Claire Dederer’s ‘Monsters’ is a story about us

The author set out to write a book about the art of monstrous men—in the process, she rendered a complex portrait of humanity

When you hear the word genius, who comes to mind: Picasso? Woody Allen? Roman Polanski? Michael Jackson? Are these names swiftly followed by words like “rape” and “molestation” and “womanizing,” or are you able to compartmentalize their actions pursuit of that elusive and often-prescribed mandate: to separate the art from the artist? Should you?

These are just a few of the questions Claire Dederer grapples with in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. Expanding on her viral 2017 essay for the Paris Review—written a month after the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s predation—Dederer’s latest offering is part-novel, part-memoir, and all provocation. Over the course of what can only be described as a book-length essay, Dederer turns her gaze first toward the artists, and then toward the audience—asking not only what we should do with the work of monstrous men, but also what consuming it does to us.

This conundrum first reared its ugly head years ago, as Dederer researched the filmmaker Roman Polanski, and found herself floored by the monstrousness of his actions—the rape of a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey, chief among them. As a feminist and fellow sexual assault survivor, she wanted to disavow Polanski’s work; she wanted to signal, through her own choices, that Gailey’s experience mattered. Yet, as an artist, she also wanted to consume the work of all great creators—and she felt that, in pretending the work she loved wasn’t good, because it was made by a person who did bad things, she too was losing something.

In reluctant possession of this new information, Dederer rewatched Polanski’s films—and found that she still perceived their greatness. Yet her own knowledge of his crimes wouldn’t leave the room, hovering over her experience like a specter. Now, she realized, it was her problem—so she trained her gaze not on the screen, but on herself. “What I’m interested in is the audience’s experience: how knowledge [of wrongdoing] affects our love, and how it disrupts the experience of the work,” she says. “You want to be thinking about it in one way, but your felt experience is real, and it keeps asserting itself as such. The body insists on its own reality, and that is so core to the experience of being human.”

“What I’m interested in is the audience’s experience. You want to be thinking about it in one way, but your felt experience is real, and it keeps asserting itself as such. The body insists on its own reality.”

To read Monsters is to witness Dederer grapple with this problem in real time: attempting to solve the unsolvable, while simultaneously resisting the simplification and self-delusion that would make such a feat possible. Dotted with personal anecdotes that transpire anywhere from the neighborhood crêpe shop to camping trips with friends to the Seattle houseboat where she lives, Dederer’s approach radiates humanity—or, in other words, subjectivity. “In the book, I reference this line from Donna Haraway—‘objectivity is a god trick’—to which I respond immediately, ‘Subjectivity is a human trick,’” she says. “My question is, Can we take our criticism and make it a human engagement, both with our own history and with the work?

This question sums up Dederer’s project—and in bringing the fullness of her lived experience to the table, she is at once expressing her own response as a mother, artist, and sexual assault survivor, and aiming to legitimize the individual responses of those whose circumstances differ from her own. “Our cultural, racial, and socioeconomic histories play a key role in shaping one’s ‘felt’ response to a work of art: which is to say, whether or not we love it,” she says. “It also influences our felt responses to the disruption of that work by the artist’s biography. I’ve been molested, so I have a different response to Woody Allen than somebody else does. What I’m really talking about in terms of subjectivity in criticism is historically situating yourself so that you’re acknowledging that your point of view is non-central, because no one’s is central. But then also valorizing your emotional response to the work: Not what you’re supposed to be feeling, but what you’re actually feeling.”

Throughout the book, Dederer mines the tension between how she thinks she should feel as a feminist, and how she actually feels as an artist; how she wants to feel as a mother, and how she truly experiences motherhood. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, approaching these issues with rigorous curiosity instead of intellectual authority—and this willingness to challenge her own contradictory thought process is a welcome antidote to the dominant discourse surrounding the work of problematic figures, the societal mandates around which vacillate with the politics of the time. “The sense of trust between the consumer of art and the artist is in a state of flux right now; we’re living through this time where biography is inescapable, and humans are flawed and complex,” Dederer reflects, referencing a passage of the book in which she describes the internet as an operation, made up of disclosures about oneself and others—humming along, fueled by the monstrousness of individuals and the outrage of those who discover it.

“My question is, Can we take our criticism and make it a human engagement, both with our own history and with the work?

Not only do we now know everything about everyone, but we also live in what Dederer describes as “the time of the fan,” in which select audience-members imbue themselves with the special status of the devotee, which is then co-opted, distributed, monetized, and sold back to them as an individual identity. If an audience-member is a consumer of a piece of art, the fan is defined by it: “[She] is a consumer that is also being consumed. She steals part of her identity from the art, even as it steals its importance from her.”

Dederer goes on to state that, in the present day, what you like is not just more important than who you are: The two things have converged, with what we consume becoming a proxy for our own politics. It makes disavowing the work of problematic artists all the more inviting—because, as Dederer puts it, when we possess a “moral feeling” about our consumer decisions, self-congratulation is never far away. “The thing is, as much as capitalism wants you to, you’re not gonna solve [the structural problems that enable these artists] through consumption. Today’s structure wants you to be constantly trapped in your role as consumer. And that’s why the options on offer are individual consumer solutions.”

At the core of Dederer’s inquiry is the belief that, as she puts it, “denying love of the work is a denial of the self”—that you’re also losing something when you pretend that art has no value, absent the moral purity of its creator. But in a time when we define ourselves by the kind of content we consume—when we borrow our identity from the work we love—there’s discomfort in learning that its maker is flawed, sometimes irredeemably so. Dederer’s book is not a defense of monsters themselves, but of the individual, subjective experiences of the people who love their work: Because while we might not want to be moved by a piece of art, or love a person who has hurt us, we often are, and we often do. Just as loving the people in our lives forces us to reckon with their failures—even those that are impossible to accept—loving the work of problematic people cuts to the quick of the human experience: “This need to accept another person’s failings, and the total impossibility of that acceptance, is at the root of all this,” Dederer reflects. She recalls an instance where her friend confided in her about his complicated relationship with his father: a person who caused endless chaos and pain in his life, but who, at the end of the day, he couldn’t help but love. It’s this conflict that Dederer homes in on—because, while she set out to write about the art of monsters, she ended up writing about what it means to be human.