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3 july 2023

In Monsters, Claire Dederer proceeds from the dilemma of how to square her love of certain artworks with the evil these artists (almost always male) have done. Her premise is our 21st-century fascination with the lives of artists.

There is no longer any escaping biography. Even within my own lifetime, I've seen a massive shift. Biography used to be something you sought out, yearned for, actively pursued. Now it falls on your head all day long. (51)
Obviously the biographies of artists have held appeal since Giorgio Vasari filled everyone in on the doings of Masaccio and Mantegna and the Ghirlandaios. The 18th century and the Victorians did not lack for gossip about creators, still less the media-saturated 20th century. But it is true that you couldn't follow William Faulkner on Instagram, and thus had no idea how badly he was behaving on a day-to-day basis.

But before long, and completely by book's end, you learn that Dederer isn't ultimately that exercised about her own title dilemma. She asks, "Do we withhold our support if the person is alive and therefore might benefit financially from our consumption of their work?" (20) – which indeed would seem about the only way to express our disdain for Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and others. But in the end, she recognizes, that's just an individual consumer decision, utterly trivial in the entertainment economy.

And when it comes to whether to watch a DVD of Love and Death that I already own … what's the harm? Problems only arise, as I've noted with Wagner and Heidegger, when the work you're enjoying promotes or excuses evil. If the work doesn't go there, you don't have to, either. I listened yesterday to a CD of Tchaikovsky's ballet suites, conducted by James Levine. If there was evil seeping out of that recording, it would have to be the evil of the entire Western symphonic-music tradition, which is perhaps an arguable contention, but not the one at issue here.

Dederer makes a distinction between Annie Hall, a woman-centered film that seems compassionate and humanist, "unstained" by revelations about its creator – and Manhattan, which is about wanting to have sex with a teenage girl. I saw Manhattan in the theater on its first release, just about the time Woody Allen first met Mia Farrow, and it bothered me then – heck, I was twenty, and the idea of pursuing a 17-year-old girl made me uneasy. My discomfort with Manhattan, as Dederer notes of hers, had nothing to do with directorial biography. It's just a creepy movie.

(And as an aside, Love and Death, which is 99.9% harmless parody of Russian novels, does have that one line, spoken by a geezer delivering the wisdom of a lifetime: "I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is … blonde twelve-year-old girls." It's a throwaway line, but … it was always creepy. Now it's eerie in the bargain.)

By contrast, Dederer offers a fascinating appreciative reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which I liked the more because it aligns in places with my own thoughts on Lolita. If anything, Dederer finds that Humbert Humbert develops more of a consciousness of what he's done to Dolly than I'd allow. She concludes that Nabokov himself, though he gave the impression of subjugating all his personal relationships to his own genius, couldn't be farther, in Lolita, from taking the side of monstrosity.

In any case, Dederer soon disposes of the idea that we are obliged even to forego artworks by terrible people. It's a non-issue. Monsters instead becomes Dederer's demolition of the double standards that our culture holds for male and female creators. She offers a keen perception that women tip far more easily into monstrosity than men do. Male artists become monstrous by molesting teenagers; women artists can become monsters – in their own eyes as well as those of society – by sending their kids to daycare or missing their soccer games.

We end up hearing more about Sylvia Plath, Joni Mitchell, Doris Lessing, and Valerie Solanas, whose various sins and selfishnesses run a gamut that doesn't exactly overlap with those of the male geniuses under examination elsewhere in the book. There's a special way for women to be judged, and to feel, monstrous.

Dederer explores the anguish of being insistently compelled to write while being compelled (unresistingly) to love the children she is raising: the demands of family and art, as she puts it, being pressures orthogonal to each other. At times Monsters tracks Room of One's Own, though Virginia Woolf is no hero in the book; Dederer looks at how the novelist's diaries could feature disturbing anti-Semitism, even as, in the cliché, some of Virginia Woolf's best friends, including her own husband, were Jewish. "Am I a monster?" Dederer asks. Yes and no. It depends on the scales we use, and we may be using very loaded scales.

Dederer, Claire. Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2023. NX 180 .E8D43