Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma

  • By Claire Dederer
  • Knopf
  • 288 pp.

What to do with beautiful art from wicked artists?

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma

Claire Dederer begins Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma with the earnest desire “to solve the problem of Roman Polanski,” which is “the problem of loving someone who had done such a terrible thing.” Polanski is perfect for launching such an examination because “there is no other contemporary figure who balances these two forces so equally: the absoluteness of the monstrosity and the absoluteness of the genius.”

In a larger and more urgent sense, Dederer is addressing one of the central problems of cancel culture: What do we do with monstrous men?

To plumb the depths of this dilemma, Dederer realizes early on, she has to direct her attention to the audience — the consumers who are put in the untenable position of loving the art but not the artist. “I wanted to write an autobiography of the audience,” she explains, and by audience, she means herself and others like her. This means she must get into the murky territory of our reactions to art, which are more often emotional than rational and connected to our own identities and histories:

“When I come to this question — the question of what to do with the art of monstrous men — I don’t come as an impartial observer. I’m not someone who is absent a history. I have been a teenager predated by older men; I have been molested; I’ve been assaulted on the street; I’ve been grabbed and I’ve been coerced and I’ve escaped from attempted rape. I don’t say this because it makes me special. I say it because it makes me non-special.”

And Dederer doesn’t want her history — or more generally, the audience’s history — to cut her off from works of art. “This tension — between what I’ve been through as a woman and the fact that I want to experience the freedom and beauty and grandeur and strangeness of great art — this is the heart of the matter. It’s not a philosophical query; it’s an emotional one.”

Drawing on her experiences as a film critic — a milieu that is largely male — Dederer feels uncomfortable making the authoritative, objective claims that many of her male peers seem to declare with ease. Her position as a woman, she writes, puts her outside of authority, yet “authority says the work shall remain untouched by the life. Authority says biography is fallacy. Authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject.” However, she continues, “I’m not ahistorical or immune to biography. That’s for the winners of history (men) (so far).”

Fixation on biography is also a reflection of the age we live in — when a celebrity’s every move is chronicled in tedious detail online. “We swim in biography; we are sick with biography,” Dederer writes. But it’s also true that such scrutiny of individual lives puts all of us at risk. “Everyone who has a biography — that is, everyone alive — is either canceled or about to be canceled.”

Readers may chafe at the way in which the author seems to conflate their actions with the actions of monstrous men. Is she suggesting that we’re all a little monstrous? In fact, she is. To put only certain people in the “monster” category casts monster as other. “Monster implies — insists — that the person in question is so terrible that we could never be like them. Like him,” she writes.

This separation and this focus on others’ wickedness shifts attention away from the audience — Dederer’s central interest. “Wasn’t calling them monsters, writing about their monstrousness, enumerating their monster sins, just a way of keeping them at the center of the story?” she asks, seeking a more complex and nuanced definition of the word “monster.” Finally, she settles on “someone whose behavior disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms.”

Though she begins her exploration of monsters by focusing mostly on men (Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few), she also takes women to task (J.K. Rowling for her anti-trans rhetoric, Virginia Woolf for her antisemitism, Willa Cather for her racism). In a chapter titled “Am I a Monster?” Dederer turns her accusing gaze on herself. Being human, she has engaged in her fair share of “bad behavior,” but more than that, she has written books. “And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way,” she writes, adding:

“A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader.”

This is a tension acutely felt by mother-artists. “What the artist or writer or musician needs desperately is time,” she writes. “And what the family needs is time.” The selflessness of motherhood and selfishness of art are always in conflict. “The truth is, art-making and parenthood act very efficiently as disincentives to one another, and people who say otherwise are deluded, or childless, or men.”

Because of this conflict, female monstrousness is most often construed as child abandonment. Looking at figures like Doris Lessing, Joni Mitchell, and Sylvia Plath, Dederer concludes: “If the male crime is rape, the female crime is the failure to nurture. The abandonment of children is the worst thing a woman can do.” To be clear, she is writing about the social construct of female monstrousness, not comparing the relative atrocities committed by individual male and female artists. “I have to admit that I have felt like I’m a terrible person when I shut the necessary door on my children in order to work,” she reveals. “I’m not accusing women artists of being terrible people, only of feeling like terrible people.”

In a later chapter titled “Drunks,” in which Dederer examines the life and art of Raymond Carver (who “shows us what it means to be more than your worst self” by outliving “his own monstrousness”), she extends her ruthless self-examination, admitting to her own dependence on alcohol:

“I don’t think I would’ve been able to accept the humanity of monsters if I hadn’t been a drunk and if I hadn’t quit. If I hadn’t been forced, in this way, to acknowledge my own monstrosity.”

Finally — after taking to task monstrous men and women, after taking responsibility for her own monstrousness — Dederer turns to examine the very system that makes us “consumers” of art, pointing out that this framing is itself part of the problem. “When we ask ‘what do we do with the art of monstrous men?’ we are putting ourselves into a static role — the role of consumer,” she writes. There is no way to extract moral meaning from consumerism:

“We attempt to enact our morality through using our judgment when we buy stuff, but our judgment doesn’t make us better consumers — it actually makes us more trapped in the spectacle, because we believe we have control over it. What if we accepted the falsity of the spectacle altogether?”

She concludes, “Your feeling of responsibility is a shibboleth, a reinforcement of your tragically limited role as a consumer.” In other words, boycotting the art of monsters will not redeem you, but neither will enjoying their art condemn you. “The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that,” she tells us, leaving us with the challenge of reframing our relationship to art.

Ultimately, for many of us, the matter of what we do with the art of monsters has deeper questions underlying it: “What do we do about the terrible people we love? That question comes with another question nestled inside it: how awful can we be, before people stop loving us?” It makes sense that Dederer would lead us here because, after all, art shows us how to live. And our feelings for art mirror our feelings for what is happening in the rest of our lives. “When we talk about the problem of the art of monstrous men, we are really talking about a larger problem — the problem of human love,” she writes in the final pages.

And love — love of art, love of people — infuses this entire book.

Monsters is an expansive and big-hearted work, part memoir, part cultural criticism, part paean to complexity and nuance, and a full embrace of the human experience. It’s a cry to respond to art not just with the analytical mind or the critic’s prim embrace, but with the full range of emotion, with the whole body, the complete biographical self. It is a refreshing book that is at times uncomfortable, even painful, but necessarily so. We cannot simply label the monsters, put them in cages, and excise them from our lives, because they are everywhere among us. They are us.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.

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