Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, but Claire Dederer thinks it’s not too late to start.
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer, Knopf, 273 pages, $28
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Early on in her smart, funny, and surprisingly forgiving new book, Monsters, Claire Dederer describes the experience of rewatching, in 2017, Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Her reaction to that brilliant, misanthropic film became the core of the polemical essay she published that fall, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” She was responding to the start of the #MeToo movement, when it no longer seemed possible to separate the movie from the pervy behavior we suspected of its maker. She could not, in good conscience, appreciate the work’s genius.
In Monsters, based on that essay, Dederer’s refusal to give Manhattan a free pass leads her deep into questions of representation, honesty, what it means to be an artist, what it means to love art. She takes the reader along with her—in my case, back to my sense of baffled repulsion when I saw Allen’s film in 1979. The love affair between Allen’s character, Isaac, forty-two, and Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy, seventeen, depicted a teenage reality that I sensed was all around me. (At my strict and patriarchal prep school, even we nerds knew the teachers were sleeping with the students.) What it didn’t show me was how to feel about that reality. Manhattan is willfully oblivious to Tracy’s point of view. You could light up all of New York on the wattage of teenage girls’ emotions, but, as Dederer points out, everyone in the film acts out their fears and hurts except the one person actually entitled to them.
Manhattan made me not want to be a serious intellectual, if the price was emotional erasure. Dederer tries discussing her reservations about Allen at dinner with a New York friend, “one of those men of letters who like to play the part, ironically but not—ties and blazers and low-key misogyny and brown alcohol in a tumbler. . . . I felt nervous, as if I were going to be found out. Found out as what? A woman?” The friend dismisses her concerns and tells her she’s a lightweight.
How is a girl to get her textual pleasure without some man grabbing her arts? Dederer’s and my generation has worked hard to sort out the consequences of everything that scared Allen and his: feminism, gay rights, racial and gender justice. (Don’t forget Manhattan’s homophobic jokes about Allen attempting to murder his ex’s new girlfriend.) Trying to find out about Tracy’s, and my, inner life left me up to my ears in considerations of selfhood and subjectivity. When I was a critic at the Village Voice in the 1990s, writing like Laurie Stone’s columns, Joan Morgan’s reporting from the Mike Tyson rape trial, and Blanche McCrary Boyd’s lesbian take on Norman Mailer, among many others, paved the way for thinking about monsters in the era of #MeToo. Dederer made a powerful statement with her 2017 memoir Love & Trouble, exploring her “wild” adolescence and the burdensome side of sexual liberation, which makes people (teenagers, middle-aged women) do all the work of understanding their own desire.
In Monsters she takes her thoughts on self-creation further to question the books, movies, and music that formed her. “When what you like becomes important, becomes defining, becomes an obsession, then an artist’s biography has even more power than before,” she writes. Parasocial relationships become awkward when you acknowledge the abusive husband in John Lennon, the anti-Semite in T. S. Eliot, the rapist in Bill Cosby. She quotes Hanif Abdurraqib, who urges audiences to “challenge the desire for nostalgia” and let go of old loves. Yet she can’t give up the films of Roman Polanski, that arbitrary poster child for Hollywood’s worst behavior.
Viewers and listeners are often complicit, demanding from their heroes a single-minded devotion to the work that precludes human decency. They’re fine with Picasso being cruel to his partners, maybe more than fine, as long as it looks good on the canvas. That’s why women can’t be geniuses, Dederer notes: “They don’t get to forget the rest of life.” Like many ambivalent mothers, she identifies with Doris Lessing while making her worse than she actually was. (Lessing had an “utter horror” of motherhood, Dederer writes, which simply isn’t true, nor did she willingly leave her children.) She pushes herself as a writer, then judges her devotion to the work, admitting her own fear of being a monster just for “leaving behind the family, posting up in a borrowed cabin or a cheaply bought motel room” to get her writing done.
Monsters is excellent when Dederer is puncturing pretensions of goodness. In a passage on Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Dederer demolishes the “it was normal then” argument: it wasn’t OK in the past, either, and Wagner knew it. “The liberal fantasy of effortless enlightenment simply assumes we’re getting better all the time,” she notes—which can be an excuse for not behaving better in one’s own life. Boycotting individual artists, as if they were plastic straws, she rightly calls a flimsy, consumerist substitute for structural change.
Though Dederer is wary of outrage, she hopes for herself that she’d be brave enough to hear necessary criticism. “I have a sense of fear that I might be shamed for my mistakes. Is this shame-in-waiting the price we pay for the reckoning of #MeToo? . . . This trade-off is depressing . . . but, to my mind, it’s the bargain that’s on the table right now. Some people endure shaming, deserved or undeserved, so that some other people can say what happened to them.”
Otherwise Dederer offers few solutions. In her closing chapter, Dederer opens up about her problems with alcohol—another reason to count herself among the monsters. It’s a courageous admission, but one that drains some of the polemical, hashtagged energy from the book. Ultimately she concludes that the problem is the susceptibility of the human heart: “We don’t love the deserving; we love flawed and imperfect human beings, in an emotional logic that belongs to an entirely different weather system than the chilly climate of reason.”
I find this is a false kind of forgiveness. Weather has lightning bolts; bad behavior has consequences. Without them, empathy becomes the Achilles’ heel of the well-meaning. But one of the strengths of the book is that it invites this kind of personal response from its audience. You can’t read it without thinking of your own literary loves and hates—and wondering how to know the difference.
Julie Phillips’s most recent book is The Baby on the Fire Escape, on mothering and creative work.