Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma
If the place of art is to ask difficult questions, not to provide easy answers, then Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma is art, as much as it is about art. A former film critic and reporter and now occasional reviewer and essayist, Claire Dederer turned to writing books a little over a decade ago. Her third book amounts to a provocative meditation on our complex experience of art and artists as viewers, readers, and listeners. Her first two, highly regarded, books—Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses (2010) and Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (2017)—like Monsters shuttles back and forth between culture criticism and confession, each shedding light on the other, her subjectivity adding to her credibility and persuasiveness rather than diminishing them.
Dederer’s discussion and analyses of artists ranging from Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Pablo Picasso, and Miles Davis to Raymond Carver, Joni Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing are thoughtful, whip-smart, challenging, and invariably sharply candid. And, given the monstrous subject matter (artists who do terrible things), she is often quite funny. Dederer’s humor usually comes alongside a serious point and with a David Foster Wallace-like parenthetical wink. A typical example: “In The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks (possessor of the coolest name that’s ever belonged to anyone who wasn’t a blues musician) wrote that a poem ought to be considered apart from its historical—and therefore biographical—context.”
This question—How do we or should we separate the biographical and the aesthetic, an author’s actions, an artist’s life, from his or her work?—is at the heart of the matter for Dederer. She tells the reader early on that she is “not ahistorical or immune to biography. That’s for the winners of history (men) (so far).” If we were talking about William Butler Yeats here (another man of questionable comportment in politics and love), we might wonder if we can ever know the dancer from the dance.
Dederer recounts her love for the films of Roman Polanski and her repulsion with his abuse of young girls. She sums up the issue as, “The problem of the artist whose work we love and whose morals we loathe.” How do we balance, in some cases, the greatness of the work and the horrors of the crimes? What do we do, for instance, with writers whose work we admire—be it Mark Twain or Flannery O’Connor or Charles Dickens—but whose racism or misogyny can send chills up the knowledgeable reader’s spine?
Dederer’s musings begin with Polanski and, perhaps, predictably or logically, move on to Woody Allen, his many wonderful films and his difficult-to-defend behavior marrying his stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, for one. Dederer looks into the dark heart of Allen, but that never stops her from offering a brilliant paean to Annie Hall, a film she declares better than Bringing Up Baby, a film that is genuine art, “more real than the thing it represents.” Frankly, her three-page critique of Annie Hall is worth the price of the book by itself.
As she meanders through artist-monsters recent and past, Dederer stands arm in arm with keen-eyed and sharp-tongued reporters like Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion, who led the way for her, or ones, like Rachel Kushner, contemporaries who write with the same ferocity and brilliance. The list of monsters that Dederer could summon might be Biblical in its proportions, even in the last few years: R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and, of course, the media artist nonpareil Donald Trump. But Dederer is, smartly, less concerned with the endless egregious behavior of powerful men (a sad and very old story) than she is with how an audience might reasonably respond to great art created by seriously flawed human beings.
Dederer’s book could have been an unoriginal thrashing of the patriarchy. Surely, some of that surfaces in her narrative (and for just cause, no doubt), but Dederer is not only concerned with male monsters but with female ones, as well. So she shines a light on the lives and work of Anne Sexton, Joni Mitchell, Doris Lessing, and Sylvia Plath, all great artists who engaged in behavior that could be seen as monstrous: abandoning children and/or committing suicide or, in Plath’s case, both. Dederer does make it clear, though, that she sees a significant difference between male and female artistic monsters. Women struggle trying to balance motherhood and art. Men, like Nabokov or Hemingway, just find women to take care of the clutter of life for them as they focus on their art with an obsessiveness that it’s difficult for women to arrange for themselves.
Thus, Dederer manages a balance in her examination of artistic monsters, male and female. The reader might wish that an editor had talked her out of including Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather in the discussion. They might seem to stretch the argument about monstrousness too thin. But maybe these outliers help to make one of Dederer’s central points: We are all monsters to one degree or another. Dederer includes herself in this—too much alcohol (not as much as Raymond Carver but enough to make her say no more) and, as with all writers or artists, an inclination toward the self-interest of art. “A book,” as she says, “is made out of selfishness.” And every writer or artist asks at one time or another, “If I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?”
She makes the point a number of times that historically it has been easier for male artists to accept the privilege of selfishness than it has been for women artists. Nabokov had Vera to be his wife and caretaker. But who did Sylvia Plath have? Surely not Ted Hughes. So Nabokov was able to write Lolita, a book that a woman might have found impossible to write. In discussing Nabokov, Dederer launches into a brilliant, mind-bending analysis of what Nabokov achieved in that novel. Then she asks the question that may be one of the most pertinent for our times: “Could Lolita be published today?” As she says, we should not punish artists for their subject matter. But we do. And the cancellations may be coming at a faster and more furious pace as we creep further into the 21st century.
Again, in Monsters, Dederer is a writer portraying a problem, not a pundit (we have way too many of them) providing a remedy. She leaves the solution to the individual reader, but she recognizes her own complicity in the selfishness of art. And she sees empathy as a way to inhabit a landscape in which two truths can co-exist: An artist can be deeply flawed and a genius, as well. We can love the work and despair for the maker of the art. As she says, “We’re monsters and we’re victims.” All of us. “Monsters are just people,” she declares, and she suggests we don’t have to solve the problem but confront it honestly. “There is no authority and there should be no authority. You are off the hook. You are inconsistent. . . . You love Annie Hall but you can barely stand to look at a painting by Picasso. You are not responsible for solving the unreconciled contradiction. . . . The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll find some other way to accomplish that.”
Dederer concludes with a question: “How awful can we be, before people stop loving us?” That’s a powerful question, surely, but the one that still lurks in this breathtaking book might be: How awful must an artist’s actions be that the stain on their work makes it impossible for us to see it with any clarity?