Why is Lolita “Sexy” But Romance Novels Aren’t?

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Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, sexual abuse and paedophilia.

I’m a big fan of Flavorwire. They produce some of the most consistently interesting and thought provoking pieces on the internet regarding literature and pop culture. Indeed, they’re one of the biggest inspirations for us here on Bibliodaze. That’s why I’ve been left so utterly bemused by their recent list of “50 Sexy Books to Get You in the Mood for Valentine’s Day”.

Like most lists, it’s hit or mess depending on your personal tastes. I enjoyed the variety of obscure and well know, of outright dirty to the more gentle stories. I nodded vigorously at the inclusion of Orlando and questioned the lack of Tipping the Velvet, my personal favourite sexy book.

Then I saw Lolita.

Oh boy.

Image from FanPop. A reminder that the character in question is 12. Bang up job, Esquire! I feel dirty.

Flavorwire’s accompanying blurb didn’t exactly alleviate my concerns:

“TO BE CLEAR: it’s not the love story between a man and an underage girl that should get you going. It’s the idea of intense, blinding passion that tucks you up under its arm and proceeds to deface your entire life. That, and the incredible writing, of course.”

I’m not really sure where to start with this, to be honest.

First of all, it’s not a “love story”. I can’t get over how often I have felt the need to repeat this statement lately. Lolita is about a paedophile. What he has with a 12 year old girl isn’t love, it’s abuse. The deliberate softening of the language of abuse is one of the things that allows for the perpetuation of rape culture. Oh, you say Polanski “had sex” with a 13 year old girl? No, he drugged and raped her. There’s only so many times I can scream the phrase “unreliable narrator” before I give up on the world. Humbert spends over 300 pages twisting the reader into believing what he feels is some kind of sacred and reciprocated passion. That doesn’t mean for one moment that it really is what he says it is, much less sexy. Yes, Nabokov’s language is delicious, but content overrides style big time here. I’m not sure Flavorwire gets this. If they did, I’m not sure they would have picked this particular cover for the blurb.

Image from Flavorwire. I feel dirty. I could do an entire series of posts on the sexualisation of a 12 year old girl on Lolita covers.

The other issue with this list isn’t regarding what’s on it but what’s not on it. Flavorwire have included multiple erotic novels but only those considered “classics”, like Anais Nin, The Story of O, Fear of Flying and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series (side note but Rice can’t write erotica to save herself). Love in the Time of Cholera is on there, as is Wuthering Heights, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Princess Bride, the works of Lord Byron and even The Great Gatsby. The list is primarily works centred on heterosexual white couples and all relatively “serious” literature.

There isn’t a single romance novel on that list.

We all know why Flavorwire have made such a glaring omission from a list essentially designed to promote romance. It’s the same reason the New York Times drags its feet on writing about the most popular genre in publishing, and why NPR publish articles on how silly the entire category is.

It’s snobbery, pure and simple.

A genre for the pleasure and enjoyment of women, primarily written by women, isn’t so-called serious fiction because it’s designed for titillation. It can’t possibly be anything more than that. Happy endings are laughable and such novels can’t possibly exemplify the universal experience of the human condition quite like John Updike’s regurgitation of middle-class straight white men having vaguely unsatisfying experiences with women way out of their league.

There’s a strange denial of pleasure at the centre of this all, an issue that extends way beyond one Flavorwire list (also, a reminder that Playboy put the book on their sexiest reads list too. I’m just saying). To be specific, it’s the denial of female pleasure. Check out the MPAA’s insistence that a man going down on a woman is so disturbing that it must be rated NC-17, yet blow-jobs or a man masturbating into a pie is a regular old lark. Need another example? How about Beyoncé’s new album being slut-shamed because a lot of the songs talk about how good sex with her husband feels? This goes even further once you discuss the exclusion of LGBTQIA sexual experiences in media, particularly positive ones with pleasure at the centre of it.

The vast majority of the culture we consume is predicated on the tired and false assumption that the straight white male experience is the universal one; why does that have to extend to sex as well? Talk about dull.

It’s not just dull; it’s sexist and creepy, especially since this narrative includes deeming a book about a paedophile sexy. Sex doesn’t come into the equation when it comes to abuse.

For those looking for some sexy romances, I’d recommend anything by Julie James or Courtney Milan. They might not be “serious” enough for Flavorwire but frankly, who cares?

3 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t list the number of ways the Flavorwire blub makes me feel uncomfortable.
    “No pedophilia is not sexy, but we’ve put on a list of sexiest novels any way. If you still don’t like the idea a pedophile’s blinding passion tucking you under its arm should make you feel so much better.”
    Just, just why?

  2. I am concerned at other books listed on Flavorwire as well. Clan of the Cave Bear features a 10 year old who is raped and later gives birth (at age 11). And then there’s the addition of The Virgin Suicides: beautiful and brilliant but uh… not what I’d call Valentine’s Day reading.

  3. It took me months to get through Lolita because the narration was so repulsive I felt like I needed a hot shower after reading a page. Preferably with bleach. The description is beautiful and passionate, but I could barely convince myself to keep reading after he starts raping Lolita.

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