first, to reiterate, this isn’t about lolita as a book. actually, way back when i read drown for the first time, i favorably compared diaz’s achievement in yunior as a narrator to nabokov’s performance of humbert (these kinds of first-person triumphs i always think of as virtuoso performances). this is about trends in reactions to those books.
i went to go see junot diaz read on monday, he called me very stylish when i got my book signed, and afterwards i spent a few days revisiting interviews & writing about this is how you lose her (my write-up, my tag). this means i got to be reminded of people who were like, “this book is so disgusting and misogynist, yunior just constantly objectifies women, it is awful, diaz is a bad person who hates women.” which, to start: i don’t understand how you can claim to care about diaz’s depiction of women and not mention 1) “otravida, otravez,” the story (beautifully) narrated by a woman and 2) yunior’s mom (see here for some of my thoughts on that).
but, setting that aside, i was trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. partly, like, yes, full disclosure, i am hugely fangirlish about junot diaz. but having thought about it, i don’t think that’s all. and one thought i had that was kind of a click moment for me was: would these people say this about humbert humbert?
because here is the thing: i have never, ever, ever heard anyone accuse nabokov of being a misogynist for writing lolita (which i don’t think he was), even though humbert not only objectifies the child he rapes but also is hugely and overtly misogynistic towards women at large. instead, Lolita Stans (semi-defined previously, used to distinguish from reasonable humans with critical thinking skills who love lolita) praise him for using a million adjectives to distract them from the part where he is a terrible human being or, even, for making them sympathize with him and be drawn into his worldview. (which, like, jeez, how “the devil made me do it,” poor nabokov, eh, take some responsibility for yourselves, Lolita Stans.)
repeat: nabokov gets praised (sometimes in ways that make sense, sometimes by Lolita Stans) for creating and sustaining the voice of a misogynist child rapist (redundant kind of but his hatefulness towards women is worth mentioning here i think); diaz creates a serial cheater who talks about pussy a lot and — i mean, this is not the widespread reaction — but in some corners gets blasted as a misogynist. two authors construct narratives with certain similarities, and get treated very, very differently. (i mean, even the 1-star reviewers who are like “this book is awful because child rape” don’t bother to mention his general misogyny.) and on the note of objectification: is describing an ass as existing in the fourth dimension more objectifying than opening a book with a self-indulgent declaration of how much you loved stripping a twelve-year-old you were raping of her entire identity by denying her any name except the one you selected? again — i think it would be silly to take that and be like “ergo, nabokov objectifies women,” even though humbert has extremely flat, object-like views of women. and like, serial cheating is v. bad, but hopefully we can agree it is not as bad as child rape, right??? but humbert is A Masterwork Of Art, and yunior is An Onslaught Of Misogyny. i mean… i personally don’t buy that, for starters, but my personal opinion aside, once i thought on this disparity, i was kind of like, whoa — there’s something worthwhile here.
so i started thinking: where does this difference come from?
and, lots of places, probably. but one that i think is very important is the thing i mentioned towards the end of the Lolita Stans post: part of the charm of humbert, as expressed by the Lolita Stans, is the way he takes advantage of language that very much codes as Art (so much so that they do not notice he uses words wrong like constantly!), that is inherited from a tradition laaargely dominated (especially half a century ago) by white dudes and maybe a couple white women. he aligns himself, in other words, with people reading lolita on private school campuses, and actively distances himself from the plebes — of whom the child he is raping is one, which, maybe think on that for a bit, the way he objectifies her while scorning her for her, hm, cultural identification (that he assigns to her).
yunior… does not do that. yunior is poor, is actually kind of a genius but hides it, actively distancing himself from intellectual culture in almost all the places we meet him, yunior aligns himself with the lower classes, with immigrants, with people of color (*but, for the most part especially as he is growing up, not with black people even though he is afrolatino, which is sort of a separate post but bears mentioning), like, with immigrants of color from an island the rest of latin america looks down on, so, like, think about how that translates to the US. (“hey, at least we’re not dominican.”—puerto rico)
humbert luxuriates in Art; yunior denies his. and people fall for both of those things, which partly says something about how talking about first person narrators with most people is annoying, but also, i do think, says something about, uh, racism and classism.
a child-raping white dude with big words, written by a white dude: what an amazing construction(—Lolita Stans)!!! a poor immigrant afrolatino victim of sexual abuse (and heir to a legacy of like, rape on a national scale) who sleeps around a lot: dominican men are disgusting!!!!
and here’s the thing: i don’t think diaz is making excuses for dominican men, and another writer he reminds me of is faulkner, because of the way both of them engage very directly with the fucked-up-ness of masculinity in dominican culture & the south, respectively; and i think diaz, like faulkner, is a writer so much rooted in geographic and cultural place that it’s disrespectful not to speak of his characters as dominicans, if that makes sense. but… do you see what i’m saying here? diaz is VERY ACTIVELY exposing the toxicity of this form of masculinity, while simultaneously exploring the traumatic abusive legacy that feeds into it. I MEAN: Lolita Stans, check the amazon page if you don’t believe me, can sympathize with humbert, Because Art, but an abusive dad/dickhead older brother who dies of cancer/history of sexual abuse/life spent in the institutionalized abuse that is poverty and racism — none of this can humanize yunior for these people? talking about ass & sleeping around (partly because of that traumatic legacy) cannot be discussed as an artistic construction, but talking about how sexually attracted you are to twelve-year-olds is?
i usually talk about the phenomenon of denying artistic agency when it comes to female songwriters/performers (“all chicks with guitars are confessional”—music bros). but i think this is a parallel, here, where if you’re a white dude, drawing attention to your rootedness in art, breaking into french, Language Of A Country Of White Cultural Flourishings~~, you know, of course you are a very brilliant author doing brilliant things on purpose (even though, like, Lolita Stans are not even giving him credit for the purposefulness of his most interesting things). if you’re an afrolatino/dominican writer, using language meant to evoke a naturalistic expression of your background, dropping spanish slang, you know, obviously there’s no distance here between author and character!!! never mind that even though it is in the background, very much present in diaz’s work is an incredible, especially for a dude, understanding of patriarchy. misogynist character = misogynist book!!! unless you’re an elitist white dude, in which case, Wow, Genius.
it’s a question of what gets read as Art; what is considered objectification (seriously, seriously, the way Lolita Stans quote the opening of lolita without acknowledging that it is literally kicking the book off with an ode to abuse and not just physical but complete psychological objectification, like, stop that); who is considered worth engaging with enough to see below the first-person surface. it’s about privileging The Intellect and Beauty and Art in such a way that it gets accepted that like, these things can make us sympathize with anyone!!!! whereas (incredibly deliberately constructed, if you are not very lazy) language that sounds like it comes from not-the-elite, not-the-white, doesn’t even register as Art.
and it’s also, maybe, about a refusal to connect a legacy of cultural abuse in the form of colonization, rape, genocide, brutal dictatorships, poverty, and racism — a refusal to connect these things to, uh, anything, but i guess particularly in this case, to the possibility that these things might maybe have to do with the development of cultural norms????? a refusal to place behavior and beliefs in a larger context (in any context) of oppression and power/lack of power.
like — isn’t this kind of the tegan and sara letter about odd future? isn’t this, basically, “omgggg, fellow white people, rap and hip-hop are soooo sexist.” not identical. but, i think, related.