Sue Lyon as Lolita in a publicity still for the 1962 Stanley Kubrick movie. (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images)

Did J.K. Rowling Fail the Lolita Test?

The functionally illiterate youth are canceling her for praising the classic novel.

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Gird your loins, ladies and gents: we are doing Lolita discourse again. Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel, featuring the memoirs of an unrepentant pedophile named Humbert Humbert, has often been a flashpoint for controversy—including at the time of its 1955 publication, when the only outfit that would touch it was a French press best known for publishing literal porn. But however foolish or prudish the mid-century imbroglio surrounding Lolita might have been, it pales in comparison to the one now raging on the internet, where a sizable crowd has been moralistically shrieking about the book for three straight days.

Like so many other digital-age absurdities, this one originates with a millennial who is mad at J.K. Rowling. Here’s what happened: in the year 2000, in an interview with BBC Radio 4, Rowling praised the novel, saying, “[A] plot that could have been the most worthless pornography becomes, in Nabokov’s hands, a great and tragic love story.” Rowling’s sentiments about Lolita are not unique; Stanley Kubrick and Dorothy Parker famously felt the same, and my own copy even has a blurb on it from Vanity Fair, calling it “the only convincing love story of our century.” But nearly 25 years later, an actress named Sooz Kempner unearthed the interview and was shocked, shocked

“JK Rowling doesn’t understand Lolita,” she wrote on X. “It is not a great and tragic love story, it is terrifying book [sic] written from the POV of a peadophile [sic], a very obviously unreliable narrator, and at no point are you meant to say ‘this is so romantic.’ She’s 12, Joanne. What the FUCK, Joanne.” Her sentiments were echoed by countless others, including novelist Ryan Ruby, who sniped, “Lolita is a moral test. Kempner passes it. Rowling does not.”

On the one hand, this is very much a tempest in a terminally online teapot. On the other hand, the wild virality of Kempner’s post (which has 5.2 million views and over 9,000 reposts) does unfortunately tell us something about the cultural discourse in the year 2024: namely, that people, in their fervor for recreational hatred, are rendering themselves functionally illiterate. 

Aaron Gwyn, a professor in the English department at UNC Charlotte, was mystified by the surge of moralizing discourse surrounding Lolita: “It’s absurd. Nabokov would be horrified by the idea of his art as any kind of a moral test,” he said to me. “He didn’t need a 400-page novel to tell us that a pedophile is bad. But he saw very clearly America’s worship of youth, and America’s lust after the girl—the nymphet—as an archetype, and he turns that inside out. Humbert is a monster, but he’s also seductive, in the prose, the humor. . . if the reader wasn’t on some level charmed, in the witchcraft sense, it wouldn’t be effective.”

I don’t like to engage in youth-bashing (some of my best friends are youths, and rumor has it I used to be one myself), but this seems to be a particular problem for members of the under-40 set—people who, like Kempner, appear utterly confounded not just by the difference between depiction and endorsement but by the expression of any thought that contains two or more moving parts. At the risk of stating the obvious, Rowling’s praise for the transformative power of Nabokov’s writing does not amount to an assertion that she found the plot of Lolita literally romantic. It’s like when Oscar the Grouch sings his signature ballad about loving trash. Surely we may admire the artistry, the imagery, the cheeky rhyming schemes, without sharing his passion for the garbage itself? 

At least until Oscar the Grouch gets canceled, at which point all bets will be off. It’s trash, Oscar. What the FUCK, Oscar.

Kat Rosenfield is a columnist at The Free Press. Read her recent piece, “Harrison Butker Is Catholic. So What?” Follow her on X @katrosenfield.

The Free Press earns a commission from any purchases made through all book links in this article.

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