Could Lolita be published today if someone submitted it?

The question came up in a conversation between me and the perspicacious Judith, who comments on this blog from time to time. Judith used to be an intern at FinePrint, where she read my second book and wrote an amazingly well thought out review. Now she reads queries as a literary assistant at another agency (and I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know which one). She has her own blog at I Eat Books Like You For Breakfast. If you're interested in the humble dynamic life of a literary assistant, then Judith's blog would be a good one to follow.

Judith recently handed in her dissertation, which happens to be on a book you may have heard of, called Lolita. She has a clear view on it. Judith commented in a post on her own blog that: undoubtedly the best novel written in the English language. Ok, so maybe not the best, but it's fourth best: Modern Library 100 Best Novels in the 20th Century.
Which caused me to question whether Lolita could be published today.

Judith's view: Could Lolita be published today? I think yes. Especially if Humbert's charming, witty voice comes through in the query. I bet tons of agents would request it and ask for a 2-week exclusive in a heartbeat. I don't think the subject matter would get in the way of agents wanting to represent it, since the voice is just so irresistible. What do you think, ya?

What I think: Lolita is brilliantly written, obviously, but I'm trying to imagine the agent's call to the editor. I imagine it would go something like this:

Agent: I have a great novel. Utterly brilliant voice. You'll love it!

Editor: What's it about?

Agent: It's a sympathetic look at pedophilia.

Editor: Do you have anything else?

So, what do you think?


RWMG said...

Actually that says 4th best English novel of the 20th century. What happened to Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and the Brontes, to name a few? I admit I'm arguing from a point of weakness here, because I haven't actually read "Lolita".

Tabitha Bird said...

Hey Gary. I haven't been here in a while. Sorry about that :)

Love the conversation between the editor and the agent. And yeah, I kind of imagine that is what would happen. I think the agent would have to be very savvy about how that book was represented. But I do think there would be a publisher out there who would see its merit. I would hope so any way.

Gary Corby said...

Fair point, Robert. The basic question nevertheless still applies: is this a great book of only a few decades ago which would be unpublishable today?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Tabitha! We've all got far too many interesting blogs to check out and not enough time. I pop into yours from time to time but I can't remember the last time I commented (apologies in turn).

So you think Lolita would find a publisher, but possibly a small or specialist?

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This is fascinating. I just finished reading agent Jill Corcoran's blog post about famous writers who had been rejected. Here is what one publisher had to say about Lolita:
"overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian...recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years"

Jude said...

Long comment ahead, beware. I just wrote 40 pgs on this exact topic, "Nympholepsy in Our Time: The Historical Reception of Lolita." So it's all about the audience's reaction and interpretation of it ever since its publication.

In 1955, Nabokov couldn't find a publisher in America because *no one* spoke about pedophilia. 1950s media was all like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy, which couldn't even say the word "pregnant" and network censors said they could only say "expecting." Joyce's Ulysses was banned, even if it didn't have any explicit sex really, just you know, indirect allusions to it. And Memoirs of Hecate County by Nabokov's former friend Edmund Wilson was also banned in 1946 even if it just had the more accepted relations between an adult man and woman. None of these even touched pedophilia. So publishers knew that a book about a charming pedophile would not only get banned, but the publisher would risk fines and jail time. So Nabokov could only find a small press in Paris, Olympia Press, who--unknown to him at the time--was known for their racy titles. Anyway, the main obstacle in the 1950s was that pedophilia was adamantly kept quiet.

Now, it's in the media everyday so Lolita is disturbing for a different reason--it's all too real. While before, no one *spoke* of it and they pretended it didn't happen in their society, today we know all too well that Humbert is a tangible threat. So I think that's the trouble with publishing Lolita today. Either way, 50 years later, pedophilia is still an explosive topic.

The agent would just have to pitch it very carefully. It's not meant to be a purely sympathetic look at Humbert, anyway. We're suppose to see him as a monster too, and recognize the tension between his love and guilt, and the reader in turn feels the tension between pity and revulsion.

The pitch would probably have to have a joking tone to capture Humbert's voice--I mean, as joking as pedophilia can get. I really like that FML summary of Lolita's plot: "My landlady, whom I hate, just told me she's in love with me. I am in love with her 12-year-old daughter. FML." lolol An approach like that, maybe?

scaryazeri said...

Interesting point, indeed. I would imagine that it could go either way. It could either hit big time BECAUSE it is about such a shocking topic.
Shocking makes good $$$.

Or, it could be the best novel ever, but everyone would be too afraid to touch the topic. But once someone brave did it, everyone would go crazy about it. :)and make more $$$$.

Nabokov is one of the best writers. His way with words is just unique. Both in Russian and in English.

Jude said...

I agree with scaryazeri. I think it's because Nabokov had the superpower of synesthesia.

Anthony Pacheco said...


Not only is Political Correctness rampant in many English speaking countries, here in the US it is practically forbidden to consider child sexuality in light of humor and reflection. This has gotten worse, not better.

The age of being able to sell a Lolita is over. Society today has a bad habit of taking what is unacceptable today and paining the gray world of yesteryear in the non-shade of black or white. I can't even have an honest discussion about Victorian men without encountering revisionist history.

Jude said...

Wha?? Even if all the major publishing houses turn it down today, there's so many small presses that might consider it. Maybe Lolita's journey to publication in this age would be the same as what happened in the 50s--Nabokov would have to go abroad. But regardless of where it's released, it *will* get international attention, just like what actually happened. I don't think the age of selling Lolita is over...

And plus, an editor might not just rely on the pitch. Maybe an editor will actually read a page or two and realize its lyrical brilliance and that it's actually literary, not smut. I mean, whenever I see a well-written query, I give it a chance even if the topic doesn't seem like it's for me. Better be safe and spend an extra minute on the query/ms than be sorry. I'm sure I'm not the only person who does this, right? Especially if the editor/agent sees that the author has published lots of other works before, he/she is more likely to give Lolita a chance. Surely, there's an editor out there willing to take a chance on a controversial book.

Yes, we're more PC now, but our society is also more aware that pre-teens aren't little pure angels, that they're experimenting sexually too. In the 50s, it was so shocking that Lolita wasn't a virgin when she first had sex with Humbert, but now it's not unheard of for 13 to 16-year-olds to be sexually active.

So Lolita is still disturbing and controversial, but it wouldn't be impossible to sell it today.

Gary Corby said...

Welcome, Tricia, I think this might be the first time you've commented on the blog.

You'd be hard pressed to find any famous, successful writer who was not rejected at least once, but that reject for Nabokov is fairly emphatic. So I guess that counts as a, "Not right for me"?

Gary Corby said...

That's good point, Scary. So you've read Nabokov in Russian, I deduce. That'd be fascinating. Does he read the same as in English or is the voice different?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Anthony, now you have me totally intrigued. What is it about Victorian men that requires revisionist history? I'm clearly very innocent because I can't offhand think of anything too offensive.

Loretta Ross said...

I suspect Anthony is referring to the fact that homosexuality was common in Victorian times? Homosexuality is one of the things the revisionists like to revise out. Just the other day a man I know assured me that Patrocles (sp?) was really only Achilles' valet.

As for Lolita, I have to admit that I've never read it. The subject matter turned me off. I quite enjoyed The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, though.

Gary Corby said...

Is homosexuality still such a big issue? I can't imagine a book being unpopular because the main character's gay.

On Patroclus, if I recall correctly there's nothing in Homer to say outright that Patroclus and Achilles had a thing for each other. But certainly all later Greeks simply assumed it.

The one which amuses me is the modern Greek reaction to any statement that Alexander was gay. They tend to get very upset, which is strange considering Alexander - one of the greatest Generals the world has ever seen - was gay beyond a shadow of a doubt. (I wanted to say he was as camp as a row of pink army tents, but alas his general disposition more along the lines of ruthless efficiency and manic overwork.)

scaryazeri said...

I have never read anyone else in Russian (and it is my native language) who writes more eloquently, more beautifully than Nabokov. To me, anyway. I would think he is better read in Russian.

One thought I had from reading these comments is that to me, when a good writer talks about a taboo subject, it has no danger to society. It should be possible to write, or to make movies, on all sorts of topics. and it should be a personal choice whether to watch/read this stuff or not.

I have just thought of a very good movie I watched a couple of years ago- The Woodsman. About a "good" pedophile, so to speak.
Kevin Bacon was superb in it. I thought it was very thought-provoking. If a movie like that was possible, that means Lolita would probably be published today, too.

Gary Corby said...

Scary, what a brilliant comment. I suspect you're one of the few people here who can read and write fluently in two languages.

If a publisher did pick up Lolita, would pressure groups spring up to ban it?

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi, Gary. I think you're right that this may be my debut from lurking to commenting here. I'm enjoying this discussion.

I have no doubt that pressure groups would try to ban Lolita today, especially when you see the long list of books, including Lolita, that have already been attacked. The real problem may be that some people don't comprehend or appreciate nuance or irony in writing.

But since people suffer long injury from pedophiles, I know why many wouldn't read Lolita. The same can be true for any topic that deeply disturbs someone. No matter how good a book or movie may be, they stay away because it will cause them trauma.

Anthony Pacheco said...

Hi Gary,

Great discussion! Anytime I consider everyone posting smarter than I am, I've come to the right place!

I researched the Victorians through their use of photography, back when I was trying to expand my dabbling in photojournalism into a career by studying early portrait photography.

The Victorians worshiped girls, from their purity, to their intrinsic beauty and yes, their sexuality. Yet, despite all the photographic evidence to the contrary (and it used to be considerable), many of these Victorian photographers are now simply labeled perverts because a number of these photos featured nudity and even provocative looks.

The last conversation I had with a historian went south because of this very reason. It's political correctness, it's forgetting that to label a deviant, one has to consider the morals of the previous society in question, not the current one.

It's depressing. I am no defender of the Victorians on morality grounds, but, essentially, this was yesterday. The Victorians were an eye blink from today.

Much as I would love to believe that Lolita could be published today, and while I do not have fiction publishing experience, my observation is this: still waiting for Lolita II.

Gary Corby said...

Well I'm glad you de-lurked, Tricia!

The degree of revulsion seems to vary with the taboo. It's possible to write all sorts of terrible tales of cannibalism, for example, and (some) people will soak it up. I suspect because people think, it couldn't really happen. On the other hand, with Lolita, most people will think, it happens all too often.

Which makes it weird that people love murder mysteries, though murder happens all too often too. It seems murder is more socially acceptable.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Anthony, yep, that's a tough one.

I come across this in ancient mysteries on a fairly regular basis. To be marketable a modern novel has to appeal to the current audience, and fair enough too. But to be true to the ancient times, there are attitudes, totally the norm for back then, which modern readers would find difficult if not repulsive. It's a fine line the writer has to tread!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Hello, Gary. I actually looked up your blog from a recommendation from Janet Reid at Pennwriters Conference this weekend. I'm glad I visited.
I soaking up the discussion and it begs the question if we find some of the attitudes of historical societies repulsive, what will they say about us a few centuries from now. If humans survive.

Loretta Ross said...

Regarding Alexander, I don't know if you'll have heard of it in Australia, but in the U.S. right now there's a lot of debate about banning a policy known as "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" or DADT, that allows gays to serve in the armed forces as long as no one knows they're gay. Repealing DADT would allow them to serve openly. Even most of the top military officers are now in favor of repealing it, but congress, influenced by a small but vocal extreme religious conservative demographic, is dragging its feet. One congressman, a few weeks ago, made a statement that openly allowing gays would weaken the armed forces.

I keep wanting to tell them, "oh, my God! Yes! It is dangerous having gays in the military! One of them might rise to a command position and take over the entire known world! And, seriously, do we really NEED an empire?"

Doubt anyone would get it though. :-/

I wish there was more surviving information about Hephaestion. He sounds like he must have been a fascinating character.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan, welcome to the blog!

I bet Janet also mentioned my agent-sister Kari Dell at Montana For Real.

I probably should have guessed Janet would mention us in a talk on social networking, and then arranged for all the unsuspecting Pennwriters to see something a little more normal than an edifying discussion on the artistic acceptability of pedophilia.

But actually, come to think of it, this is what passes for normal conversation on the blog, and very lucky I am to have fellow odd people to
talk to!

On your point...I can think of all sorts of viewpoints we consider odd that could come back into vogue. Herodotus famously mentions a tribe where it was the custom to eat one's mother-in-law after the wedding. (Mine might have been a little chewy). Homosexuality comes and goes, so to speak. Science Fiction has all sorts of interesting future customs that are sort of credible.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, as I understand it, it would be grossly illegal in Australia to discriminate against a gay soldier even if he screamed his preference in the middle of the parade ground.

In fact we seem to have the reverse problem. Right now there's an inquiry into one Australian Navy ship where some of the male sailors were running a book on who to know, the most female sailors onboard. For some reason the ladies found this irritating.

RWMG said...

Without wishing to impugn the general truthfulness of the Australian navy, I'm not sure I would take these particular sailors' word for it as to the depth of their acquaintance with their colleagues, so how were they proposing to prove it if those they were betting with proved equally sceptical?

Gary Corby said...

Do you know, that never occurred to me? I don't think your excellent question came up in the course of the official inquiry. If it had, I'm sure the answer would have got significant airplay in the news reports.