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Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma

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Only a monster could know a monster so well. Surely Lolita must be some kind of mirror of its author?... Just how did Nabokov come to understand Humbert so perfectly? Something like - art is meant to drive our contemplation of esoteric concepts, so in this instance, art is merely presenting yet another idea for the generations to process and ponder? And also, it’s not new? Picasso’s artwork is legendary status, there is a whole other book written surrounding him and this subject. The way he treated women and relationships was despicable. Dederer has seemingly spent years working on Monsters and yet it is so thin, so ill-researched and, frequently, so crude. Part of her problem is that she struggles to convey the beauty and greatness of much of the art she describes, which makes it all the easier for the reader who disapproves of its makers simply to refuse to engage with it. She’s OK on the movies, and her account of Nabokov’s Lolita is fine (though why Nabokov is here at all, I’m not sure: whatever his most infamous narrator does, the writer committed no crimes against children or anyone else). But once she gets to Picasso and Wagner, she’s in trouble. Picasso, she says, sounding like an overgrown teenager, makes her feel (a favourite word, this) “urpy”. He was such “a rat”. What she knows of Wagner, included in the book on the grounds of his strident antisemitism, seems to be based entirely on a documentary about the composer made by Stephen Fry and Simon Callow’s biography.

When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they're saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that's not how stains work. This is where the sense of cynicism comes from. The system is corrupt and this thing that we think can do something actually won't do anything and instead of spending time evaluating alternative systems or looking at work people are doing to dismantle it or listening to the people who are actively being harmed, she says we should just stop worrying about it and just watch/read/listen to the things by bad people. Which makes sense if you think, like she states, that people are fundamentally interested in this for some sort of virtue signaling. What she fundamentally fails to grasp is that these strategies and conflicts exist because people want to do better, people want to fix injustice. It's not just about convincing yourself and others that you are not a monster but understanding the practical effects of what is happening to people and trying to create a better world. "Voting with your dollar" is the only avenue that some people have been exposed to to make a difference and if you truly feel like we should throw that strategy in the trash, the most practical thing you can do is expose readers to things they can do instead.

Customer reviews

This books provides an insight into the human psyche, the human condition - regardless of gender identity. I was thirteen. I knew Lolita was officially an important book, but it was about a girl my age… I thought I might give Lolita a whirl…

Somewhere in the middle of the book, Dederer goes on to target monstrous women, shaming those that abandon their children. This comes off as round-about and personal as we finally understand why Dederer took this path. But the book becomes personal for her when it comes to her children where it somewhat slips into memoir. This was a choice that took too long to get to, and a choice I don't think particularly fit into the book completely well (and I find this particularly amusing given how Dederer critiques memoirs and explicitly tells us what a memoir is and should be), but, without it, I wouldn't have known about Joni Mitchell or how to review the sixties and feminist violence through Plath and Solanas. Thankfully, the last few chapters tie the pretty bow on how we should go about monstrous artists with Cleage's 𝘔𝘢𝘥 𝘢𝘵 𝘔𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘴.Speaking of erasure, she has an entire chapter reflecting on the erasure of Dolores Hayes in the text of Lolita and how society often silences victims of abuse, but does not include the thoughts and opinions of the victims on the questions she purports to be interested in asking. Many victims of abusive celebrities are still alive and probably have feelings and opinions on the existence of the art. She seems to only bring up these opinions when they benefit her argument, such as with the woman who was raped by Roman Polanksi as a teen. Rowan Farrow, a victim of Woody Allen's parental abuse, did in fact call for a boycott of Allen's work when he exposed his father's misdeeds. Dederer could frame this in the context of victim centered justice, where the feelings and desires of the victims are considered above what our traditional pathways of justice are, but then that would require that Dederer be interested in the current evolving discourse around the topic that she is writing about. The things highlighted most in Dederer's text continue to be from those who are not involved in the despicable acts that she is trying to judge. Monsters is an incredible book, the best work of criticism I have read in a very long time. It’s thrillingly sharp, appropriately doubtful, and more fun than you would believe, given the pressing seriousness of the subject matter. Claire Dederer’s mind is a wonder, her erudition too; I now want her to apply them to everything I’m interested in.”

I read Monsters as part of an ill-fated attempt to replace the unsatisfying internet culture writing that I sometimes let clog my mornings with book-length works of criticism. This book in particular because I was worried my own perspective on the question—what to do with great art by horrible men, basically—was in danger of ossifying. I wanted to challenge myself. Alas, Dederer and I basically agree: The degree to which this is awful is also hilarious. There’s a whole chapter on Nabakov that suggests the author was a closet pedophile because of Lolita, goes through a lot of information that determines if he was then he hid it entirely, and ends by saying, well maybe not, but also maybe! Of course, this also tacitly argues that writers can’t possibly write about anything not directly reflective of them, which is of course insane, but given the astounding level of narcissism on display here, it’s clear that Dederer certainly can’t. Another chapter starts out discussing alcohol abuse in certain writers, and then turns into Dederer talking about her sobriety at length. Because nothing pertains to the art of monstrous men more than her affinity for wine. Dederer also waxes ad nauseam about the importance of subjectivity when it comes to responses and interpretations of art so that she has a built-in defense against any and all criticism.

At the same time: “The stain—spreading, creeping, wine-dark, inevitable—is biography’s aftermath. The person does the crime and it’s the work that gets stained” (50). “When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they’re saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that’s not how stains work. We watch the glass fall to the floor; we don’t get to decide whether the wine will spread across the carpet” (45).

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