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In 2017, Claire Dederer published an essay in The Paris Review titled “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” and it immediately went viral. It was less than two months after the first Harvey Weinstein exposés went live, and the critic examined the work of the likes of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby (among others) through the lens of their transgressions. “They did or said something awful, and made something great,” she wrote. “The awful thing disrupts the great work.” As the essay swept across the Internet and social media, Dederer was in the midst of completely an entire book on the topic — one that, presciently, was in the works several years before the #MeToo movement hit Hollywood.
“It looked like a hot take, but the essay had a lot of ambivalence and nuance and people responded really well,” the author tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That was encouraging to me as I was writing, but also to me as a citizen — to see that not everything has to have black-and-white thinking or a reductive stance.”
The culmination of Dederer’s years of work on the topic, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, publishes on April 25. Ahead of the book’s release, Dederer speaks to THR about her own fandoms that inspired the book, how society judges the work of men and women, and how she wants the book to be used.
Most of us started really heavily thinking about the art-vs-artist dilemma after the Harvey Weinstein investigative pieces; what was it that led you to this topic years before the movement?
I had written a memoir called Love and Trouble, about the sexually predatory nature of the 1970s, and it looked at my own experiences of growing up as a girl who was predated upon in that era. Part of that included an open letter to Roman Polanksi — I love his work, and I found I was still able to watch his films and I thought, ‘well this is really interesting.’ All of my books are, in some way, preoccupied with the question of how to be good, and what is goodness, so it all sort of came together. And, the nice thing about being an older author who is further along in your career is when something comes along that has a lot of juice, you recognize that you could spend a few years thinking about the topic.
Can you talk a little bit more about your initial internal dialogue on Polanksi?
It’s not just that I think what he did was wrong — which is a very cool, not as in hip but as in cold, way to put it. There’s a much less cold experience of that story, which are my own experiences with sexual assault. So I’m coming to it with this incredibly complex emotionality of my own biographical history. The other side of it is the emotional response to his work. It’s not just that I’m some arbiter sitting up there saying, with great authority, Rosemary’s Baby is a great film. In many ways, he is someone who’s not only closest to my heart in terms of the work but he perfectly personifies this idea of “Good Art, Bad Person.”
The book isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of every bad or monstrous artist, but it’s interesting that Kanye West, for example, comes up a few times — and I imagine you wrote this before his more recent antisemitic comments…
I was originally going to have an epilogue that would just be called “Litany,” and I would list everybody who had been accused of something from the time I started writing the book. But the project of the book was always to talk about the audience experience, so adding that veers into that catalogue of monsters it was never meant to be.
Lately I’ve noticed that online conversations around the art we consume has started to veer beyond, “this person did this bad thing” to “this person might have this bad opinion,” where any damage they’ve inflicted is harder to quantify. Twitter threads and think pieces about Donald Glover and Drake’s potential misogyny and misogynoir come to mind. Do you think there is a difference in the way in which we consume the art of bad actors versus bad thinkers?
I totally get what you’re saying, and I don’t know that I have any prescription for it. I have kids who are in their mid-twenties and they’re very online, their experience of how to engage in that kind of dialogue is completely different than mine. I think it all reverts back to the idea of what I’m interested in, which is how is the work altered, for the individual viewer, by what they know? In terms of the outrage machine, there’s something worthwhile in the audience member spending more time with it, and thinking about how it affects their own experience of the work, rather than just participating in the outrage and not truly interrogating their own experience. That’s a valuable form of critical and independent thinking.
I, personally, can find myself feeling sort of bereft when there is a discussion of a person or a piece of entertainment that is upsetting to a marginalized group, that I didn’t notice would be upsetting until the group points it out. As a person of privilege I’d like to be more aware of the viewership experience of others, and to take cues from affected parties, but sometimes I do wonder where it ends once you open that door all the way.
I think I might be different from other people in that when that sort of discussion happens, I’m actually excited. I’m excited to see how everyone thinks about the questions of ethics in art. I understand the problems of the outrage machine I just discussed, but there’s a place for those discussions to lead the way for many voices of people who aren’t traditionally heard, to be heard. As a person in my 50s, who engages with a lot of young people, I try to access it that way rather than just shaking my head at it, if that makes sense.
What went into your decision to work elements of memoir into the book?
The memoir voice, and writing about my own experiences, was necessary to get at the felt experience of the audience memoir. It was also important to me to undermine critical authority. Often times, the so-called “objective” art critics are the white male viewpoint. It’s white men making work for white men, and then reviewed by white men.
You include some memories of your years as a film critic — how do you sum up that experience?
I was the little guy throwing stones at the giant apparatus of Hollywood, because I was an alternative-weekly movie critic. I could sort of say whatever I wanted, I could reside in my subjectivity without thinking about what it meant for the artist. And then I became a book critic, and books are less powerful and it’s one person, so I had to start thinking about what it is to be a generous critic. Another thing is that critics are worried about what other critics are saying. There’s an inherent lack of self-trust in a lot of criticism. I remember writing about Grosse Point Blank and really loving it and wanting to lift it up, but feeling like, was it too feminine? Was it, basically, unserious?
Another part of the book that really struck me was your pointing out that men who are considered monstrous are those who enact violence, and often the women who are considered monstrous are those who leave their families — and the way women and wives make space for men to make art, but it doesn’t often happen the other way around. That’s a simplification of your thesis, but I reread a lot of it the morning after Succession aired its third episode and started spiraling about the mothers who made the space to allow Jesse Armstrong, Jeremy Strong, and the like to create this Great Art…
There was a window in my life, maybe 20 years long, where most of what I thought about related to childcare. I am on the other side of it now, and I find myself even more stunned and angry at the inequity of that structure. Since I wrapped work on the book, I’ve been thinking about this really gendered idea of what care is, and who does it. I talk in the book about mothers being put-upon, but I think there’s a positive way to talk about it, which is to expand the idea of who cares for other people — to expand it past the idea that it has to be women. In the book I set up the problem as artist versus mother, but I think it’s more of a care of self versus care of others problem. But at the same time, who would ever want to give up that episode of television for the greater good? I’m glad they made that show. (Laughs.)
Does being a professional critic change the way you consume things? I’m especially referring to shows like Succession which are made by good people.
Isn’t it just brilliant? Their pacing and the way it leaves you with tension in your whole body. But, I ha da brief period when I quit movie criticism where I couldn’t watch films, but I think it was partly the unremitting violence of that era. It was the mid-Tarantino era, it was so bloody. One of the things I try to do in my own life is to have joy in what I’m consuming. I try to have my relationship with art be untouched by the idea of authority — and I think you will be a better critic if you can return to the art as an audience member and not an authority.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma publishes on April 25.
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