Lolita on Wikipedia: 2,300 edits later


Emily Morris surveys the 2,303 edits made to the Wikipedia entry for Nabokov's Lolita since it was first created, some ten years ago. The entry still draws an edit every other day or so, and Morris's analysis of the different sorts of edits coming in illuminates something of the difficulty of converging on consensus about seemingly straightforward subjects like the plot of a novel.
The constant back-and-forth over word choice is just a microcosm of the same (albeit slightly less charged) issue of relaying the plot. This revision from January 2007 changes “rhapsodize over Lolita in her sleep” to “sexually molest Lolita without fear of discovery.”
Case History Of A Wikipedia Page: Nabokov’s 'Lolita'

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        1. Care to provide arguments and evidence that would support that bald assertion, that rather bare thesis? I’ve always regarded it as a masterpiece, and one of the best anatomies of male sexism and sexual brutality (dressed up as achingly beautiful lyric “passion,” of course), as well as plain-old male oafishness and self-centeredness. So why does Lolita suck?

          1. You seem to have a brain- use it, and figure out the answer for yourself.

            But, wait- it seems like you answered your own question, though:  ‘I’ve always regarded it as a masterpiece, and one of the best anatomies
            of male sexism and sexual brutality (dressed up as achingly beautiful
            lyric “passion,” of course), as well as plain-old male oafishness and
            self-centeredness.’ Yep- it’s misogynist, pedophilic rape-fantasy, disguised as ‘Art’, so it gets a pass from scrutiny. Anyone (like Twisty, for example) who questions Lolitas status as’ Fine Literature’ gets dismissed as ‘trype’ and ‘a joke’. And it goes on and on…

          2. Why misogynistic, why rape-fantasy, why disguised as art? It IS art, no? Anyhoo, arguments and evidence are lacking that would substantiate your rather broad claims. And no one ever claimed that anything ever gets a pass from scrutiny.

          3. So, art/literature is not allowed to–or should simply not be praised when it does–reflect the less-than-ideal or imperfect parts of reality?

        2. You’re right, of course, in the literal sense: there’s a lot of sucking in it. You’re wrong, nevertheless, in the critical sense: it’s great literature. very entertaining fiction and doesn’t suck a bit.

      1. Seriously? While I wouldn’t dip a toe into the seething cauldron of debate in this thread I cannot draw any a parallel between the two works. Nabokov’s work is a tapestry of wonderful prose that carries the reader through to the end. In a later release, Nabokov calls Lolita nothing more than a story and not something to be analyzed. That said, Lolita is wonderfully written. Miller’s story telling is pedestrian and crass offering his readers little more than smut.

    1. I honestly just can’t read that.  I’ve never read Lolita, but I can almost guarantee it’s not as mysogysnistic (as this woman claims, I managed some but not all of her trype) as Manyuu Hikenchou (don’t bother looking it up, it’s effectively softcore porn where a woman’s worth is solely in the size of her boobs).

  1. “rhapsodize over”
    Does that mean singing Queen songs, goes I’ve had that and it’s not so bad.

  2. Calling Lolita misogynistic is missing the point… Nabokov’s not condoning Humbert Humbert’s actions. Is every piece of literature where a woman is taken advantage of misogynistic?

    Anyway, interesting article. Some of the pieces of the pedantry seem a little silly, but I’d rather have something nitpicked than incorrect.

    1. NO, it is not ‘missing the point’. That IS the point. Humberts Humbert’s character being reprehensible does not change anything.

      And, ‘pedantry’. Added to the list of words used to dismiss what was written, along with ‘trype’ and ‘a joke’. Textbook, and predictable… wow, some serious undies are bundled over this. And, I’m no longer amused by this ‘discussion’… time for a jog, I think. :)

      1. Did you really think Humbert Humbert was presented favorably, as if Nabokov is advocating pedophilia?

        Do you also dislike Dostoyevsky because his characters tend not to have their finances in order?

        On another note, I just love the first few lines of Lolita. Amazing that Nabokov isn’t a native English speaker:

        “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

  3. I just finished Pnin, another work of Nabokov that is considered to be among his best. It’s quite good. Pnin doesn’t display the careful construction that Lolita does, but Nabokov develops its main character better.

  4. I was actually talking about the pedantry in the Wikipedia article… anyway, I’m sorry you fail to see the merit of the work. *shrug*

    @John: I liked Pnin too; very funny. I have to wonder if he’s poking fun at himself. I’ve heard a story where he went to the wrong class and gave the lecture; once he was informed, he told the class “That was a preview of Comp. Lit [class name!]”

  5. Getting back to Nabokoviana, I heartily recommend The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first novel in English, and to my mind one of his best, often overlooked in favor of the later English novels. Try it, you’ll like it!

    1. The spirit that lead to the wiki ‘edit-war’ seems to have quickly infused anything that links to it. Again, pure Douglas Adams.

  6. It’s all right everyone. As long as we hide, reject, and obliterate any mention of actions and emotions that are contrary to our own positive vision of the future we’ll be ok. A singular, utopian, non-patriarchal society is a goal that can be supported, nourished, and agreed upon by people from every religion, culture, and race – right?

  7. i would accept these objections if there were just one solid representative example of how terrible Lolita is.

    it took me a while to accept this, but we do have an unspoken intellectual standard wherein the one challenging the status quo has to present the argument. it’s not perfect but it’s better than the alternatives. doctressjulia on the other hand can only say “figure out the answer for yourself,” and the iblamethepatriarchy blog also has no specific examples. this lack of clarity is what makes it a “joke,” rather than its agenda.

    i will not speculate on why this is, but it suffices to observe that this is called obscurantism, and i don’t think it’s particularly patriarchal of me to ask for more.

    1. Well, one common reply is the incredible investment Nabokov has, or seems to have (or could be argued as having) in the sexual acts, fantasies, etc. that Humbert foists upon Lolita. The prose Nabokov uses to describe-narrate Humbert’s thoughts is supercharged, lyrical, incredibly sexual, and, indeed, beautiful: a lot of critics of the book have seen this as de facto identification with and approval of, if not pedophilia, then of sexism, of the male gaze, of the essentialization and objectification of women, etc. At the very least, all the steamy bits have really freaked people the fuck out across the years. And in a culture that’s rightly concerned with sexual violence against both women and children, it’s a hard sell to argue that Nabokov inhabits this toxic male imagination only to deconstruct it from within, to show its poisonous beauty, its awful and hermetic self-regard, its flattering of itself (i.e., Humbert’s criminal lust is seen by him as a great, tragic love): lots of readers tend to be struck with the effect of this language, while not seeing the possible deconstructive and political uses to which this language could be put.

      I don’t have any citations for the above, but I have heard that from a lot of women readers of the book over the years: students to a lesser extent (and less cogently), and a few more colleagues and friends. One hears similar things about the prono bits in Pynchon et al. These have never seemed terribly compelling arguments to me, but I must admit my own rather privileged position in the debate as a white male dude guy.

      But, really, funk that, it’s one of the best books ever! I’m much more interested in having a list of “acceptable to anti-patriarchialists,” a kind of anti-canon of books that both sexists and the impressionable can learn from, since Nabokov et al. are deemed too toxic by some. Anyone?

      1. Look, I’m not taking sides in this little tearing at each others’ throats. But what is there to learn, that people like this Humbert character are deranged idiots?

          1. No, just read the WP plot summary:

            Humbert obsesses over Lolita.

            Humbert inadvertently causes Lolita’s mother to get killed.

            Humbert takes advantage of Lolita’s mother’s death to abduct and start actively molesting Lolita.

            Quilty abducts Lolita from Humbert, then abandons her.

            Lolita starts a family, then later turns to Humbert for pecuniary assistance, which Humbert renders, and she tells Humbert about Quilty.

            Humbert executes Quilty.

            Humbert is arrested for a traffic violation.

            Two scumbags, at least one of them too batshit stupid to know he’s a scumbag, ruin a child’s life after a one of them gets her mother killed, apparently all in very clever prose. I need more than literary finesse to interest me; I need a plot worth following.

            What, pray tell, could be worth learning from that story? Is it a lesson in what happens when adults with the psycho-emotional maturity of twelve-year-olds turn their disturbed attentions to children?

          2. Because plot summaries often hold the keys to all literature.  No wonder SparkNotes are so popular.

            And I suppose I should go throw my copies of Lolita, Heart of Darkness, and other assorted ‘controversial’ lit onto the fire, in that case.  Obviously, anything that contains disturbing themes without outright guiding of the reader to a particular moral interpretation is without value or, as you say, has nothing ‘worth learning.’

          3. Because plot summaries often hold the keys to all literature.

            I said I required an interesting plot. I did not say plot was everything.

            And it is not the the theme of immorality I find wanting. It is the uninteresting nature of the theme of immorality in this particular plot. A story that simply follows idiots through their idiot march is boring, however well the author writes it. It’s not the controversial nature of the book that makes it unappealing. It’s that the controversy is manufactured. The characters sound as if their actions flow inexorably from their personalities. Putting a lens to a particularly pathetic personality and seeing it runs it’s maze is a poor excuse for controversy, IMHO. Obviously, tastes may vary. I am not passing a moral judgement on the book. I’m passing a judgement as to whether it’s worth reading, which to me it is not provided the WP article’s plot summary is accurate.

          4. Ah, I’m sorry for mistaking your argument as moral disgust when it’s just preemptive judging based on a Wikipedia article.

            That being said, I certainly am the sort of person who will give merits to a book on things other than plot.  (Though I do not concede that Lolita lacks that element.)  Some of the most quiet or simple stories are the most beautiful.  For instance, boil down Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to a sentence or two and it would sound deathly dull.  This is probably true of most stories, to be honest.

            But if you require plot (whatever you requirements for that may be–though I have to wonder what makes a ‘sexual neurosis,’ as you described it, and the myriad of social issues implicated by that any less interesting than, say, the age-old story of love leading to ruin, like in Antony and Cleopatra, or any other narrative archetype), then–while I think it’s a rather simplistic way to view literature in general–go on ahead.  No one’s stopping you.  But, if nothing else, Nabakov’s prose is exquisite and the subtleties of his storytelling always impress me.

            It could be an issue of ‘tastes may vary,’ but then again, you’re ‘passing judgment’ before even attempting to read the novel, which inevitably makes me wonder where your logic or adamance is based at all.

          5. have to wonder what makes a ‘sexual neurosis,’ as you described it, and the myriad of social issues implicated by that any less interesting than, say, the age-old story of love leading to ruin, like in Antony and Cleopatra, or any other narrative archetype

            Shakespeare’s characters don’t, on the whole, behave as if they stopped growing up when they hit puberty.

            It could be an issue of ‘tastes may vary,’ but then again, you’re ‘passing judgment’ before even attempting to read the novel, which inevitably makes me wonder where your logic or adamance is based at all.

            The logic of my aesthetic assesment is based on a belief that interesting characters wouldn’t behave in the manner described by the plot. What interesting to you may not be the same as what interests me. There are a great many books in the world and I have finite time. I also do not like to not finish a book once I get more than a few dozen pages in, so I have learned to be very choosy. I have finished some truly horrendous books because I kept hoping they would live up to their hype. YMMV.

          6. All the same, I don’t think you can assert anything about Nabokov’s characters (or, really, even make an ‘aesthetic assesment’) until you’ve, you know, read the story.  Just a thought.

            And we all have finite time, I’m not even trying to talk you into read it, just suggesting that–perhaps–your rather strong opinions have little basis.  If your stance is non-engagement (not reading), why so much investment in making sure everyone knows that’s your stance?  You say YMMV, but it comes across as very ‘why do people even read this, with it’s ridiculous, sexual/puberty-like characters/plot?’

          7. The comment I’m replying to was deleted, but I quoted the relevant bits. If this is moderated as well, so be it, but I humbly ask this first paragraph remain. I can’t blame the mods, as I have participated as much as anyone in dragging this thread off course by not leaving well enough alone. My apologies to Cory who wanted to discuss the admittedly more fascinating subject of Edit Wars, not Lolita.

            The reply:

            If your stance is non-engagement (not reading), why so much investment in making sure everyone knows that’s your stance?

            My initial offhand comment was not meant to be a literary thesis. But some people thought I took exception to the characters’ immoral actions and others thought my concern was for plot exclusively. I like to make all effort to be clear in my communications, so I engaged in a moderately prolonged discussion to clarify my position.

            You say YMMV, but it comes across as very ‘why do people even read this, with it’s ridiculous, sexual/puberty-like characters/plot?

            The main character does exhibit a profound lack of sexual maturity; as much is clear even only from his actions. I was genuinely interested what the appeal was. retchdog gave me one possible answer – a metaphor intended to comment on high art’s flights of fancy as deluded or potentially deluded as Humbert’s mind.

          8. My moderated comment reappeared.  Strange.  

            Still, basing your opinions on secondhand information is just tenuous at best.  Getting your interpretation from one anonymous internet source isn’t reliable.  Nor is judging a character as ‘sexually immature’ from a synopsis.  Humbert very well may be, but the story is very much tied up in sexuality.  To think that Nabokov doesn’t have some deeper designs would be rather ridiculous.  Again, especially without reading and having your own firsthand knowledge.

          9. Basically, I agree completely with the article author’s assertion that ‘the facts’ in a  contentious case is disputed, but would expand it even further: pure and unbiased information (the colloquial definition) is impossible. So the case study isn’t at all surprising between the room for interpretation, personal bias, and ambiguity.

            I’ve noticed that contentious WP articles tend, over time, to approach an equilibrium that, if not objective fact, represents a tentative détente among the warring factions after which there is a sort of low-level cold edit war.

            Still, basing your opinions on secondhand information is just tenuous at best.  Getting your interpretation from one anonymous internet source isn’t reliable.

            I realize that, which is why I was careful to note that I was going by that plot synopsis and hadn’t actually read the book.

            Nor is judging a character as ‘sexually immature’ from a synopsis. Humbert very well may be, but the story is very much tied up in sexuality.

            I would say that a character that does what Humbert does is sexually immature.

            To think that Nabokov doesn’t have some deeper designs would be rather ridiculous.

            I would say it would be ridiculous to assume either way, having not, myself, read the book.

          10. I wish you had been my Lit teacher in high school, when I refused to read Hamlet and Crime and Punishment because the main character was a murderer and therefore had nothing to teach me I got a bad grade.

            At least you understand.

          11. I wish you had been my Lit teacher in high school, when I refused to read Hamlet and Crime and Punishment because the main character was a murderer and therefore had nothing to teach me I got a bad grade.

            See my reply to TJ for why this is not what I was saying.

          12. gulliver, i’ve read lolita and many (though not most) of nabokov’s other works. i’m not a literature major so someone else can say this more clearly. nonetheless:

            i think it’s a beautiful book. the point, imho, is to draw parallels between the flights of fancy involved in the “high” intellectual arts, and the delusions which drive the most perverse criminals. if you can’t see how, at least on some level, this is a respectable challenge, then i have nothing more to say. anyway, nabokov shoots to achieve this by using excellent prose to describe not the acts themselves, but the fluency of the state of mind in which humbert acts. imho that’s a disturbing and humble premise for a writer to work on.

            may i point out that you’re conflating two issues: the vileness of the characters; and the lack of a plot. this leads me to suspect that you read in order to identify with the characters, which is really not the point with nabokov. i could go on about this but i won’t. suffice it to say, that even many great writers consider this a fault of nabokov. i disagree.

            on to what’s bothering me about the discussion here: has lolita caused social harm? to some (very) limited extent, yes, it has. there are a few precocious young girls who use the book as a manual, and i’m sure there are a few perverted males who use it to get themselves off. however to condemn it on these grounds alone is, i think, even more insidious than the social conservatives with their “if it saves even one life…” arguments for over-reaching laws.

            the social conservatives out there and the hyper-feminists in here are alike, in that they commit the category error of identifying speech about X, with X itself, and proceed to foist this off on others by using extreme emotional appeals and dodgy “arguments” tailored to prevent anyone from seeing that distinction. lolita (the book) is not rape.

          13. the point, imho, is to draw parallels between the flights of fancy
            involved in the “high” intellectual arts, and the delusions which drive
            the most perverse criminals

            Thank you for actually answering my question :)

            What you say does make some sense. I could still want for a decent plot and more complex criminals, but I can see how what you suggest may have been the author’s intent.

            Regarding your second point, no one here has come close to recommending censorship or other over-reaching laws. Even the comically rage-infused blog doctressjulia linked to in the first post did not suggest the book should be banned. All anyone said was that they thought it lousy for various differing reasons.

          14. nonetheless, their ugly methods seek foremost to preclude any discussion of the value of lolita as art. that they are at least marginally successful is obvious by looking at this thread. it is the methods i oppose rather than their objective (which, btw, remains vague and unsubstantiated; i wouldn’t blame someone for assuming the worst).

          15. their ugly methods seek foremost to preclude any discussion of the value of lolita as art.

            Seems to me that DoctressJulia expressed an opinion and was told, “Maybe leave the dismantling of all things phallopatriarchal to academics and other experts?” So it seems to me that the issue here is a commenter using ugly methods to preclude any discussion of Lolita as a political statement.

          16. Seems to me that DoctressJulia expressed an opinion and was told, “Maybe
            leave the dismantling of all things phallopatriarchal to academics and
            other experts?” So it seems to me that the issue here is a commenter
            using ugly methods to preclude any discussion of Lolita as a political statement.

            I guess we’ll have to take your word for it.

          17. Oh, yes, I agree, that particular rhetorical question is at least as horrible. To be honest, I mostly tuned it out as being both stupid AND tangential, whereas DoctressJulia’s position is stupid and fundamental to this thread.

            However, if the thread has moved on to whether or not to pay homage to the Experts of Social Theory then I will “bow and bow out” as I have nothing to say except “don’t”.

        1. First off – I have not read the book. I am familiar with it and have read excerpts and chapters of it, but I don’t consider myself to have ‘read’ it. I have seen the film. Just so you know where I am coming from.

          See – I guess I just don’t get this attitude. The best stories have wonderfully horribly flawed characters. “Tragedy” is a whole genre of theater/literature dedicated to these stories. Some of the best stories ever written have horrible things happen to the main characters. They have to overcome huge issues, and either triumph or completely fail – sometimes from outside forces or fate, and other times by their own actions.

          So what can you get out of the Humbert character? Well I think for some there is an issue of Schadenfreude – you want to see an unsavory character ultimately come undone. Then there are such classic morality lessons like beware the forbidden fruit, beware of obsession and the evils that it will lead a man to. In the end he comes off as a pathetic fool. No sane person would want to emulate this man.

  8. From the plot description it sounds like a waste of time. Regardless of how great the prose might be, who wants to while away their free time reading about sexual neuroses?

    The seemingly near-universal preoccupation with plumbing has to be using up a colossal amount of human time and energy…and blood pressure.

  9. I suppose, since my last comment was apparently too incendiary, I’ll just comment on the editing history.

    One of the major hinges, for me, in Lolita is how well ‘taken in’ the audience can be by main character.  He’s charming even while we watch him do horrible things, which is repellant–and creates a huge reaction to the book.  It’s a terrifying idea to think that someone who’s well-spoken and would seem likable on the surface could turn out to be someone who justifies doing what he did to ‘Lolita’ (physically, emotionally, etc), but also attempts to sway the reader to understand his actions.

    One consideration for the huge gap between “rhapsodize over Lolita in her sleep” to “sexually molest Lolita without fear of discovery” could have to do with if each editor is trying to channel the narrative’s voice (that of Humbert) or trying to propose an ‘unbiased’ synopsis or reacting completely within their own personal biases.  

    Basically, I agree completely with the article author’s assertion that ‘the facts’ in a  contentious case is disputed, but would expand it even further: pure and unbiased information (the colloquial definition) is impossible. So the case study isn’t at all surprising between the room for interpretation, personal bias, and ambiguity.

  10. ‘I’ve noticed that contentious WP articles tend, over time, to approach an equilibrium that, if not objective fact, represents a tentative détente among the warring factions after which there is a sort of low-level cold edit war.’

    I have to admit that I’ve watched a few of these, because they’re sort of fascinating.  Also, I love the description ‘low -level cold edit war.’

    ‘I would say it would be ridiculous to assume either way, having not, myself, read the book.’

    How refreshing!  We agree on one thing (or two, even), at least.

    1. I guess when the back and forth moves to un-merged related articles it could be a proxy edit war, and the merging of heated articles could be normalizing editations :P

      If I gave the impression that I thought my offhand opinion on the WP plot summery was the last word on a book I’ve never read, rest assured that I do not think that at all. I was merely curious why a book with what is, IMHO, a boringly prurient plot, captured the interest of so many readers. I do not assume there could not be some redeeming virtues to it. Perhaps I confused the point with my statement about the main criterion I use to select my own reading material.

      1. ‘I was merely curious why a book with what is, IMHO, a boringly prurient plot, captured the interest of so many readers.’

        And honestly, I’m sort of completely exasperated that you think something that does get such reactions can so easily be summarized/explained.  Well, it’s probably my lit geek coming out, but the mess of opinions and interpretations is part of what make these things so interesting, which means in a tiny little comment on BB the chances of getting a good explanation are incredibly low.  Sure, I could try saying that there’s nuanced characterization in Humbert, that there’s this visceral drawing in of the reader into the story, that the prose is elegant–but what does any of that really mean?  To actually answer the question, I’d have to write an essay–perhaps particularly so since Lolita often is one of those novels that receives as much negative judgment as it does.  

        (Random note: if Lolita doesn’t interest you or you’re turned off by the ‘prurient’ element but you absolutely needed to experience Nabokov, I’d recommend Invitation to a Beheading–which is, in my opinion, a more technically impressive book anyway.)

        1. Well, it’s probably my lit geek coming out, but the mess of opinions and
          interpretations is part of what make these things so interesting, which
          means in a tiny little comment on BB the chances of getting a good explanation are incredibly low.

          I do realize that there is an ecosystem of interpretation and analysis surrounding literature that, for those that partake of it, is at least as much a part of the works as are the actual texts. In a similar vein, I myself readily partake in interpretation of classical music. But, and this may be the engineer in me, I’ve never had much interest in literary interpretation, despite my love of reading. I tend to treat literature as experiential rather than interpretational; I prefer to accept it as it is and not risk imputing my own biases into it any more than can’t be avoided.

          I’d recommend Invitation to a Beheading–which is, in my opinion, a more technically impressive book anyway.

          Thanks! That looks much more to my tastes.

          1. ‘ I tend to treat literature as experiential rather than interpretational’

            As much as I rail on, there’s really nothing wrong with that–and I really wouldn’t want to imply otherwise.  So just tossing that out there.  (After all, give me classical music and I’d be useless outside of pure experience/reaction myself.)

            If you do pick up Invitation, I hope you enjoy it!  

          2. If you do pick up Invitation, I hope you enjoy it!

            I’m on the last unread book on my shelf, so I’ll be needing some new fiction and nonfiction by the end of the weekend. Between Invitation and a history book millie fink recommend, I’m set :)

  11. Let me get this right, this article is about Wikipedia editing?
    And we have comments about the book from people who haven’t actually read the book?  Not about the editing, but about the book?

    Won’t someone think of the chil…. oh, wait.

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