Claire Dederer’s Monsters

Orit Gat

Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, New York, 2009. © arvind grover / Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

April 28, 2023
Knopf Doubleday

I hate to admit that on my honeymoon in New York I watched Woody Allen play the clarinet at the Carlyle. My ex-husband was a huge Woody Allen fan and at the time (for the record, I was very young) I had a loose sense that Allen was bad but didn’t know the details. And I loved Annie Hall (1977): Diane Keaton, her outfits and personality, the joyfulness of it. I wanted to love it; to love it, I had to avoid difficult questions.

Or just one question. “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” This is the issue at the heart of Claire Dederer’s book, which tackles the dilemma of whether the artist’s biography can be separated from the work. In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argued that to look away from biography enables the “birth of the reader,” indicating that it’s on us—readers—to come to terms with the moral ends of looking at art. But what happens when the artist was also an abuser?

Dederer, a film critic, opens with Roman Polanski, charged with drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. The book goes on to discuss Allen, Michael Jackson, J. K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway: if the list starts to feel endless, chapter three is simply called “Roll Call.” “I’d spent my life being disappointed by beloved male artists,” Dederer writes, discussing their anti-Semitism (Richard Wagner), racism (Willa Cather, one of few female examples in the book), and violence (Pablo Picasso, Hemingway). Time has passed since many of these figures were working (“everyone used to be such a jerk,” Dederer says), but to concede that people are a product of their time risks implying that today is better. But is it? And what if these figures’ work has become part of our contemporary lives: do we have to give up on our love in order to be moral, good, human?

The word “monster” is evocative, but Dederer takes care to keep it vague. In the chapter “Am I a Monster?”—after reassuring us that she has never promulgated fascism, molested a child, or been accused by dozens of women of raping them—she describes how her relationship to motherhood and family has been affected by a drinking problem, also by the potentially monstrous position of being a writer. To be a writer—or an artist—requires selfishness, Dederer writes. It requires closing the door behind you while you work. Doris Lessing left two of her three children behind in South Africa when she moved to London to write; her work—including The Golden Notebook (1962), which has shaped many women’s ideas of what it means to be a woman—is still discussed in light of this decision. The villainy of choosing to walk away from children. The second line in the chapter titled “Abandoning Mothers” reads, “If the male crime is rape, the female crime is the failure to nurture.”

The crime gets into the art. Reading and writing, consuming and making, gender and society all bleed into each other in Dederer’s consideration of monstrosity. Writing about Rowling, Dederer describes how her children’s imaginations were bound in the world of the “Harry Potter” series; far from Hogwarts, Rowling’s social conservatism and transphobia are very real. We lose pieces of ourselves when the artists who formed us show their stained sides. You can’t watch Manhattan (1979) without being haunted by its plotline, where Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, is forty-two and dating Tracy, a seventeen-year-old high school student played by sixteen-year-old Mariel Hemingway. And here is the monster: it was always in the work.

Dederer describes how she developed Monsters as an autobiography of the audience—a position which entails some difficult circumstances. Is the audience’s only choice whether to look at the work or dodge it? Dederer argues that we must confront, explore, and possibly feel remorseful about our loves: “We don’t love the deserving,” she writes, introducing the task she calls “the audience’s new job.” It can be hard work, and Allen makes it especially challenging. I have a sour taste in my mouth when I think of him playing jazz in that beautiful hotel bar. To regret one’s history, to look away from what one loved, is a loss. Herein lies the problem with monstrosity: it is woven into your life. Art implicates the people who make it and the people who love it. The things we love matter. They become part of us. To ask what that does to us, to question this love thoughtfully and intentionally is the only way to really face the work. And the monster.

Claire Dederer’s Monsters was published in the US by Knopf on April 25 and will be published in the UK by Sceptre on May 25.

Biography, Ethics

Orit Gat is a writer based in London. She is a contributing editor at The White Review and Art Papers.

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April 28, 2023

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