Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
The question posed by Claire Dederer’s third hybrid work of memoir and cultural criticism might be stated thus: “Are we still allowed to enjoy the art made by horrible people?” You might be expecting a hard-line response – prescriptive rules for cancelling the array of sexual predators, drunks, abusers and abandoners (as well as lesser offenders) she profiles. Maybe you’ve avoided Monsters for fear of being chastened about your continuing love of Michael Jackson’s music or the Harry Potter series. I have good news: This book is as compassionate as it is incisive, and while there is plenty of outrage, there is also much nuance.
Dederer begins, in the wake of #MeToo, with film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, setting herself the assignment of re-watching their masterpieces while bearing in mind their sexual crimes against underage women. In a later chapter she starts referring to this as “the stain,” a blemish we can’t ignore when we consider these artists’ work. Try as we might to recover prelapsarian innocence, it’s impossible to forget allegations of misconduct when watching The Cosby Show or listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Nor is it hard to find racism and anti-Semitism in the attitude of many a mid-20th-century auteur.
Does “genius” excuse all? Dederer asks this in relation to Picasso and Hemingway, then counteracts that with a fascinating chapter about Lolita – as far as we know, Nabokov never engaged in, or even contemplated, sex with minors, but he was able to imagine himself into the mind of Humbert Humbert, an unforgettable antihero who did. “The great writer knows that even the blackest thoughts are ordinary,” she writes. Although she doesn’t think Lolita could get published today, she affirms it as a devastating picture of stolen childhood.
“The death of the author” was a popular literary theory in the 1960s that now feels passé. As Dederer notes, in the Internet age we are bombarded with biographical information about favourite writers and musicians. “The knowledge we have about celebrities makes us feel we know them,” and their bad “behavior disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms.” This is not logical, she emphasizes, but instinctive and personal. Some critics (i.e., white men) might be wont to dismiss such emotional responses as feminine. Super-fans are indeed more likely to be women or teenagers, and heartbreak over an idol’s misdoings is bound up with the adoration, and sense of ownership, of the work. She talks with many people who express loyalty “even after everything” – love persists despite it all.
In a book largely built around biographical snapshots and philosophical questions, Dederer’s struggle to make space for herself as a female intellectual, and write a great book, is a valuable seam. I particularly appreciated her deliberations on the critic’s task. She insists that, much as we might claim authority for our views, subjectivity is unavoidable. “We are all bound by our perspectives,” she asserts; “consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist, which might disrupt the consuming of the art, and the biography of the audience member, which might shape the viewing of the art.”
While men’s sexual predation is a major focus, the book also weighs other sorts of failings: abandonment of children and alcoholism. The “Abandoning Mothers” chapter posits that in the public eye this is the worst sin that a woman can commit. Her two main examples are Doris Lessing and Joni Mitchell, but there are many others she could have mentioned. Even giving more mental energy to work than to childrearing is frowned upon. Dederer wonders if she has been a monster in some ways, and confronts her own drinking problem.
Here especially, the project reminded me most of books by Olivia Laing: the same mixture of biographical interrogation, feminist cultural criticism, and memoir as in The Trip to Echo Spring and Everybody; some subjects even overlap (Raymond Carver in the former; Ana Mendieta and Valerie Solanas in the latter – though, unfortunately, these two chapters by Dederer were the ones I thought least necessary; they could easily have been omitted without weakening the argument in any way). I also thought of how Lara Feigel’s Free Woman examines her own life through the prism of Lessing’s.
The danger of being quick to censure any misbehaving artist, Dederer suggests, is a corresponding self-righteousness that deflects from our own faults and hypocrisy. If we are the enlightened ones, we can look back at the casual racism and daily acts of violence of other centuries and say: “1. These people were simply products of their time. 2. We’re better now.” But are we? Dederer redirects all the book’s probing back at us, the audience. If we’re honest about ourselves, and the people we love, we will admit that we are all human and so capable of monstrous acts.
Dederer’s prose is forthright and droll; lucid even when tackling thorny issues. She has succeeded in writing the important book she intended to. Erudite, empathetic and engaging from start to finish, this is one of the essential reads of 2023.
With thanks to Sceptre for the free copy for review.
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Book Serendipity, January to February 2022
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. (I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.) I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too!
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The author takes Valium to cope with fear of flying in two memoirs I read at the same time, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- The fact that the Spanish brought wild horses to the USA is mentioned in the story “The Team” by Tommy Orange (in The Decameron Project) and the poetry collection Rise and Float by Brian Tierney – this also links back to a book I reread in late 2021, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- There are roaches in a New York City apartment in I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and the story “Other People’s Lives” in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan.
- The same Dostoevsky passage from The Brothers Karamazov, about loving everything (“Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery” and so on), is quoted in Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren and Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson.
- A description of nicotine-stained yellow fingers in What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, and Free by Lea Ypi.
- Joni Mitchell’s music is mentioned in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, two memoirs I was reading at the same time.
- From one summer camp story to another … I happened to follow up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer with Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.
- Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic is quoted in Body Work by Melissa Febos and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, both of which are March 15, 2022 nonfiction releases I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
- The 2017 white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia is mentioned in This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (who lives there), Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren (who was part of the clergy counterprotest group that day), and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk (she went there for a literary event a few months later).
- The Salvador Dalí painting The Persistence of Memory (that’s the one with the melting clock) is described in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- On the same day, I came across the fact that Mary Shelley was pregnant while she wrote Frankenstein in two books: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- The fact that cysts in female organs can contain teeth comes up in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Reading two novels by Japanese-American authors who grew up in Hawaii at the same time: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Twins are everywhere! Including, just in a recent reading pile, in Hands by Lauren Brown (she’s a twin, so fair enough), Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall, Smile by Sarah Ruhl (this and the Cornwell are memoirs about birthing twins, so also fair enough), Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. For as uncommon as they are in real life, they turn up way too often in fiction.
- Bell’s palsy AND giving birth to twins are elements in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- There’s a no-nonsense maternity nurse in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- U.S. West Coast wolves (a particular one in each case, known by a tracking number) are the subject of a poem in Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and The Necessity of Wildfire by Caitlin Scarano.
- Herons appear and/or have metaphorical/symbolic meaning in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- There’s a character named Edwin in Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- The use of “hoard” where it should be “horde” in Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan – both errors were encountered in the same evening.
- I read about Lindisfarne in Jini Reddy’s essay in Women on Nature (ed. Katharine Norbury) and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands in the same evening.
- “Flitting” as a synonym for moving house in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury and Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.
- A brother named Paul in Tides by Sara Freeman and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- A woman knows her lover is on the phone with his ex by his tone of voice in Tides by Sara Freeman and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
- In two novels I’ve read so far this year – but I won’t say which ones as it’s a spoiler – the big reveal, towards the very end, is that a woman was caught breastfeeding someone who was not her baby and it caused a relationship-destroying rupture.
- Reading a second memoir this year where the chapters are titled after pop songs: Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander (for a Foreword review) and now This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- A second short novel entitled The Swimmers this year: the first was Julie Otsuka’s, recently reviewed for Shiny New Books; a proof copy is on the way to me of Chloe Lane’s, coming out from Gallic Books in May.
- Reading a second memoir this year whose author grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Illinois (Arlington Heights/Buffalo Grove vs. Oak Park): I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- The linea nigra (a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly) provides the title for Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and is also mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell.
- The famous feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Childbirth brings back traumatic memories of rape in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.