Wandering Eye:

Men mansplain 'Lolita' to author of noted essay on mansplaining

A month ago, Rebecca Solnit (author of many books and essays including "Men Explain Things to Me," the 2008 essay about the phenomenon of mansplaining that was included in an eponymous collection of Solnit's essays in 2014) responded to Esquire's continually resurfacing list of "The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read," which named 79 books by male authors and only one by a female author (Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories"). She sharply titled her critique "80 Books No Woman Should Read," noting that, really, everyone should read anything they want. "I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty," she wrote. "Or they're instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means."

Solnit objected in particular to Ernest Hemingway "because if you get the model for your art from Gertrude Stein you shouldn't be a homophobic antisemitic misognynist," as well as Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison, Norman Mailer, and William Burroughs, because they failed to exhibit empathy toward their female characters—if women were even present at all in their stories. (What's also notable about Esquire's list that Solnit does not touch on is how closely it resembles those on school curriculums, save for the absent Jane Austen, perhaps.) The essay's biggest takeaway (other than the tattoo-worthy line "Hemingway is Tonka toys") is Solnit's argument that books, and art in general, should not act as instructions for masculinity, or any gender, race, or other identity marker for that matter, but to extend one's sense of empathy and experience. Esquire, the monthly guide to sleek, well-oiled manhood, presumably would disagree, because the idea that people should read things that aren't just grooming them to be a certain kind of person would put them out of business.

Solnit's essay circulated widely around social media and, unsurprisingly, offended a lot of men, some of whom explained more things to her in their comments. Things like "You don't seem to understand the basic truth of art," that "Lolita" is an allegory (no shit), and "To read Lolita and 'identify' with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov" in response to Solnit identifying with the title character, Lolita, a young girl who is raped by Nabokov's infamous protagonist, the middle-aged Humbert Humbert. (In its book list, Esquire's disturbing description for "Lolita" is "So gymnastically lyrical. So damningly heartfelt. So horribly dirty. So, so good.")

Solnit responded to such objections last Thursday in a follow-up essay, "Men Explain Lolita to Me," pointing out that her critics' rejection of her opinion as a falsehood suggests they may have been "insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads." Such is the consequence of only reading Esquire's recommendations—books only by and about men.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy