managed to wrest global power though sheer lunacy.

Thankfully, there are many men who don’t do that; who recognize that the world is made up of more than what can be contained in their own, narrow experience. Thankfully, those men aren’t dependent on magazines like Esquire to tell them what to read.

(via Boing Boing; Image via Shawn/Flickr)

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Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.