'Monsters' review: Claire Dederer on loving art by artists who've acted horribly Do geniuses get a "hall pass" for their behavior? Or, do we "cancel" the art of artists who've done "monstrous" things? That's the question Claire Dederer tackles in her new book.


Book Reviews

When art you love was made by 'Monsters': A critic lays out the 'Fan's Dilemma'

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This is FRESH AIR. Should we continue to celebrate works of art - books, paintings, films - made by human beings who've done terrible things? If you don't have a readymade answer to that question, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a book to recommend. It's called "Monsters." Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Last month I gave a talk at a conference in honor of the late writer Norman Mailer. When I mentioned this conference in class to my Georgetown students, a couple of them blurted out, but he stabbed his wife. I could feel the mood in that classroom shifting. The students seem puzzled, disappointed even. What was I doing speaking at a conference in honor of a man capable of such an act? The situation was reversed at the conference itself when I confessed in my talk that, much as I revere Mailer's nonfiction writing, I was just as glad never to have met him. Some audience members were taken aback, offended on Mailer's behalf.

If Mailer's writing had always been as bad as his sporadic behavior, there would be no problem. But as Claire Dederer points out in her superb new book "Monsters," the problem arises when great art is made by men who've done bad things - men like Picasso, Hemingway, Roman Polanski, Miles Davis, Woody Allen, and, yes, Mailer. Do we put blinders on and just focus on the work? Do geniuses, as Dederer asks, get a hall pass for their behavior? Or do we cancel the art of men and some women who've done monstrous things?

I hope that Dederer herself doesn't turn out to be a monster because I flat-out admire her book and want to share it with my students. As a thinker, Dederer is smart, informed, nuanced and very funny. She started out as a film critic and credits Pauline Kael as a model for grounding her judgments in her own subjectivity, her own emotions. The subtitle of "Monsters" is "A Fan's Dilemma," the dilemma being still loving, say, the music of Wagner or Michael Jackson, still being caught up in movies like "Chinatown" or maybe even "Manhattan." In short, Dederer wants to dive deep into the murk of being unwilling to give up the work of art you love, and yet also being unwilling to look away from the stain of the monster who created it.

The #MeToo movement propels this exploration, but so too does our own social media, biography-saturated moment. When I was young, Dederer says, it was hard to find information about artists whose work I loved. Record albums and books appeared before us as if they had arrived after hurtling through space's black reaches, unmoored from all context. These days, however, we turn on "Seinfeld," and whether we want to or not, we think of Michael Richard's racist rant. Biography used to be something you sought out. Now it falls on your head all day long. Maybe you can hear in those quotes how alive Dederer's own critical language is. She also frequently flings open the door of the stuffy seminar room, so to speak, to take her readers along on field trips.

There's a swank dinner in New York with an intimidating man of letters who, she says, likes to play the part, ironically but not - low-key misogyny and brown alcohol in a tumbler. When she expresses distaste for Woody Allen's "Manhattan" normalizing a middle-aged man in a relationship with a 17-year-old, he tells her to get over it. You really need to judge it on aesthetics. Dederer confesses to finding herself put off-balance in that conversation, doubting herself. We also march through a Picasso show in the company of Dederer and her children. At the time, she says, they possessed the fierce moral sense to be found in teenagers and maniacs, and were starting to look a bit nettled at the exhibit's disclosures of Picasso's abusive treatment of the women in his life.

So where does all this walking and talking and thinking and reacting get us on the issues of monsters and their art? Still in the murk, perhaps, but maybe buoyed up a bit by a sharp question Dederer tosses out in the middle of her book. What if, Dederer asks, criticism involves trusting our feelings not just about the crime, which we deplore, but about the work we love? To do that, we'll have to think and feel with much greater urgency and, yet, more care than we're currently doing. As Dederer suggests and Pauline Kael famously did, we should go ahead and lose it at the movies, and then think hard about what we've lost.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of English at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma" by Claire Dederer. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with The New York Times' Alan Feuer about the conviction of leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers on charges of seditious conspiracy and what that means for ongoing January 6-related inquiries, including investigations into Donald Trump. I hope you can join us. Meanwhile, to keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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