Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (Knopf Publishing Group, 2023) offers unflinchingly personal answers to a question we’ve all asked ourselves: What do we do with great art by monstrous people? When and how does art make monsters of its fans?
The curtain rises upon Dederer, a Seattle-based author who got her start as a film critic, wrestling with her feelings about Roman Polanski, the acclaimed director arrested in 1977 for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Rewatching the 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby in preparation for an interview, Dederer finds herself enraptured as ever by Polanski’s art. Walking to the studio the next day in a post-cinematic stupor, she trips, falls, and smashes her face. Splayed on the sidewalk, “my face a gaping wound, my teeth rearranged, my skin scraped clean,” she’s become “something that terrified other people … Whether I liked it or not, there I was, on my knees before my muse, my beloved, my monster.”
As a scholar who loves Ancient Rome but hates the enslavement that sustained it, I couldn’t put Monsters down after this vivid opening monstrum. (I draw here upon the word’s original Latin meaning: A “warning, omen, or spectacle worthy of wonder.”) Dederer expands her definition of the “monstrous” beyond headline artists accused of pedophilia to more mundane acts of neglect. Do we all become monsters, in some sense, when we carve time from life for art? When we feed our burgeoning selves with art that uses or abuses others?
In Monsters, which expands upon her 2017 essay in The Paris Review (2017), Dederer eschews universalizing answers or ethical proscriptions. She contemplates but foregoes writing “an honest autobiography of the audience … of the work of monstrous men.” What she offers instead is an individuated portrait of her mental agon as she confronts the art that’s made her the artist she is and the anger, guilt, and love she feels toward flawed artists (including herself). The true “spectacle worthy of wonder” in Monsters is art’s simultaneous power to create and alienate us from ourselves. Dederer bravely offers herself as “exhibit A” while taking the stand as witness, prosecutor, and judge.
A slippage between “we,” “you,” and “I” throughout the book is both its limitation and contribution. In a feminist embrace of embodied subjectivity, Dederer treads a fine line between standing in for all audiences and speaking for nobody but herself.
It’s on the latter grounds that the book is most successful in demonstrating the life- (and sometimes face-) altering power of art. Yes, Dederer’s “roll call” includes the usual suspects — Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, and Miles Davis, discussed through the lens of the underrecognized Black playwright Pearl Cleage). But Dederer’s feminist widening of concepts of guilt and genius permits analyses of Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing, among others, with Vladimir Nabokov emerging as a surprise “anti-monster.”
We all participate in a cultural economy that rewards, even feeds on, monstrosity. As German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Dederer personalizes the stakes by scoring her own artistic self-formation as a dance with monstrous art, against the bassbeat of America’s ongoing war on women.
Artists cannibalize life, Dederer suggests, much as Woody Allen enfleshed Annie Hall upon Diane Keaton’s bones. Reciprocally, though, audiences cannibalize art; creators and consumers alike use art to excuse and autopsy our own monstrosity.
The author feels guilty, as a working mother, about the “small selfishnesses” it takes to write a book. At the same time, she wonders whether she should have been more monstrous herself. Though Dederer resists capitalism’s tendency to reduce us to products of our consumer choices, economic logic informs her aesthetic reckoning. Which achievements justify whose sacrifices, or vice versa? What scales of genius excuse what degrees of harm?
While Dederer reaches several times for a moral “calculator,” she ultimately decides that this problem can’t be solved through accounting or philosophy. Thinking and feeling exist on orthogonal planes, she insists, and it’s within our hearts that we respond to great art and artists.
Not every reader will agree that artists’ biographies are impossible to ignore as we experience their art, but there is undeniable power in Dederer’s rending of her own flesh to feed the argument that “consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting” — that of artist and audience. As a girl, she “ate” Sylvia Plath and Woody Allen like air; as a grown writer, she used alcohol and artists’ residencies to absent herself from her family. Such experiences populate both sides of a balance sheet that can never be reconciled: the cost and value of the artist’s work versus the audience member’s complicity.
Ultimately, Monsters raises more questions than it resolves. But as I read, I kept musing on the Latin word casus, meaning “accident, downfall, or error” (like the misdeeds that cause certain artists’ “cancellation,” or the betrayal fans feel in response), as well as the generative “opportunities” raised therein.
It’s precisely by staging idiosyncratic, embodied encounters between personal and political, artist and audience, that Monsters turns accident into art — as viscerally and memorably as that face-fall in Seattle. By the end of Dederer’s book, monstrous artists become a way of reckoning with her (our?) most abject fears: that we’re not good enough, that nobody will love us if they know who we truly are, and that our accomplishments may never quite compensate for our failures.
The teeth that cut, the mouth that bleeds, the art that prompts the fall — all, in Dederer’s analysis, are part of the same collective and wondrously “monstrous” organism that makes meaning of our lives. I feel no dilemma in confessing: I’m a fan.
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer is published by Knopf Publishing Group and is available online and in bookstores.