Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2023)
A month after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal broke in October of 2017, Claire Dederer published an essay in the Paris Review’s “The Daily,” “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” At a moment when many women were reckoning with the degree to which sexual predation had been normalized, ignored, and perhaps even sponsored in their working lives, Dederer was preoccupied with the more theoretical problem of artist as monster. Now, nearly six years later, she has expanded that essay into a book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, which once again focuses on the moral failings of artists, many of them men.
Hopscotching through a century of art, she takes up the lives of artists who have disappointed her, ranging from Picasso to Hemingway, Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath, Nabokov to Doris Lessing, Wagner to Michael Jackson. The trespasses that offend Dederer are not minor: child abandonment; child molestation; sexual, emotional and physical abuse of all kinds; anti-Semitism; rape. Nor does she offer much gradation between them. For example, in writing about Sylvia Plath’s suicide she sees the abandonment of Plath’s young children as a moral failing, not the result of a mental illness, suicidal depression. Nor does she see the suicide as only one episode in a life spent in valiant fight for personal happiness and artistic achievement. “You messed up and you were out,” she writes later in the book of her often unforgiving attitude towards these many great artists. This is a stance that is incompletely rethought in this book.
Monsters is her title, and monstrosity is the construct through which she examines these lives. She is aware that hers is a fraught endeavor. “The word monster doesn’t hold up well,” she admits forty pages into her book. “It starts to seem a little silly or overblown, or, let’s go all the way with it, hysterical.” One hates to take Dederer’s word for it, but too often heightened emotion substitutes for substance in Monsters. She largely relies on secondary sources: newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, televised news programs. As a result, complex lives and achievements are too often collapsed into a few egregious facts. With Plath, for example again, “the violence with which she ended her life crowds our brains.” Dederer takes active issue with those who urge us to read for the poetry, not simply through the biography. These critics are “self-appointed arbiters who are eager to tell the rest of how to read.” One wonders, though, if Dederer is telling us not to read or watch or view, but simply to react.
The biography of these artists is “something that happens to us,” Dederer argues. “It falls on your head all day.” The lives of the filmmakers Roman Polanski and Woody Allen cause her particular pain. Having revered their work, she now finds herself unable to forget their troubled personal lives. “I took the fucking of Soon Yi [Woody Allen’s ex-partner’s daughter and eventual wife] as a terrible betrayal of me personally,” Dederer states outright in her Paris Review essay. In the book, she suggests that she could have been the thirteen-year-old Polanski raped because she herself had narrowly escaped a similar fate at that age. We can see why she is deeply uneasy about still loving Polanski’s films, but are left to wonder how these artists’ lives really happen to us in the way that Dederer suggests.
The author of two clear-eyed and sharply humorous memoirs, Dederer is at her best describing her own experience. Her description of her adolescent rage at Nabokov for Lolita’s lack of presence is beautifully created: “Maybe it scared me because I, like so many girls, was living this story, in a smaller, quieter way.” Here she makes clear how prevalent sexual, physical, and emotional violence is for many women, and how scarring it can be. Dederer then veers off into the safer territory of windy moralizing: “Child rape is not just the sexual act, but the thievery of childhood itself.” One has to wonder at whom this Victorian language is aimed, as sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, Dederer vacillates between depicting her own experience with utter acuteness and lecturing the morally negligent.
Ultimately, Dederer extends her discussion of monsters to herself. Is she a monster for pursuing her work as a writer as she also raises two children and cares for a husband, household, and extended family? Her ambivalence about shutting her door in order to do her work can seem extreme, if shared in part by others. Art is a means of making a living, however provisional, though, making Dederer’s breast beating seem entitled. (We might remember that the harshly judged Plath longed for financially successful novels as much as immortal poems.) Dederer’s guilt comes into better focus when late in the book she examines her reliance on alcohol. “I quit drinking because it was making me an awful, miserable person,” she writes. She then wonders, “Am I a monster? The answer, it turned out, was a resounding yes.” This conclusion allows her to empathize with other “monsters,” however belatedly, but the path from judgment to acceptance is declared, not delineated.
Sober, she describes a political reckoning as well. “Being overly focused on what we do about monstrous men turns attention away from the real work of #MeToo,” she writes. What that real work might be remains undescribed. But perhaps Dederer will return to the realm of memoir, where her forthrightness and humor are better employed in describing her own artistic and political battle. Appropriating the lives of others, she has proven, is for her a dead end.