As far as cultural phenomena go, at this point Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita has accumulated not just baggage but true freight. The book has been adapted several times, all largely to problematic results, and the term “Lolita” itself has been garbled to signify a sexual promiscuous girl — the very opposite of what Nabokov had in mind when telling the story of twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. Those are just a few of the reasons why comedian and writer Jamie Loftus’s Lolita Podcast is such a welcome entry into the Lolita industry.
Loftus (My Year in Mensa, The Bechdel Cast), who first heard about Lolita in a Lemony Snicket interview of all places, devotes ten episodes to tracing the novel’s impact. From Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation to Lana Del Rey’s music and from Lo’s Diary to Tumblr blogs, Loftus analyzes how this false image of Lolita has taken shape. Her approach aims to contextualize and historicize; taking a remarkably productive broad view, she situates the reception of Lolita within questions regarding the “stranger danger” panic, sexual abuse of minors in the entertainment industry, and many other topics. The result is an exorcism of Dolores Haze, as Loftus dismantles the collective social and cultural misinterpretations of Lolita. That she does so not only with an eye for detail and impressive research, but also with characteristic wit and empathy for her interview subjects makes the podcast all the more rewarding.
I spoke with Loftus about her process, the podcast’s reception, and how her work fits into necessary conversations (or the lack thereof!) regarding Lolita.
This isn’t your first foray into literary projects. You spent some time eating a bunch of Infinite Jest, and it seems to me that Lolita could very easily be another book that falls into that category of books whose reputations precede them, whose misinterpretations are forced down people’s throats. But you decided to consume Lolita very differently. Beyond your experience with the medium, why did you choose to produce a podcast on Lolita?
It’s weird. Before I was in the middle of Lolita, I didn’t even really connect it to the Infinite Jest stuff, but I think it is kind of the same spark of interest. I had four years’ worth of knowing a little more of what I was talking about, where the Infinite Jest thing had more to do with the fact that I still don’t really know what that book is about. I just know that I was constantly made to feel stupid for not knowing what it’s about. That was one frustration with engaging with a literary crowd in the first place. I always didn’t feel qualified to do it, and then when it came to Lolita, the podcast route made sense to me.
First of all, I knew it was going to be a harder sell to get someone to read fifteen hours’ worth of stuff, rather than listen to it. I also had that experience with the podcast I worked on before Lolita, which was originally a written piece about how I joined Mensa. I ended up turning it into a podcast when I wasn’t able to really do anything with it in a written format. I think podcasting is kind of more accessible, and I’m able to reach more people. What I was frustrated about with Lolita or taken aback by was there were so many people who could benefit from having some context who just refuse to engage with it at all because of its reputation. I think podcasting just felt like the most intuitive, accessible way to explain where I was coming from.
Maybe you don’t think of it in these terms, but how would you describe Lolita Podcast in terms of genre? There are elements that are scholarly, personal exploration, and testimonies of survivors, all these different components.
For this format, I like well-produced podcast documentaries. I was definitely thinking of Karina Longworth and that genre of show. I also liked that where I started in podcasting was a little more informal. I tried to bridge that gap. I always find it jarring when I’m listening to a show that is 10 to 15 hours long, and at the end I’m like, “I have no idea who that person was that was talking at me the entire time.” I’ve seen it called a documentary, but I don’t think that really fits.
It definitely seems like its own thing. I was also curious about your general research process. How did it all come together?
I had a huge document with Lolita stuff and information and thoughts that I’ve had for over a year. I really wanted to work on something like this; it was just a matter of waiting for an opportunity to get the small amount of funding I needed to do it. In terms of hitting the ground running and figuring out interviews and frameworks, I started in June. It wasn’t ideal, but I was also working on it week to week, from June to two weeks ago.
There’s so much there. And you made some buddies with the Nabokovians. How did you go beyond having this document to something more structured?
I had a rough list of five or six points that I wanted to hit on. I absolutely have to reach out to the Nabokovians. I definitely have to reach out to reach out to people who have played the part. Some things are pretty intuitive. As I was going through it, what became very important to me was to not just have the kind of show where you’re bringing in quote-unquote experts to talk about it. The Nabokovians were very kind and generous with their time, but ultimately, they’re explaining literary stuff to me, when what I feel is missing from the conversation is the survivors’ experience and how that got buried. It became clear early on that just talking literary stuff and just talking movie stuff was not where I needed to center this show, because it was this very common experience that I feel a lot of survivors have unfortunately had, but that this is the least discussed point, that it is so common. In particular, the online communities of teenagers who have been devoted to this character and this book in all these different ways over the years, that’s what I found more interesting. It’s not a perspective that’s very often discussed. Everyday people that are having very normal experiences that are literally what this book is about. No one ever talks to them.
Tumblr and YouTubers definitely don’t come up in Nabokov scholarship, at least not often.
I feel like these are communities that would benefit from knowing more about each other, and productive conversations are going to be had. People are so quick to dismiss teenagers on anything, especially teenage girls. Podcasts, and in general media, where they’re talking to the person who comes up when you Google “the expert on this subject” — that’s never going to be the most interesting way to elicit a conversation.
That’s exactly the sort of thing I think we need more of: making scholarship, popular culture, and real-life issues connect. In one of the episodes, you say, “Other [Tumblr] posts comb the text of Nabokov’s book more carefully than scholars.” I do see what you mean. Even if I feel I also should “defend my profession” and push back a little, as some of these issues have been raised in scholarship on Lolita, on the other hand, the audience isn’t the same, right? It’s not reaching teenagers or, like you’re saying, people who could mutually benefit from having these sorts of conversations.
Totally. I don’t want to invalidate the conversations that have happened. But it’s mostly scholars talking to other scholars.
Having spoken to so many people, what sorts of conversations would you like to see happen between all these groups and beyond?
My takeaway from making this show is that there needs to be more of a willingness to discuss CSA [child sexual abuse] and where it most commonly appears. I feel like the trend that I noticed is that it’s been a skirted issue for centuries and centuries. The most common source of this type of abuse is someone that you know already, overwhelmingly so. It disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. It’s so uncomfortable to think and talk about that most parents and teachers never even bring it up. It’s a nightmare. No one wants to talk to their children about something like that.
My takeaway, especially from talking to child psychologists, who were overwhelmingly the most helpful resources on that subject, is that it’s so uncomfortable, but continuing to not bring it up is clearly not the solution. It hasn’t solved or slowed anything down. It’s a general willingness to have a good faith conversation. On the other end of it is the whole idea that even if you do get talks like that, and all the media that you consume is telling you the exact opposite, that’s also going to be an issue. What you see pop up in these Tumblr feeds — they only have so much media on this topic to consume, and all of it is wildly misinformed, so they have to do these mental gymnastics to even interact with it. You shouldn’t have to jump through 45 flaming hoops to talk about a very, very common thing.
Nabokov would hate this question, but at this point, do you see Lolita as an educational tool?
Where I landed was that it’s a good starting place. Nabokov would probably hate all of this, but you know what? His bloodline is dead, so what is he going to do?
He’ll haunt you.
It would be a treat to be haunted. But I think because it’s the shorthand for this exact misunderstanding, it’s the perfect place to have the discussion again. Just think of how the word “Lolita” is deployed to state the opposite of what the book is about. It’s not just something that a good adaptation will solve. It’s a place to start that would hopefully start a different conversation than it was in 1997.
I would like to think so. The other great thing about the podcast is the timing. Obviously, a lot of this is coming in the wake of MeToo. It seems to me that this is a moment in Nabokov studies that’s a bit of a reckoning that started, perhaps, with Anne Dwyer’s piece on teaching Lolita. Looping back, I was wondering about what you were unable to include in the show.
The big thing I was not able to get to was anime. As I began looking into it, I realized it was an entire show. I didn’t have the time and not much of the knowledge base to say what needed to be said correctly. I started with what my comfort zone is, which is studying movies. I knew that I was going to touch on the plays, the two movies, the author, and the book. Those were my main things. I went into this thinking I was going to be talking about, “Can we adapt this? Why or why not?” But addressing that question couldn’t be done just by doing that. So, very early on, it became clear to me that I had to have a whole episode that was dedicated to what actually happened to Dolores and some people who have been through this experience. I also didn’t realize how much the Internet community around the novel was thriving. I thought I would mention Lolita Tumblr from the early 2010s, late 2000s, but I didn’t realize that it was absolutely still carrying on with this new perspective.
I appreciated how it did stray from the book in really productive ways, but still returned to it and the significance of what happens to Dolores. The show has been getting well-earned rave reviews, but what has the response on your end been? In particular, how do Lana Del Ray fans feel about it?
From them, it wasn’t great, but I thought it would be worse. I feel very lucky. There have been a number of people who have been very candid with me in sharing their own experiences, and it’s all very gratifying and overwhelming to be receiving deep trauma in your inbox every morning, but in a way that I appreciate that people are trusting me. The weird reception side would be Lana Del Ray fans, and then there were situations when the show first started coming out when there were people who were in these [pedophile] support groups. That was scary when it first happened. It had occurred to me that that might happen. I would say that the pedophiles and the Lana Del Ray fans were the most challenging to deal with. I am not equating the two! Those were just the two groups I heard from.
And I have to ask here: Why didn’t Lana’s misspelled Nabokov tattoo get a shout-out?
I had it in the original script. I knew I was going to get a ton of blowback from her fans, because they are so organized, but I don’t know. I originally had more not nice stuff about Lana Del Rey, so I asked my producers, “Should I scale back? It’s starting to feel like a full-on hit piece.” I also fully admit that a lot of my frustration with Lana, outside of all her recent suckery, is personal, being a former fan, feeling like, “What the fuck did you do? What did you do to me? What did you do to my friends?” Which might be a little unfair in making it personal, but it’s simply how I felt. Really, the mesh mask and the misspelled tattoo — how am I supposed to take any of this seriously?
I’ve also received some measured thoughts from her fans, who basically said that she chose Lolita iconography because she felt that when she was younger she was forced into that role. It’s very difficult to convince people otherwise, so instead she decided to embrace and reclaim it as something that made her feel powerful. It does seem like it is to an extent tied into her personal experiences, which I don’t want to negate. It’s just disingenuous to me for her to claim that she doesn’t know who her audience is. Of course, children listen to Lana Del Rey. But then you see that in Katy Perry as well. She claimed to have deeply loved Lolita, but then none of the words in her music demonstrate that she knows what it’s about. I think it’s a role that marketing is very willing to see a pop star slip into, and no one’s going to be like, “Well, wait a second! What are we saying here?” Because people don’t ask that question about Lolita.
At this point, how many times have you read the book?
I think for this podcast, I read it five times, but I tried to mix it up, where sometimes I would listen to the audiobook. This is probably part of why I like doing podcasting, because I much prefer to do things that I’m able to focus on a little more clearly. I would pick out certain things in the regular read and other things when I was listening to Jeremy Irons repeat it to me.
Just in the last year, right?
And then several times before that. The man is good. I do hear something new or find something new every time I read it.
I know my initial reaction was, “This is incredible prose. I’ve never read anything like this.” After I read the first lines of Humbert’s part, not John Ray Jr.’s, I said, “This is my favorite book,” only because of how powerful language was, and I felt that way until I read Pale Fire. Still, I can’t really remember how I felt about the actual story. Obviously, I knew that was wrong, but I’m not sure how much I had heard about the novel, that “the greatest love story of the twentieth century” line that the book cover uses, how much all that was in my head. And I worry that I’m repressing that, because maybe I actually fell for it.
That’s really interesting. I’ve heard so many people’s experiences with it. For me, I wanted to read a smart person book, feel like I understood it, and then be like, I love this smart person book. I just wasn’t equipped to understand it, and so many people aren’t equipped to understand it for reasons that aren’t their fault when they first read it.
Absolutely. It’s challenging in so many ways. One thing my students mention, and something else that came up in your podcast with the Bradley Cooper story, was where we actually read this book. It has unusual effects on the reader and people seeing you read Lolita. A student, who actually liked it a lot, mentioned that when she was reading it, she felt she had to make disgusted faces to signal to people know that she wasn’t actually into it.
When I started reading it, I was reading it defiantly at school. Part of the appeal for reading it was feeling like, “I’m reading this book that I shouldn’t be reading at school and in public.” It only resulted in my gym teacher confiscating my book, so that was a bummer. Then I think by the time I reread it in late high school, early college, it was like your student — reading Lolita on the train and holding it on my lap so that no one can see the cover. I also remember times where I was on the train and saw a guy reading Lolita, and your instinct is kind of like, “Ugh. What? Why are you reading that on the train?” I’m more in combat with the cover of the book than the actual person. You know what the book is about. You know what the cover says. Then you see a person reading it, and it feels like the person is endorsing the book by holding it, which is ridiculous. You do have that visceral reaction to seeing a grown person reading Lolita, though. This time around I haven’t left my home, really, so it was just flagrant rereading out in the open. No problem.
For me, every time I reread it, it just feels crueler. Of course, we’re not reading the same book each time we reread Lolita. How have your impressions changed, especially with this marathon reading at the end?
I had to emotionally barricade myself a little bit. On one read I was doing midway through the show, I thought, “Okay, I’m reading, but this is what I’m looking for. This is what I’m trying to see if it’s there.” Because if you just take it all in over and over and over, you’ll want to die. The last read was the best and the worst because I feel like now I have a fuller understanding. You’re not just seeing Dolores reflected in these experiences. You’re thinking of all these people that I spoke to who had very similar experiences, and then also reading it after you know that it’s been used as a tool to groom potential victims. You read it differently again, because you try to go in and go, “Well, what were they pulling out, and why were they successful in doing that?” No matter what angle you go in, it’s tough. It was a good thing that I had a deadline and had to finish by a certain time, because the last time was flattening. I kept switching back and forth between the book and the audiobook. With the audiobook, at least I can move around and go on a weird power walk. Just sitting with it is awful.
You mention in one of the episodes that each of the people who have adapted the book, are misinterpreting it in ways that are of their time. What they do to or with the story speaks to where they’re coming from. But what commonalities in all these misinterpretations do you see?
It comes down to some classic mistakes and biases applied to the worst crime you can possibly think of. A lot of it, especially in the adaptations, is it being considered impossible for a famous movie star to play someone who is completely irredeemable. This inherent need to find some good in this person, because it’s Donald Sutherland, because it’s Jeremy Irons, because it’s James Mason, whoever it is. There’s this fundamental stumbling block. The people who are making it usually have more in common with Humbert than with the victim, so it’s this classic attitude that “we have to be able to sympathize with the star of the movie.” Young girls somehow bringing abuse on themselves by looking a certain way, by behaving a certain way, by reacting a certain way that they were consenting to be abused by an adult, which is literally an argument that got Charlie Chaplin out of a rape case in a court.
It’s an ideology that very much existed and extended on and on and on. It’s easier to do that than to consider the opposite. It’s easier to be like, “Oh, you know, he’s misguided, but he’s got a good soul.” I was taken aback by how thoroughly misguided the people who adapted it were. I assumed that maybe they did have a more thorough understanding and that it was studios that said no, or there were other stumbling blocks, but it seems to be a fundamental need to believe that there’s something redeemable about an abuser. That instinct to be able to sympathize with an abuser is stronger than being able to empathize with the person experiencing the abuse.
Which speaks to the broader issues that you get into – the cultural and social landscape.
That was part of the reason why I wanted to go into the experiences of the women who have played this part, because they were pretty universally treated like they were welcoming the same kind of unwanted attention that the character was, and it affected their lives. It drives me up the fucking wall to just watch how these characters are received. It’s completely absurd. It’s more profitable to make it seem like the child welcomed her own abuse than to not. That’s a fundamental problem.
With Lolita fashion, Tumblr, and YouTubers, if the baggage of the book and the film is so great, how do these communities balance jettisoning the source material and keeping the aesthetic?
In that community, that is the objective of some people: “Leave me alone. I like the clothes in the 1997 movie, I’m making a bunch of mood boards inspired by it, and I’m dressing like that. The end.” It’s just that “Lolita” is such an inflammatory word to be coming from anyone, but people especially tense up when it’s coming from a teenager who is not too far from Lolita’s age, because you kind of think, “Oh, no, do you think this is an aspirational role?” The more I looked at those communities and the more I looked at the effect that Lolita has had, it very well might be for the best to jettison the original material and start a productive conversation anew, but it’s never going to happen. The position that that leaves these communities in is, either they have to be explicitly clear (“I’m just here for the clothes”), or it’s this constant defensive battle. They have to constantly be justifying why they are connected to this character and clarifying, “I know what this book is about.” The fact that there is no conversation makes it harder for them to explain themselves even when they’re coming to the subject in a pretty good faith way. Ultimately, it might be easier to have this conversation if Lolita didn’t exist and didn’t have the cultural impact that it did, but it did, and there hasn’t been a story about this topic that has had a larger impact since, so my perspective on it after going through all these conversations and research is, “Well, this is what we’ve got. So, is there something productive to be done with what we’ve got?” I think, on the whole, the answer is yes. It’s not like you’re being served useless slop. It’s a valuable text that people keep fucking up.
In one of the earlier episodes, you said that you struggle to say that Lolita is a feminist text. Do you feel the same way having finished the series?
Yeah, I think something can be not explicitly feminist and still have a lot for women to take away from it. As much as I think Nabokovians can try to ease me into thinking otherwise, I don’t think that’s where Nabokov thrives. He’s written really interesting female characters, but I don’t think it’s a feminist novel. It’s not attempting to be. It doesn’t seem to be something that was on Nabokov’s priorities list. Even so, there have been thousands and thousands of girls and women and people of all genders who have gotten a lot out of this. Two things are true there. I haven’t read a convincing argument that it’s a feminist novel. It’s pretty hostile.
I’m not going to offer one. Your search continues. On a much lighter note, when I was flipping through the Apple Podcasts reviews, I noticed how many of the negative reviews, few as they are, focus on how one of your friends used a southern accent when playing the role of Freud. Can you tell me the backstory there?
My friends were doing me favors by doing the voice stuff, so what we would do is pay a small voice fee and I would try to make it as easy for them as possible: “Here are three things for you to read. Here’s the kind of vibe I’m going for. Send me a couple reads; we’ll just pick the one that makes the most sense.” My friend read it like a Tennessee Williams character, and I thought, “Hey, that’s kind of funny.” It was basically because his attempt at an Austrian accent sounded fucking weird. I really did not want to offend anybody, but that one was what was on the MP3 file, and the episode comes out in, you know, 36 hours, so that’s what ends up there. I still think it was the most interesting take on a Freudian voice. I guess if you’re mad, show up to my house and kill me.
It’s definitely not a surprising response from the Internet.
It is kind of a relief when you get those reviews. With a show like this, there are so many nightmare one-star review scenarios that a one-star I-hated-southern-Freud review is fine. Okay, I’ll take it.
José Vergara is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College. His forthcoming book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature, features a chapter on Nabokov, and his essay on teaching Lolita in a prison literature course is featured in Teaching Nabokov’s Lolita in the #MeToo Era. His writing can also be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Words Without Borders, and Asymptote.