MONSTERS: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer
The stoops of brownstone Brooklyn, on which residents routinely leave freebies for passers-by, are a reliable metric of current literary tastes — and distastes. In that fervid summer of 2018 when prominent men were being publicly accused of bad behavior right and left, I found there juxtaposed Woody Allen’s “Side Effects” and Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon Days,” amusing in a way those humorists never intended. Nearby, someone had huffily discarded a copy of Mario Batali’s “Molto Italiano.” My shelf of scandal was getting more stuffed than one of his delectable vongole origanate.
Over on the West Coast, in Seattle, the author Claire Dederer had discovered a similar phenomenon: a Little Free Library “absolutely crammed to its tiny rafters with books by and about” Allen, which she decided to gather as research. “An ill-gotten Woody Allen book was a book I hadn’t paid for — the perfect way to consume the art of someone whose morals you question,” she writes in her own new book, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma,” a cross-disciplinary consideration of such polarizing figures, and of the ethics of a creative life.
“Everyone alive,” Dederer writes, “is either canceled or about to be canceled.” But she has no use for the term “cancel culture,” privileging, as it does, the person shamed by the red stamp of accusation, rather than the one who pipes up about wrongdoing. And she nonetheless wants to find a way to reconcile her appreciation of great art with the real-life misdeeds of its creators.
Expanding on a popular essay published in The Paris Review a month after the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation, “Monsters” sustains an essayistic, sometimes aphoristic tone throughout 250-odd pages. Dotted with details of her particular milieu — the ferryboat, the crepe shop, the rock show that leaves glitter in the eyelashes — “Monsters” is part memoir, part treatise and all treat. Dederer is continually trying — not in the adjectival sense, but as the present participle: showing us her thought process, correcting as she goes and experimenting with different forms.
She renders an argument with an unnamed tweedy “male writer” about Allen’s 1979 movie “Manhattan,” for example, as a “little play” set in the marble-lined restaurant at the Met Breuer (itself an echt “Manhattan” setting), observing “a clink of silverware around the room, as if the knives and forks were having another conversation, a clearer and cleaner conversation, underneath or above the meaty human rumble.”
Dederer, the “female writer” — and a nimble, witty one — has come to believe that the nonchalance with which Allen’s character dates a high schooler ruins the film, which has always faintly disturbed her, especially since the director left Mia Farrow for her daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The male writer takes the New Critical position that she should judge “Manhattan” just on aesthetics, and that it’s a masterpiece.
Woody Allen has already taken up too much space in this review. The so-called monster — a term that, handily, can denote success and size as well as deviance — has a way of doing that.
Dederer flips through an entire rogues’ gallery, which includes plenty of men yet also a surprising number of women: J.K. Rowling, of course, whose Harry Potter series had enraptured Dederer’s family before she spoke about transgender issues; but also Virginia Woolf, whose diaries were “pocked” with “flippant antisemitic remarks” though she was married to a Jew; Willa Cather, who dehumanized Black people in “My Ántonia”; Laura Ingalls Wilder, who dehumanized Native Americans in the “Little House” series; and Doris Lessing, who left two children behind when she moved from Rhodesia to London with the third.
“This is what female monstrousness looks like: abandoning the kids. Always,” declares Dederer, a mother of two still feeling guilty about a decade of drinking and a five-week retreat to Marfa, Texas. Here I’d argue with her (and I don’t think she’d mind; she is continually arguing with herself). Unless not having children, like Woolf, constitutes a kind of abandonment?
“Monster” turns out to be but one of several words the author carefully palpates, finding it “male, testicular, old world. It’s a hairy word, and has teeth.” It conjures childhood fear and fantasy, like the creatures in “Where the Wild Things Are,” whose author, Maurice Sendak, is in some quarters absurdly demonized, or the works of Roald Dahl: less absurdly demonized, for unflippant antisemitism. (“If we give up the antisemites,” remarks one of Dederer’s friends in what is actually kind of a Woody Allenish joke, “we’ll have to give up everyone.” )
“Am I a Monster?” Dederer titles one chapter, assessing her own relative rectitude. In the next breath, she assesses her own career — she has published well-received books on yoga and sex — “maybe I’m not monstrous enough.” Art requires selfishness; geniuses get a “hall pass” on having to conform to society’s expectations. If only one could keep the passionate, voracious part of monsterdom without leaving teeth marks in other people.
“Stain” is another piece of vocabulary Dederer finds useful, though Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” is not among the many works analyzed here, and Roth is mentioned only in passing, despite the very interesting case of sexual misconduct accusations against his biographer that has jeopardized Roth’s legacy.
Maybe that’s because “biography,” to Dederer, seems not so much noble genre as ubiquitous nuisance, a “disrupter of my own pleasure”: just a set of personal details you can search for on that most monstrous of modern entities, the internet. “We swim in biography; we are sick with biography,” she writes. It “used to be something you sought out, yearned for, actively pursued. Now it falls on your head all day long.”
Corollary to the “monster,” more passive, is the “stain”: some ugliness coloring someone’s life that you don’t want to know, that nonetheless spreads and can ruin perception of his or her work. Stains seep through time, to the people who hurt the artist and the people the artist hurt, and in these days of heightened parasocial relationships, the people he or she hurts include us: the fan who knew too much.
Every fan’s shelf of scandal, the books snatched furtively off the stoop, looks different. Dederer’s: light on Roth, laden with Vladimir Nabokov. Her exquisitely reasoned vindication of “Lolita” brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.
But I also found myself disagreeing with or questioning a lot, resisting her sweeping “we” (a pronoun she herself interrogates). I don’t think of the comedian Michael Richards’s 2006 racist tirade every time I catch glimpses of him bursting through the door on “Seinfeld.” (Should I?) Neither, presumably, does the hilarious young comedian Troy Bond, who regularly does a modernized parody of the show on TikTok.
I don’t think the word “ambition” attached to a woman is pejorative anymore. I don’t think women who complete their work — “finishers,” Dederer calls them — are in any way monstrous or comparable to male predators. They’re A students! Or just being professional.
And I definitely don’t think, as she asserts, that “pregnancy is the end of narrative.” This from someone who spends pages luxuriating guiltily in “Rosemary’s Baby,” trying to solve “the problem of Roman Polanski.” What about John Updike’s “Couples”? (Don’t get me started on how The London Review of Books monsterized Updike, above Patricia Lockwood’s essay, as a “malfunctioning sex robot.”)
For an author who rightly shudders over the cheapening of the word “obsessed” to use the phrases “make work” — the new “make love”? — and “late capitalism” leaves me feeling, as Dederer would herself put it, “a little urpy.”
But, but … this is a book that looks boldly down the cliff at the roiling waters below and jumps right in, splashes around playfully, isn’t afraid to get wet. How refreshing.
MONSTERS: A Fan’s Dilemma | By Claire Dederer | 288 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28