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  1. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    Writing: How much of ourselves do we give?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Peerie Pict, Dec 15, 2009.

    I watched a documentary on the BBC presented by Stephen Smith about Vladimir Nabokov, primarily on his seminal novel Lolita. Smith himself loves Nabokov's work and admires many of the issues he treated with his 'cruel eye and satirical pen'.

    However, he struggles with the unquenchable repuatation Nabokov appears to have amongst some as being that 'unsavoury perverted chap' who had dark sexual motives of his own. He goes on the say: "Nobody to this day is quite sure of the motives Nabokov had in writing Lolita. Was it a morality tale or the fantasies of a dirty old man?" The documentary then, rather crudely I thought, goes on a quest to determine whether he was, in fact, a dirty old lech or not. I have issues with this beyond the fact that the premise of the documentary was quite sensationalist.

    Do people generally question motives for writing fiction when it comes stories touching on societal taboos (i.e. such as the sexual pursuit of underaged adolescent girls by older men)? John Updike wrote unsympathetic, macho protagonists who invariably had undesirable views of women. He is known to some extent as being a sexist pig as well as a literary genius. I wonder what was more influential in forming his somewhat dark reputation, his literature or his views outside his work?Irvine Welsh goes to the absolute limits of taste and decency in his writing. I wonder if he has suffered for it in some ways?

    I do not want to shy away from unsavoury issues in my literature. It is often societal taboos that are the more interesting to read about because they say so much about what society holds as sacred.

    When asked in interview "Why did you write Lolita?" I paraphrased Nabokov's reply:

    "Why did I write any of my books. For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficult. You see I have no social purpose, no moral message. I am not a messenger. I have no general ideas to exploit but I like composing a riddle, I like finding elegant solutions to my riddles, to those riddles I have composed myself. I have not met little girls, albeit socially, so Lolita is a figment of my imagination."

    He is a bit of a contradiction in this sense because Lolita is a moralistic tale. I think it is about Humbert Humbert’s realisation that he unwittingly destroyed Lolita’s innocence and it was exactly this innocence which attracted him to her.

    I want to be very brave in my writing and not shy away from emotive issues like victimisation, power, sex, money and greed. To what extent, though, should we care about what people think of our motives for writing what we do? Is it even important what people think of us as writers as long as they like what we write?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I have major issues with this. Those who study literature should know that the speaker or character do not represent the views and ideas of the author. It is true that Nabokov claims he had no motive in writing the novel. I believe him because I sometimes write things for no reasons, also. It seems like the documentary is looking for things that are not there.

    I usually don't question the writer's motive. I tend to value a piece of literature for itself. I don't look at how it inspires or influences society. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Things Fall Apart by Achebe clearly has a motive behind it.

    Perhaps to you, the reader, it may be a moralistic tale. But to Nabokov, it was just another book that he wrote. One of the good (and bad) things about literature is that the readers are free to interpret any given piece. If you see a moral to the story, then that's fine. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there is a moral to the story.

    As I said before, those who know literature probably wouldn't judge the writer or his motives. But there are readers that do judge a writer based on what he writes, rather than how he writes. That's just something the writer has to ignore.
     
  3. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I studied Lolita for the first time under Dr Brian Boyd, arguably the world's preeminent scholar on Nabokov, and he touched on this notion only briefly, basically reiterating Nabokov's statement that contrary to the interpretation of many (conservative) readers, Lolita is not at all moralistic, and any attempt to render it such is misguided. "Difficult" is, I think, a perfect word to describe Lolita. There's always a sense that Nabokov is trying to capture something that hasn't been corrupted by morality or culture; romantic love that isn't essentialised and sentimental, among a great many other concerns in the novel. So no, I don't see any evidence that Humbert Humbert is a banal reflection of his creator; he is a tool created by Nabokov, and quite apart from the author.

    In general, as TW said, it can be useful on occasion to consider why an author writes a particular work, but that should never be extrapolated to mean that the author's intention is central to an understanding of the text. Especially in recent decades (and particularly owing to the works of Barthes and Foucault) there has been a shift in emphasis from the author as controller of authority to reader(s) as authorizing texts, and as such, what the author intended has come to mean less and less and the text is considered in itself, rather than in its place in a sociocultural or biographical context.
     
  4. McDuff
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    McDuff Member

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    As a personal opinion and reader of many books, I would have to say that it all depends on the readers personality as to whether he/she is willing to judge a writer solely on what they write.

    I myself am not afraid to admit that I have passed judgment on several writers throughout my time on this earth. Dean Koontz is a weird cat I think and Stephen King must have trouble sleeping, but I still read them both avidly. These are minor judgments, of course, but on the drastic end of the scale, I will not read James Patterson after reading Kiss the Girls. There are just some things that I do not want to read about and have stuck in my head. Fortunately, everyone is not like me and he has a broad reading base despite my opinions.

    I guess what I am trying to get at is, write what you feel you need to write. Don’t inhibit yourself to what you think will be accepted by the masses You will be judged by some people, but others will love you for it. You can't please everyone. Even the top selling book of all time has critics.
     
  5. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    The answer is simple: Care as much or as little as you want. If you're afraid that writing about taboo subjects (incest or adult-child sexual relationships, for example) is going to make people look at you in a way that you do not want to be looked at, especially your family and friends, then don't touch those subjects. If that doesn't bother you, then go for it. What's stopping you?

    Is it important to you? That's all that really matters.

    Personally, it's not that important to me. I would much rather people love and remember my characters and the stories they appeared in than love and remember me, the author. The greatest compliment I could ever receive from a reader would be something along the lines of, "This story changed my life" not "You're the most awesome writer in the history of the universe." (At least the former might be true.) :rolleyes:

    In the end, as long as I can write stuff that people want to read and pay my bills doing it, I'm happy. :-D
     
  6. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I think my greatest pie-in-the-sky, writing-related fantasy is to see my own collected works burning in a freaking huge bonfire. How awesome would that be? I know, I'm terrible. The trees--I hear ya. But still. . . fun to dream.

    If in twenty years I am not despised on every continent, I'll be very disappointed in myself.
     
  7. Nobeler Than Lettuce
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    Nobeler Than Lettuce Contributing Member

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    Man, that would have been interesting. I've read a bit of Nabokov and I just don't like the guy. True his writing is very beautiful but his sexuality seemed overt and immature.

    On topic, I think that while there may be a trend to focus less on the authors life in context with his work there will ultimately and always be an overt psychological motive that is attached to the text. People tend to want real human situations sensationalized today. Blogs about various types of jobs are extremely popular. "**** my dad says" is going on TV. It's a really interesting shift in popular reading.
     
  8. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with you. On a scale of challenges faced by wannabe writers, I'd say having people talking about your book at all would be more than most could hope for. I wanted to provoke a bit of a debate by posting a topic where the writer's character has been judged through reading their literature (i.e. Nabokov). I wasn't trying to lean one way or another on it. Unfortunately, it has been interpreted that way.

    I personally don't (and won't) censor myself. I just wanted to see what other people thought and I'm glad that, from what I've seen so far, most tend not to be overly concerned about being judged because of what they write.

    As for Lolita, my saying it is moralistic relates to the premise of the novel itself, not necessarily Nabokov's intentions. It's a book about a middle aged paedophile falling for a twelve year old girl and pursuing her. If this doesn't invoke your morals then I don't know what that says about you as a person. He turns Lolita into his personal sex object, dragging her here, there and everywhere to have her constantly sexually available. I'm not questioning Nabokov's motives for writing the book because it's not really very important to me relative to the story itself. Neither am I saying my reaction (or most peoples' reaction) to Lolita is what Nabokov intended. I know it is a complex novel which also has shades of wit and humour but it is primarily a story about sexual abuse. I might revisit the book because it's been over 8 years since I looked at it. I would probably see things hidden to me before.

    I don't know, perhaps it's fashionable and inkeeping of someone's credentials to say this novel has nothing to do with morals.
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    We had a discussion on Lolita a few months ago in the Book Discussion section. I argued that Lolita is just as guilty as Humbert. Anyways, I don't want to derail the topic, so you can take a look at that whole thread since we had a really interesting discussion.

    In regards to the topic, I agree that a writer shouldn't hold back on taboo themes and also shouldn't worry about how he/she will be judged by the public.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    peerie...

    this is confusing to me...

    did the interviewer or you paraphrase it when nabakov was interviewed?... if it was the interviewer, putting that in " " would have helped...

    and if you paraphrased the answer the interviewer published, why would you?...

    if paraphrased, no matter by whom or when, how are we to form any opinions/conclusions from it, when we can't really know what the author actually meant, if we don't see what he said?...
     
  11. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    So what was the conclusion of the documentary? Was he a pervert or not?
     
  12. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    Very interesting post--the whole thing. But it's really your last question that strikes me most, I think. I kind of imagine that if (as fiction writers) we had no issue with potential consequences--what people think of our fiction and how they understand it or ascribe it to aspects of our own character, among them--then we'd likely work less diligently to write excellent fiction. I agree with you that it's often in those darkest of corners of our imaginations where the most complicated quandaries that speak to this point unearth themselves. To be able to resolve one such personal "riddle" as elegantly as Nabokov did in LOLITA I'd imagine would be a pretty transcendent experience. I'd guess in a way that would render the importance of what readers think of him as a consequence to be a minor annoyance, at best.

    Wish I'd seen the documentary.
     
  13. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is it too much to ask to just take a leap of faith and trust what people post here? I was opening a thread for debate, why would I have an ulterior motive?I was watching a documentary where the presenter discussed and debated, and then it was interposed with clips of Nabokov in various interviews circa 1950s/1960s.

    I was typing out what Nabokov said in a video clip - it was not a simple matter of copying and pasting something into a thread from a published article.

    I personally don't think what I wrote is very difficult to understand. I paraphrased it to cut out a lot of "ums" and only really paraphrased the last part where Nabokov was rabbiting on about 'little girls' and whether he had met them or not. I couldn't be bothered to type it out word for word. There's nothing important left out or misleading added in, but if you don't believe me you should go and watch the documentary yourself. Alternatively, all of Nabokov's television interviews are most probably transcribed somewhere on the internet lest someone dare try to misrepresent him.

    You really don't need to worry, there's nothing fishy going on...

    man.

    *note to self: never start thread discussion on this forum*
     
  14. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    In the end I think the presenter alluded to him being a pervert on the basis of his latter work, including a yet to be published unfinished novel Nabokov's son is now planning to publish. I think it was called Laura but I might be wrong. It was said that Nabokov's dying wishes were that he didn't want it to be published and that this might have been because the content was too shocking.

    Ultimately, though, the presenter thought that Nabokov 'redeemed' himself in the ending of Lolita by making it morality tale about a man who has a striking realisation that he has destroyed Lolita's innocence. I know that's not the opinion of the majority of people who post here but I'm only posting what he said.

    I didn't think the documentary was very fair to Nabokov and it was playing into the hands of those reactionary people who think "well if he writes about child abuse and 'nymphets' then he must be a shady character." The documentary did show him as a complex eccentric and this wasn't just due to what the presenter said about him but the way he came accross in interview. One of his colleagues at Cornell described him as a kind person who was loathed to offend anyone. I think these contradictions feed into perceptions of him as a man as well as the motives behind his stories.

    Anyway, I used Nabokov as an example of someone whose personal reputation has been tainted by the ambitious scope of his literature. I wanted to discuss what people thought about the extent to which one might go to write about cultural taboos, regardless of the risk of a personal backlash.

    If you are in the UK you can watch the documentary on BBC iplayer if it's still on there. It might expire soon though.
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    That novel is out now, its called The Original of Laura (previously, only one person had read it (and advised the family on whether or not to publish it), and that was my Nabokov professor Dr Boyd //namedropping).

    And I think there's some confusion about morality in Lolita here. Obviously the content of the novel demands certain moral judgments on the part of the reader. The reason it is difficult to consider the novel to be a moral tale is that Nabokov never really punishes the moral transgressions of the characters, and in the end there is no clear moral message (besides the terribly banal "don't sexually abuse children", but if you needed to read a book to tell you that...). A similar example might be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; the content is read as being utterly immoral, but the way it is presented by the author is totally amoral--no moral judgement is passed, no moral can be derived from it, therefore it is not a moralistic novel.
     
  16. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Judging an author's personality by the actions and motivations of characters in their books is like judging an actor's personality on the parts he/she plays. Great actors are above the fear of this, and so should great authors be.

    I think the whole idea of drawing a connection is absurd. When it comes to morally challenging stories, when people lash out at the author, I believe it's a desperate attempt to protect some moral facade that the book threatens to break... Maybe they even feel guilty by reading it, and then do whatever is in their power to distance themselves from the book and its author.

    It's atleast funny that so many people have lashed out at Lolita, but almost everyone find it perfectly acceptable to read books where dozens of murders take place. As I see it, it enforces my above theory. Murder is easily dismissed in fiction because it's so remote to almost all of us, and easily defined on a black/white scale, but once it envolves sexual ambiguity, morals conflicting with desires, etc, then the same people flinch in disgust. I think because it came too close to something buried in themselves.

    As an author I'd simply point fingers at whoever tries to point fingers at me...or just sit back and smile knowingly.
     
  17. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you are missing the point here.

    It makes it more difficult to debate something when we can't understand if YOU said/paraphrased something, or if the presenter did.

    As this is a writing forum, after all, let's make sure our written communication skills are finely-honed.

    No one is saying you have an ulterior motive, and you have started an interesting thread here, so relax!
     
  18. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's interesting. Did Boyd advise them not to publish it? If so, do you know why?

    I think we're in agreement about morality and Lolita. There is a fundamental difference between whether the subject matter invokes moral judgments, and whether the author intended to convey a moralistic message.

    If readers tried only to decipher whether an author was trying to preach a particular moral message, the literature itself would be sidelined and couldn't stand alone.

    I suppose it's like judging a composer when he/she plays a melancholy piece of music. It would seem absurd to wonder whether they're depressed all the time.
     
  19. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thank you.
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    thanks, mh!... you said it all for me... hugs, m
     

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