In her engaging Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, memoirist and critic Claire Dederer wrestles with a complicated, sometimes slippery subject: What do we do with art—movies, novels, songs, paintings—we once loved, and sometimes still love, from men we now consider monsters? “I started keeping a list,” she writes. “Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop.” The book grew out of an essay Dederer wrote in 2017 for The Paris Review that went viral in the early days of #MeToo. Here Dederer considers the subject more thoroughly in a series of connected essays from a number of angles, walking readers through her thinking and experiences as a reader, viewer, parent, friend and longtime critic.
Dederer’s definition of an art monster is straightforward: “They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.” As she asks who qualifies as an art monster, and whether female artists can be monsters, Dederer reminds us how our 20th-century concept of “genius” was bound up with masculinity, and often with brutal behavior toward women (with Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso as prime examples).
But what Dederer really wants to get at has to do with our responses to these men and their art; she wants to tell the story of the audience. Reconsidering Woody Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, in light of his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, for example, she notes how her male critic friends have continued to see his movies as works of genius, while she and other women have responded quite differently.
One striking chapter looks at our responses to renowned artists Richard Wagner, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, noting the way we shrug off their antisemitic and racist comments because it was a different time. “One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past. The Past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better. Where monstrous behaviors were accepted,” Dederer writes. Referencing a range of sources, she argues nimbly that these artists did in fact know better.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Monsters is neither rant nor sermon. Dederer is not only an incisive researcher and writer, she’s also conversational, approachable and funny. The book seamlessly incorporates bits of memoir—Dederer’s life in the Pacific Northwest, her experiences as a critic and a woman, her failures—that have informed her critical thinking. Yes, Monsters is a worthy addition to contemporary literary criticism, but more than that, it’s a very enjoyable book about a thorny, elusive subject.