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

Penguin Random House

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 seemed 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 writes, "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, "[w]e 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, yearned for, actively pursued. 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 — ties and blazers and low-key misogyny and brown alcohol in a tumbler."

When she expresses distaste for 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 strictly on aesthetics." Dederer confesses to finding herself put off-balance in that conversation, doubting herself.

We also march through a Picasso show at the Vancouver Art Gallery 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 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 are 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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.