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Everybody’s Got A Limit, Right?

By now, it’s obvious that I’m highly uncomfortable reading Lolita.

That said, the book is beautifully written–and as I mentioned yesterday, it’s disturbing how effortlessly Nabokov seems to get inside the head of a pedophile.

My discomfort with this novel also raises a point we’ve discussed before: When a book brings a lot of negative emotions out of you–anger, depression, disdain–doesn’t that simply mean the author has written an amazing novel? If I really dislike this protagonist, Humbert, doesn’t that simply mean the author did his job of writing a powerful character?

That said,  I would presume that all of us have some type of breaking point. In other words, you don’t care how good the writing or literary significance is, you’re not going to read about that, a subject matter that is totally off limits.

For example, this is a scenario that I brought up in the comments a few days ago: What if Lolita was two-years-old? As disgusting is that is, would that make a difference in how you view this story?

Nothing is different about the novel. It’s still wonderfully written. It’s still a story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. The only difference is that Humbert is obsessed with a two year old. Where’s the line here?

That’s just an example, and maybe a bad one. But, surely, there’s a line, right? Am I just a close-minded prude?

In my opinion, this is a subjective issue. This is definitely a novel I would not have read had if it had not been on this list. And I get the feeling that Tropic of Cancer might be the only other book on the list that comes close to Lolita in the pervert category.

So where do you stand? Is there a topic that’s off limits to you?

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. One book I reviewed with nightmarish dread was The Monster by Allan Hall. It’s the true story of Josef Fritzl and Elisabeth, his unfortunate daughter. I couldn’t sleep for days after reading that one….Alan Hall writes with journalistic precision and you can’t help but admire him for tackling such a gruesome story.

    Thank you Robert for the thought.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  2. “Is there a topic that’s off limits to you?”

    No. The only things that turn me away from a book are bad/predictable writing and un-original thinking. As long as a book is well-written and/or well-argued, I’ll stick with it through whatever lurid subject matter it wants to throw at me. The only story I almost didn’t finish was “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk, not because the writing was weak (quite the opposite) but because it was physically PAINFUL to imagine what he was describing. Some writers take us to strange places, and I’m always up for the ride. I may not sympathize or relate, but at the very least I want to understand.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  3. I really enjoy Lolita as a novel. It is beautifully written and a sad sad story, which sometimes a person needs to read to realize beauty in the real life. I don’t usually draw a line, because I don’t feel it’s fair to judge books until the last word is read, but I read a book a few years ago that I could not finish. It was written by a someone who had an obsession with the “fairy tale” world and the main character had a sexual relationship with a gnome. But he was raping the gnome (or maybe he was a wood nymph, I can’t remember) anyway, the scenes were so graphic and disturbing I couldn’t continue. So I guess I have a line, and it was not fun discovering it.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  4. For me it’s about time. I don’t see the value of spending time which is in short supply reading about an unfathomable subject. Raping is one of those subjects.

    As for Tropic, at least they are all adults and willing participants. It just found Miller’s description disgusting to read.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  5. Not really. I think that “having a line” negates the basic point of Literature — through good writing any and all situations can be rendered beautifully, or at least poignantly, and we can go anywhere in time, see through the mind of anyone. I’ve read books that have distressed me, definitely, about murderers, or rapists, or incest, etc… but at the same time these motifs are central to human consciousness, despite their perversity. If not, we wouldn’t keep writing about them.

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    December 16, 2011
  6. Excessive cruelty, pedophilia and rape are tough for me. I read Lolita and Naked Lunch in sections – and read reviews as I went along to break it up. I didn’t even try to read Blood Meridian or the gang rape section of A Clockwork Orange (which caused enough distress when I sat through the movie).

    As for depressing books, I “ran at” Revolutionary Road, finished it and enjoyed it, but am still looking for the energy to finish The Corrections.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  7. My “line” isn’t subject matter, but the writing itself. I think that Lolita is actually a perfect example of this, as Nabokov manages to take difficult and uncomfortable subject matter and create a work of brilliance. However, a lot of authors wouldn’t be able to pull that off, and there was a Neil Gaiman short story featuring a pedophile that I absolutely hated. It’s entirely dependent on the skill of the writer.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Very true. I guess if I’m not comfortable reading Nabokov write on this subject then I would never be comfortable with anyone else writing on it.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
  8. I had a lot of the same thoughts a couple months ago while reading “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman–a very well reviewed book, critically acclaimed, etc. etc. I had to stop about a third of the way through. To my own subjective eyes, the swearing, sex and violence crossed the line into being gratuitous. Even though I found the concept of the story fascinating, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

    If I had a blog like this, it might have be a harder decision. But when I asked myself “what am I really losing if I don’t finish this book,” I couldn’t come up with a good answer.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Yep. The blog makes me forge right through. Sometimes that helps though when a book I might have given up on gets better.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
  9. Gayle #

    For some very different reasons, I have completely stopped reading books and seeing films about the Holocaust. My mother was a survivor (4 of her 6 siblings did not) and eventually committed suicide as a result of her inescapable pain.

    At one point, I read every Holocaust book I could read just to have better insight. My final line was drawn at “Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kozinski, who also ended up killing himself, when there was such an utterly horrific scene that I think I literally shut the book, and said “That’s it!”

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Can totally understand that, and that’s the kind of stuff I think people don’t think about when they say they don’t have a limit.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
  10. I don’t have a limit about subject matter – It is all about the writing for me. Gratuitous sex/violence/swearing/whining would be a definite “stop” for me – every word should serve a purpose when you are telling a story. Don’t try to shock me with your word choices – tell me the story and let the story shock me.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Can’t stand anything gratuitous. And a good reader will sniff that out from a mile away.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
    • I couldn’t agree with you more missfitz. Every word is crucial, and gratuitous language does nothing to contribute to a piece of work.

      Like

      March 28, 2013
  11. “What if Lolita was two-years-old? As disgusting is that is, would that make a difference in how you view this story? … Nothing is different about the novel. It’s still wonderfully written. It’s still a story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. The only difference is that Humbert is obsessed with a two year old. Where’s the line here?”

    ************

    It seems you have enough difficulty with a real novel like Lolita, so why be concerned about a novel that doesn’t even exist? This is a form of what is often referred to as “Tilting at Windmills.”

    But take a second and consider this hypothetical book. First, and most important, it would not be Lolita because Lolita is about a teenage flirt as much as it is about a pedophile. Two year old toddlers seldom are accused of sexual come-ons. Also, Nabokov would have to completely rewrite the narrative since the type of attraction that overcomes Humbert would be ridiculous if applied to a two-year-old and the novel would be highly flawed written as it is now. Imagine how this toddler is going to have power over Humbert by manipulating sexual favors—the story turns into a comedy, something out of Benny Hill.

    No. Straw man arguments tend to be extra-textual and unconvincing. This one is no exception.

    http://mdparker46.com

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Mike, you’ve misunderstood the point of the post. The 2 year old mention was just an example, and I said it was probably a bad one. The point isn’t to look at all the logical inconsistencies of Lolita being 2…the point is do you have a limit to what subject matter you’ll read about. That was just an example….pick anything else.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
      • You cannot offer an emotionally charged alternative that is totally extra-textual and expect it to prove any point about the novel. What if we substitute a three-year-old sheep for Dolores: does that work? To paraphrase what you wrote earlier: Nothing is different about the novel … the only difference is the Humbert is obsessed with a three year old sheep. Where’s the line here?

        More importantly, you cannot use an argument Ad hominem to critique a piece of literature, or anything, for that matter. If you have another book where a pedophile is having relations with a two-year-old, then a discussion of crossing the line is valid. It is not valid in a discussion of Lolita.

        This all reminds me of the often heard argument against gay marriage: if we let the gays marry each other, man-to-man or woman-to-woman, the next thing we’ll be confronted with is a man wanting to marry a chicken. Where’s the line here?

        If I never offered my own opinion: it is that nothing is restricted in literature. Every reader, however, can judge for themselves if the literature is personally acceptable but no reader should offer an opinion without having completed the experience of reading the book and taking some time to think about it.

        Also, as far as interspecies relationships go, I’m still thinking about that one.

        http://mdparker46.com

        Like

        December 16, 2011
  12. I’ll give up on a book if I perceive that the subject matter is gratuitous and lacking in purpose – as you discussed. The key is my perception. I won’t waste my time. It is, after all, my time. Someone else may perceive it differently and be willing to give it their time. I gave up on Naked Lunch. However, I finished Child of God by Cormac McCarthy despite Lester Ballard being a disturbing character.

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    December 16, 2011
  13. Josh Mahler #

    I see several posts mentioning Cormac McCarthy’s novels, and for me, these never left me with a sense of disgust and revulsion. While gratuitous and certainly disturbing, most notably Child of God, Outer Dark, and the pièce de résistance of challenging a person’s violence threshold, Blood Meridian, these stories seem to take place in some other mythical plane of existence…they’re like demented fables passed down through history. Perhaps the disgust rests in how beautiful and evocative McCarthy writes these violent scenes.

    For me, the novel which left me utterly exhausted, to the point where I just wanted the damn book over, was Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. With the being said, this is an admirable book for what’s it’s trying to accomplish. I understand the themes and intent of the story, but whew! I just couldn’t take anymore brutality…the film version, however, is a perfect social satire.

    Like

    December 17, 2011
    • American Psycho is one of those books that, for me, demonstrates the value of New Criticism. The book is far greater than anything the author might have intended. I recently read a similar novel, Theatre of Incest by Alain Arias-Misson. This one reads like a good old pornographic novel with the son experiencing highly sexual relations with his mother, then his daughter, and finally his sister; but it is all obviously metaphoric—the surface text is pornography while the subtext is an honest and open exploration of the many ways a man and a woman interact sexually. Just as the violence in American Psycho was all fantasy and never happened, so too the sex acts in Theatre of Incest.

      What other novels work like this? Would Fight Club be an example?

      http://mdparker46.com

      Like

      December 17, 2011
      • Josh Mahler #

        Theatre of Incest sounds fascinating. This conjures up memories of reading Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest, although the parallel between the two might be minimal. Perhaps it’s just the titles that make me remember. In this short book, the ‘incest’ is highly metaphorical, used in such a way to demonstrate the necessity for pleasure AND pain within the real world, existing in tandem…because without both working in constant conflict we as people would grow sedate, impotent, useless – victims of our own pleasure without any balanced release or human response.

        And yes, I would agree with you about Fight Club – the fantastical elements of the novel used as a catalyst to symbolize man’s emasculation, the need to develop male connection to compensate for the lack of a father-figure, and growing up in an era of men raised by women. Like McCarthy’s novels, the violence becomes primal – primitive man returning to strike with his fist just to feel like a man once more.

        Many transgressive authors, such as Chuck Palahniuk and Ellis, explore these themes quite frequently in their works – a stunted society enslaved by these primal urges and stimuli. It never ceases…

        However, to answer your question, what about J.G. Ballard’s Crash – the use of the automobile, or rather human technology, to symbolize sex/arousal/connection…it’s only when they are using technology, ‘crashing’ into each other with the technology of their bodies, can they release and feel true emotion. Technology becomes the catalyst…

        Like

        December 17, 2011
        • Crash is a good example with the caveat that (and I am thinking back many years now) in Crash the connection between the mayhem of an auto-wreck and good sex is more explicit in the text than some of these other examples where the subtext is completely hidden by the text.

          There is a very edgy Japanese film called Tetsuo: The Iron Man that you might find highly metaphoric (or maybe just crudely disgusting, the line is often very thin).

          http://mdparker46.com

          Like

          December 17, 2011
  14. I think it depends on your purpose for reading. As I read to escape from my own life and anxieties, there is little to be gained by reading books that create further distress.

    Like

    December 18, 2011
  15. Well, I guess I am a prude, because I absolutely do have a line. I think good literature is ultimately edifying in nature — not necessarily cheery, not necessarily self-affirming, but one that leaves me with important insights about myself or human nature, or insists that I do some rough soul-searching, or gives me the chance to develop greater empathy and understanding. I’m ok with books that create distress, and I’m even ok with literature that suggests that human existence is meaningless (such as Waiting for Godot), provided these works aren’t just indulging in stirring up emotions for emotions’ sake. Pornography, for example, doesn’t ask difficult questions and provides no real entree into true critical dialogue, offers no insight into Truth, (except at the meta level, maybe) which is one (of many) reason(s) I try to avoid it. I’m definitely a fan of reading a book just for its aesthetic value, but it’s almost impossible to separate the beauty of the words used from the ideas they communicate. Do I have to read Lolita (just as an example) to appreciate Nabokov’s brilliance? Can’t I experience great art that doesn’t tiptoe next to smut? I don’t expect my “line” to be the same as everyone else’s. I think censorship is a deeply personal decision. I am well-read, well-educated, and fairly liberal-minded, but come on. The things we read become a part of us. Why shouldn’t I be discerning about what I allow to live in my head? And why should I take in something that leaves me feeling like a worse human being after reading it?

    Like

    December 18, 2011
  16. I only read particular genres, but regarding the topics of the books that I read, I don’t wish to impose limits. There’s something about strangeness, especially if handled beautifully.

    Regarding Tropic of Cancer, I didn’t like that book not because of the subject but because of the way it is written. I don’t think they should sit side by side because Lolita is waaay better than that crappy, incoherent, bombastic book. I think the narrator of Lolita can still be sympathetic, unlike the narrator of Tropic of Cancer. He just has that, c*nt-ventures.

    Like

    December 18, 2011
  17. Rula Mazigi #

    Your question of limits reminds me of the question of art. That is, what is art? I remember reading a book a long time ago that was written by one of our English professors. It was about an old (German?) carpenter who was told by the Nazi’s that his new profession, that is, his natural talent and artistic craftmanship would now be used towards making special requested items for elite Germans from the bodies of holocaust victims. Yes, we have orders for lampshades made of Jewish skin etc…make them or we shoot you.

    The story was brutally grotesque as this gentle man delicately went to task on the bodies of the dead, taking such care which each body part, deciding to do the best work of his life so that he could honor these people he was using.

    Is it art when your canvas is a reviled subject (relative to the taste of the observer)?

    What I am trying to say is that your question is actually quite deeper than it appears…the question I see here is really, ‘what is art’? An age old question which is still debated today.

    I myself stop when I feel negatively impacted emotionally and this impact has an effect on the quality of my state of mind and being without any benefit whatsoever.

    Nice post.

    Like

    December 19, 2011
  18. I will be reading this next year and I’ll let you know. As for Tropic of Cancer, I’m glad I read it even though I was disturbed by the sheer sexism and chauvinism. I ended up discussing the novel with my boss and she told me that there were women writing at the same time in the same style and that threw me more than anything else–the times were such that even the women wrote in degrading styles about other women.

    Like

    December 19, 2011
  19. There aren’t any topics that are truly off limits to me. There are definitely topics that make me feel disgusted, horrified, and queasy, but as you suggested, I think that is one mark of a talented author.

    I would guess that people’s responses to your question depend on what they think the purpose of a novel is. I think that one major purpose of a novel–no matter its genre–is to teach us more about the human experience, and the human experience is often disgusting, horrifying, and nausea-inducing. Reading about these terrible things that people are capable of, or that they must endure, raises our consciousness of them. It gives us a safe environment to consider what we would do if faced with something a character faces. Reading about something truly awful that happened to a character can also help us feel less alone in the same or similar awful things that have happened to us.

    There are topics that I hate reading about, because they make me confront the fact that these things do happen to real people, but at the same time, we are all human and we learn something about the human condition from reading these hard-to-read stories.

    Like

    March 23, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Ranking The First 35 Novels | 101 Books
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  3. Can Literature “Cross The Line?” | 101 Books

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