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Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma


Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma

MONSTERS is that rare breed --- an important and timely book that is a joy to read. How should we respond to great art made by not-so-great humans? Perhaps even by humans whose actions off the page or canvas are morally reprehensible? And the more subtle question: How do we respond? Can we separate our emotional response to the art, even if we feel that we should? Does it even matter if we withdraw our consumption of the art because we abhor the sins of the artist?

"There are no easy answers to these timely questions. But reading MONSTERS is like exploring them with a very wise and funny friend. I highly recommend it."

Claire Dederer approaches these vexing questions from the vantage points of critic, offended fan and ambitious artist in her own right. Each chapter teases the strands of arguments judiciously and at times humorously. A chapter titled “The Critic” recounts her early years as a film critic for the Seattle Times. Seeking an authoritative voice, she found a neat summation of the critical process by the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni: “Every work of art provides its reader with all the necessary elements with which to judge it. In my view, these elements are: the author’s intent, whether this intent was reasonable; whether the author has achieved his intent.” Yet she ultimately rejects the idea that her subjective experience isn’t relevant to the judgment of the art: “I didn’t know it when I was a young critic, but I now know this: my subjectivity is the crucial component of my experience as a critic, and the very best thing I can do is simply acknowledge that fact.”

Dederer’s skill as a memoirist contributes to the power of the essays, as she shares the political and social context of the times when she was considering each aspect of the problem. From the election of Donald Trump to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, we remember as we read along how “monstrous” questions and behaviors resonated (and still resonate) in our culture and politics. There are words about the predictable subjects (Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Pablo Picasso), but Dederer also tackles the ways in which we as consumers feed off the bad behavior of our “genius” artists: “The sometimes-truth is that we are interested in and, yes, even attracted to bad people…. To pretend that there’s no allure to bad men is to sidestep reality.”

In the chapter “The Anti-Semite, the Racist, and the Problem of Time,” Dederer addresses the “but times were different then” excuse for bad behavior: “The Past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better.” She makes the argument that, at least in the case of the German composer Wagner, he probably did know better. After all, he took great pains to write and promote his own essay, “Judaism in Music.” Using the actor Stephen Fry’s documentary about Wagner to illustrate her points, she sympathizes with Fry, who is convinced that if he could just go back in time and educate Wagner, his glorious music would be free of the stain of Hitler and Nazism: “But Wagner wasn’t stained by history, he stained himself --- his anti-Semitism isn’t wrong because it inspired Hitler; it’s wrong in and of itself.”

Throughout every chapter in this compelling book, Dederer stimulates our own thinking. She doesn’t let us or herself off easily. In a chapter titled “Am I A Monster?” she wonders if her ambition as a writer has stolen valuable energy from her children (and why male artists aren’t subject to the same accounting): “When you finish a book what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements.” There are no easy answers to these timely questions. But reading MONSTERS is like exploring them with a very wise and funny friend. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on April 28, 2023

Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma
by Claire Dederer

  • Publication Date: April 23, 2024
  • Genres: Literary Criticism, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525564187
  • ISBN-13: 9780525564188