When I was in law school, I took the required legal ethics class. Our professor was an excited, passionate man who made his living defending lawyers accused of ethical violations. He frequently yelled and went off in rage but it came from a good place. He wanted us to be clear about our responsibilities, to know where we stood in relationship to our upcoming power.
“According to the rules,” he would bellow, “a lawyer can legally and ethically…” followed by some horrible deed. He would pause to let that sink in. “How does that make you feel? Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and squishy knowing that, as a lawyer, you can without impunity do such terrible things?” We would, of course, recoil in horror. We would never do any such thing. And we’d realize that as liberal as these ethical rules were, some would go further, violate the terrible rule by behaving even worse. And we’d wonder what we were becoming.
I am a huge fan of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I consider it one of the finest examples of the English novel in all it’s self-referential glory. I feel this way despite it being an offensive novel. I feel this way, in large part, because it is deliberately offensive.
Lolita, for me, is a novel similar in the way it works to Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles. I read a paragraph of the compelling narrative, empathizing as I go. I consider the way it makes me feel and then I recoil in horror at my own reaction. With Tess, I repeatedly listen to myself tell Tess to do something wrong that is demanded by the situation while she is torn apart by a too-cruel society for doing the “right” thing. And I am left wondering, what does “right” even mean? Similarly, I listen to and am charmed by Humbert. And then I look at myself in disgust, for finding something so obviously horrible attractive.
The authors, like my ethics professor, are taunting our neatly packaged sensibility. “You like this don’t you? Aren’t you a piece of work.”
That’s how I read the novels. I like offensive prose. I like the cognitive dissonance of being drawn to something repulsive against the currents of my pedestrian morality.
It disturbs me to discover that many of my favorite novels are popular among those who enjoy the offensiveness in a different, more direct and unoffended way. I make no excuses or apologies for them.
I don’t have a similar appreciation for The Taming of the Shrew. No matter how I read it, I am offended. There is no moral reversal or ironic reading that can make up for the offensiveness.
The point I really want to make is that I enjoy literature that uses offensiveness to insinuate truth into my perspectives. Most of the novels like that, that I am aware of, are by men. This coming year, I plan to seek out novels by women that use offensiveness in that same way. The only name that comes to mind right away is Elfriede Jelinek. I’ll be looking for more. Drop me a line if you have some suggestions.