Review: Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer

A Review by review by Alicia McClintic, a friend of Inklings

In the current age of “cancel culture,” Claire Dederer explores the age-old question: “Can we
separate art from artist?”
What do we do with beautiful art made by terrible people? What do we do with the music or
books or films we love when we cannot love the maker? What do we do with important classics
that have made eternal impacts on their field when the personal impact of the artist is horrific?
Can we continue to be a fan of that album, or cherish that book, or appreciate that film, or
admire that painting? Or are those artistic creations forever stained by the bad character and
bad actions of the creator? Are we allowed to be fans of things made by monsters– or does that
fandom make us monsters too?

Claire Dederer approaches these questions from many angles. She never really offers concrete
answers, but rather keeps asking probing questions that continue to explore the nuances of this
ongoing debate. It is important to name that Dederer is NOT asking whether we SHOULD
separate art from artist— she is asking if we CAN. This might seem subtle, but it’s important to
understand her starting position before engaging with her reflections. Dederer is already
convinced that “cancel culture” (erasing an artist and their work from public view and private
consumption in light of monstrous behavior) is an overly simplistic response to our culture’s
creative monsters. She confesses from the beginning that she is already invested in finding a
way to hold onto the art, and she is seriously questioning how to untangle that art from the artist,
and even wondering if it can actually be done. Dederer clearly wants to find a way to keep this
art in her life– or at least she recognizes that none of us can have our memories erased and just
forget that film we know by heart or refrain from dancing when that song comes on the radio.
What she wants to do is critically engage with the tension between monsters and genius. She
will not reveal how and why she makes her own decisions, because she wants readers to come
to their own conclusions through robust critical thinking. If you’re looking for a how-to guide or a
specific example to follow, this might be a frustrating reading experience; but if you’re open to a
multi-faceted meditation about this dilemma, these essays can offer us a really nuanced
understanding of the forces at play.
In the prologue and again in the essay titled “The Critic,” she wonders: What about the critic or
teacher whose profession is tied up in engaging these works? How do you talk about the history
of film without mentioning Roman Polanski? How do you talk about modern art without talking
about Pablo Picasso? Of Polanski she says: “There is no other contemporary figure who
balances these two forces so equally: the absoluteness of the monstrosity and the absoluteness
of the genius.” Throughout the essay, she weaves in her experiences as a film critic watching
and loving Polanski’s films, illustrating how deeply she is caught between these two forces. She
won’t say what she will do next, but the lingering question is put to the reader– what will you do

I have never been a Polanski fan, but several other essays struck me as particularly relevant to
my personal experience engaging art from complicated artists. Her essay about Vladimir
Nabokov’s eternally complicated novel, Lolita, reminded me of several impassioned debates in
my literature classes. In the essay “The Fan,” Dederer reflects on J. K. Rowling and her anti-
trans rhetoric that has been hurtful to many who had found an important community among
fellow Potter-heads. She wonders: What happens to the super-fan whose core identity is tied up
in a pop culture community?
Dederer tactfully explores the correlation between genius and madness: “Are the really talented
more apt to be mentally unwell?” In the case of Michael Jackson, she wonders: Are formerly-
exploited child-stars doomed to become exploiters themselves? Should all this propensity to
mental illness factor into our judgment of these artists?
The essay titled “The Genius,” about Ernest Hemmingway and the inherently masculine nature
of “genius.” It reminded me of a quote from Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Little
Women: “What women are allowed in the cult of genius anyway?” The unspoken answer being
“maybe none.” Dederer makes a small joke that if these badly-behaved male-geniuses had
spent even a fraction of the time just thinking about organizing and coordinating childcare that
she has done in her life, they would never have had any time to behave badly. In an essay titled
“Abandoning Mothers” Dederer further explores the gender difference in creative monsters: “If
the male crime is rape, the female crime is failure to nurture. The abandonment of children is
the worst thing a woman can do.” This essay hit particularly close to home as she explores the
life and work of Joni Mitchell, whose music I love dearly and whose summer concert at The
Gorge I desperately want to attend, but am not sure I can justify.
Again, Dederer won’t reveal her personal decisions about engaging art and artists, but
continues to present complex questions that she hopes readers will wrestle with, and she
continues to share about her own experience so we know she is doing the work too. I’ve found
these essays and these open-ended questions deeply thought-provoking, and recommend it to
anyone who wishes to consume art more thoughtfully. This book might be especially for you if
you were absorbed by Cate Blanchett’s performance in the Oscar-nominated film TÁR, or if
you’re a regular listener of “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” or if you’ve ever been heartbroken by a
monstrous artist.