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

When art and atrocities combine

Seattle-based author and journalist Claire Dederer's new book
Seattle-based author and journalist Claire Dederer's new book (Photo courtesy of Stanton J. Stephens)
By Mary Vermillion CDN Contributor

I have been waiting to read Claire Dederer’s “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” since approximately 7:50 p.m. on June 22, 2017. So, when it arrived at libraries and bookstores April 25, 2023, I was ready. And oh, my, was it worth the wait.

“Monsters” tackles a complicated question — can we love the work of monstrous creators? — in a hopeful manner that will have you powering through its 257 pages and then revisiting the book and matters of art, humanity and morality on your own and with friends.  

But, first, back to 2017. 

On June 22, 2017, I was sitting in a darkened theater for Village Books’ Chuckanut Radio Hour. Dederer, the evening’s featured author, was on tour for her acclaimed second memoir “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.” During the interview, she mentioned her next book would be a critical review of if we could love art by monstrous men. Unprompted, the audience applauded this hint of a book. The response seemed to surprise Dederer and affirmed she was on to something.

In “Love and Trouble,” Dederer used a variety of narrative forms to explore her teenage and midlife self, including an open letter to Roman Polanski. The Seattle-based Dederer, who began her career as the Seattle Weekly film critic, admires the director’s work but — especially as an at-the-time mother of a 13-year-old daughter — struggled to separate his movies from Polanski’s 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. 

Despite the chapter addressed to Polanski, Dederer told the Chuckanut Radio Hour audience, “I really didn’t say everything I had to say … I wanted to write about the way that he is a genius. His work is great. And yet he is monstrous; he did a monstrous thing, to my mind it’s monstrous. And so how do we sort of reckon with what he made?” 

How do we watch one of his films knowing what we know? Do we not watch? Do we boycott him? How about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and other “makers of really important genre-changing art who did awful things?”  

photo  Claire Dederer has written a self-examination for us all, chunked into chapters headlined by well-known male and female artists who have created great art and committed great harm. (Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House)  

Dederer said the book ultimately wouldn’t be about the monsters. “It will be about us and what we do about the work … It’s almost like an autobiography of the audience and how we reckon with each one differently.” 

After years of reflection and writing, that is exactly what Dederer has written — a self-examination for us all, chunked into chapters headlined by well-known male and female artists who have created great art and committed great harm. She had a list of artists (Polanski, Allen, Cosby, J.K. Rowling, Virginia Wolff, Doris Lessing, etc.).

As #MeToo emerged, the list grew with new names dropping weekly. With the ubiquity of the internet and the rise of cancel culture, Dederer’s questions multiplied. What do you do when the art is truly great? When the artist is a genius? Who decides what has value, what is good? What if the monster is you?

Dederer employs her skills as a journalist and memoirist to form her argument. Her vulnerability, intellect and humor make it feel as if she’s in the room with you, building her case, sharing her fallibility, inviting you to join the debate. “Monsters” is a perfect book club selection. 

As Dederer promised in 2017, “Monsters” is a story about us, the audience, and what we do when creations integral to who we are become stained by the artists’ monstrous acts. In this powerful work of criticism, Dederer skillfully holds and examines the question from many angles, including — and significantly — love. 

Mary Vermillion is the community relations manager for the Whatcom County Library System, “Monsters” is available at the library and independent bookstores. Find and listen to Dederer’s 2017 Chuckanut Radio Hour interview on KMRE 102.3 FM or on Village Books’ podcast. 

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