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Of Monsters and Men

A needless expansion of a viral essay
A man in a suit sits in a chair, holding a pair of glasses in his right hand.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer. Knopf, 288 pages. 2023

What can literature make happen? Not much, goes Auden’s line. Banished to its own domicile, seemingly disconnected from the more concrete concerns of the everyday: art, in this iteration, poses no threat, engenders no action. What wars have been declared over a poem, what treaties signed due to a short story? The novel is justified by its supposed ability to nurture empathy. Art and life: entangled but, so the story goes, distinct.

But literature makes a great many things happen, if the increased debates concerning artists and their creations, the real-life “consequences” of art, are any indication. The Me Too movement, endless handwringing over “cancel culture,” exhortations to “separate the art from the artist,” and a grim resurgence of book bannings across the country are all evidence that literature does, in fact, hold some power over its audiences, that it does indeed have the potential to shape our lives. And this very quality is what makes it so seductive and so troubling. “Literature . . . is itself a demonic act, since it exhibits criminal visions in an aggressive way,” observes Simone de Beauvoir in her essay on the very subject, Must We Burn Sade? “That is what gives it its incomparable value.”

Demonic, yes—literature toys with us, betrays us, it feeds on its human hosts while moving in accordance with its own internal logic, birthed from us, wholly of us, and yet strangely elusive. I’ve been thinking often of a line from Alain Mabanckou in a recent essay of his, in which he writes, “But why do we no longer read poetry? Wrong question! Is what is presented to us really poetry? That’s the question!” The question I started this essay with is the wrong question. A better question might be: What can literature make us—the audience—make happen?

Dederer’s search for nuance has, paradoxically, created a work muddled by inexactitudes.

Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma aims “to tell the story of the audience,” to act as an “autobiography of the audience.” It is a book about a very particular moment in time—the recent past, and its morals—concerned with a very particular question: What to do with the art of monstrous men? Dederer first posed the question six years ago in an essay for The Paris Review, which promptly went viral and was discussed ad nauseum on social media and in enervating think pieces concerning the right or wrong ways to consume art. The philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes, in his 2021 book Drawing the Line: What to do with the Works of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies, characterizes this as an instance of identification and betrayal. (Full disclosure: I worked in social media at The Paris Review starting in 2018, a year after the essay was published.) Now, a needless expansion: one that retreads some familiar ground (Is it ethical to watch a Woody Allen or a Roman Polanski film, considering their accused crimes?) and introduces some newer, though somehow still stale, lines of inquiry (can a woman be a monster, too?).

I liked Dederer’s original essay when it was first published in those early days of the Trump administration. I worked in social media, composing tweets for a magazine that, following The New Yorker’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein, started publishing its own investigations into the movie mogul. A certain energy pulsed along the building’s corridors, and out into the streets. The air seemed to vibrate with a particular frequency, high pitched, as though coaxed out by a tuning fork held high: anger, of the long-repressed and fully-justified variety. For a few brief months, it felt like a few historical wrongs might actually be righted, some tables turned. Now, from inside our moment of cultural and political backlash, that time seems far away and strange, like Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / when to be young was very heaven!”

Dederer’s book feels very much of this time—2017, that is. The references scattered across its pages—Donna Haraway, Valerie Solanas, the band PWR BTTM—were the subject of reissues, retweets, and renewed conversation in 2017 but now come across as weirdly dated. A chapter on motherhood and artmaking is interesting but feels similarly limited to what the conversation was within the early Trump years, rather than six years later, after the global pandemic. Has the ever-quickening pace of the internet caused this? Reading Monsters a few times over the last few months, it struck me finally that something has happened in the transference from essay into book; Dederer’s search for nuance has, paradoxically, created a work muddled by inexactitudes. Reading it is not unlike the act of exhuming old Twitter threads. By the book’s end, Dederer having backed herself into a corner, throws up her hands and turns to that familiar canard: there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and so “our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture.”

This may be true, but it’s an unsatisfying conclusion, one that feels irresponsible in a book that raises what it views as provocative questions. Part of the problem might lie in its initial premise, rooted as it is in Dederer’s interest in biography: “We live in a biographical moment,” she writes early on, “and if you look hard enough at anyone, you can probably find at least a little stain. Everyone who has a biography—that is, everyone alive—is either canceled or about to be canceled.” An interesting observation, sure. But by focusing so much on biography when discussing certain artists and their works, at the expense of engagement with the work itself, Dederer ends up smudging her own critical lens. This approach is fine when dealing with a situation that’s much more dependent on a particular artist’s actions—say, the guilt one might feel for enjoying Polanski’s Repulsion despite finding the director’s rape of a thirteen-year-old girl repulsive. But her approach falters in the chapter dedicated to Nabokov’s Lolita.

What is there possibly left to say about Lolita? Like Dederer, I first read it at a young age, thirteen or fourteen; this was in the early 2000s, a few years after the 1997 film adaptation that bowdlerized the text’s darker or more obviously parodic moments and gave rise to a million “nymphet” and “coquette” style fan pages run by young women first on LiveJournal, then Tumblr, and now Instagram and TikTok. (The internet never forgets, it just reiterates.) Though certain corners of the internet have long been fascinated by it, others have excoriated it: “Lolita,” writes Dederer, “over the decades, has been alchemized into something truly strange: a text that is perceived, in and of itself, as an act of abuse.” The chapter is titled “The Anti-Monster”; after a long deliberation concerning her own youthful inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, Nabokov and his creation, Humbert Humbert, Dederer lands on the side of pro. “The book,” she observes, “is ultimately not (or not just) a portrait of a monster, but a portrait of a girl’s annihilation.” Then she loses me: “Nabokov and child rape: The writing exists and the action never did—does that mean the writing replaced the action?” Dederer goes on:

It’s possible that Nabokov had monstrous desires, and channeled those desires into his own work. Which is not to say that his work was written from a therapeutic or cathartic standpoint—god forbid—but that he had the great artist’s impulse to step toward what was most awful in himself, rather than away from it.

This is presented as empty speculation. “Thought is not action,” Dederer writes in the next paragraph, and then later on the page, a parenthetical appears: “(And, again, we have no proof that having sex with children was something Nabokov wanted to do.)” There is no point to a passage like this. With a book as textually slippery as Lolita—which opens, you might recall, with a fake psychiatrist’s note not unlike the content warnings featured in today’s true crime documentaries, alerting the audience of the plot points to follow, rendering Humbert’s lurid exhortations concerning his life all the more ridiculous, over-the-top, and delusional—this reading of the fiction writer as a constant potential memoirist comes across as tedious. It makes Nabokov’s points about the human need to rubberneck disaster for him. For all of Dederer’s protestations to the contrary, what’s really in question here is the very act of fiction-making, an unease, a suspicion, regarding art’s relationship to truth, to mimesis, that’s plagued artmaking from the jump.

This is what has needled at me about this book in particular, and indeed about many of the broader debates concerning art and ethics that I’ve watched recapitulated, in real life and online, over the last few years. Writing a book that graphically portrays sexual violence is different than committing acts of sexual violence, and artists—both men and women—shouldn’t be regarded with suspicion when they choose to think up these acts of violence that are part of the texture of our world. The form of the work matters, and this is true for artists of either gender, because women, too, can use violence in strange and interesting narrative ways. Are we meant to assume that, say, the Japanese writer Kōno Taeko, a woman, harbored the same kind of “monstrous desires” that she attributes to Akiko, the female protagonist of her 1961 short story “Toddler Hunting,” in which the character fantasizes sexually about the disembowelment of a little boy in one of the strangest, most grotesque, and most interesting scenes I’ve ever read? What about the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, whose books are littered with graphic depictions of rape and sexualized torture, in a direct attempt to portray on the page how fascism and the control of women’s bodies are interlinked? The list goes on. It makes me uneasy, this flirtation with collapsing authorial motivation and interpersonal desires—even as a thought experiment—coming as it does in a moment in time in which books are being banned across the country and conservative quarters of the younger generations find themselves increasingly skeptical of sex scenes in films and sex in general.

Does the artist have a political obligation? I think so.

Women artists, in Dederer’s estimation of them, are regarded as monstrous by their society at large purely in terms of their relation to motherhood and childrearing. “If the male crime is rape, the female crime is failure to nurture,” she writes. “The abandonment of children is the worst thing a woman can do.” Again, I don’t think this is untrue at all—it seems quite accurate to me, in fact—but I found myself wishing that Dederer would push beyond this initial observation in her analysis of the life and work of the female artists she then focuses on, particularly Sylvia Plath (who she pairs with Valerie Solanas). Much space is given to the biographical facts and struggles of Plath’s life; little attention is paid to analyzing her actual words. As usual, the political bent of so many of her poems—the usage of German, for instance, or the references to the atrocities of the twentieth century—is glossed over. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, Dederer writes, somewhat defensively, that “Plath seems to attract this kind of reproachful critic—self-appointed arbiters who are eager to tell the rest of us how we ought to read.” As one such reproachful critic, I have to wonder: What is so wrong about wanting to think about the work this woman left behind, which remains some of the strangest and most dazzling American poetry of the twentieth century?

By the book’s end, Dederer, too, seems to turn reproachful, prickling at any hint of prescriptivism even though the book’s structure seems to want to build in that direction. After an extended meditation on her own decision to quit drinking during the pandemic, she turns to the idea of capitalism: “When we seek to solve [art’s] ethical dilemmas,” Dederer writes, “we approach the problem in our role as consumers. An inherently corrupt role—because under capitalism, monstrousness applies to everyone. Am I a monster? I asked. And yes, we all are. Yes, I am.” But there is a difference between drinking too much and acting poorly to everyone around you, and becoming monstrous in the sense of, say, becoming a fascist collaborator with Italy during World War II (Ezra Pound) or writing a book obfuscating Serb nationalist aggression and giving a eulogy at noted war criminal Slobodan Milošević’s funeral (Peter Handke). I bring up these last two writers as a direct contrast because I think that, while well-intentioned, Dederer’s conclusion flattens various types of “monstrous” behaviors and viewpoints in such a way as to create a kind of malaise in the reader, an ultimately depoliticized approach to art that, as it claims to be political, robs both the audience and the artist of any kind of ability to protest.

The twentieth century proved “art for art’s sake” to be a mistake; as Walter Benjamin wrote, “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. . . . This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art.’” But we are in a strange moment in time, in which we simultaneously seem to want art to have an impact on “reality,” and yet are terrified of admitting that it might indeed mean something outside of the frame or off the page. Does the artist have a political obligation? I think so. But Dederer’s embrace of vague terminology at the end of Monsters obscures both the actual political capabilities and emotional impacts of art. Neither a demon nor a monster, art turns into that other cultural fixation of our era: therapy.