Monsters is a lot of things–smart, incisive, insightful, absorbing–but more than anything, it is such an impressively thoughtful book in so many ways.
To begin, Monsters is a thoughtful book because it understands that monstrousness is contingent. What makes a monster? To what extent does an artist’s monstrousness bleed into–or, in Dederer’s words, “stain”–their work? What do we do when the artist whose work we love turns out to be, in fact, a monster? These are questions of dissonance and ambivalence: the dissonance of the great art of the monstrous artist, the ambivalence of engaging with the art despite its artist’s monstrousness. They are contingent questions because, as Dederer puts it, “Consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist that might disrupt the viewing of the art; the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art.” This point of intersection is the site of negotiation; it is where this book takes place.
“The tainting of the work is less a question of philosophical decision-making than it is a question of pragmatism, or plain reality. That’s why the stain makes such a powerful metaphor: its suddenness, its permanence, and above all its inexorable realness. The stain is simply something that happens. The stain is not a choice. The stain is not a decision we make.
Indelibility is not voluntary.
When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they’re saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that’s not how stains work.
We watch the glass fall to the floor; we don’t get to decide whether the wine will spread across the carpet.
The stain begins with an act, a moment in time, but then it travels from that moment, like a tea bag steeping in water, coloring the entire life.”
So, Monsters doesn’t take for granted; it centers the contingent nature of these questions, not questioning for the sake of questioning (everything is relative! case closed!), but instead making room for that contingency of all contingencies, that always various thing: subjectivity. Anything can happen in that meeting place of the biography of the artist and the biography of the audience, and Dederer not only recognizes this, but makes it the foundation of her book. Her writing has an elasticity that is precisely suited to the topic at hand; it is what allows her to accommodate different contexts, viewpoints, ideas. Put another way, she approaches her topic with nuance and sensitivity. Monstrousness is not a monolith, and Dederer’s book shows us how: there are different kinds of monsters, different kinds of responses to monstrousness, different standards for monstrousness. Personally, my favourite chapters were “The Genius,” about how the genius of the male artist exerts a kind of force that excuses and countenances all kinds of monstrousness; “The Critic,” about who responds to, and in what way, to art and to monsters; and “The Beloveds,” which is the final chapter and which I won’t say anything about because I don’t want to spoil it (I’ve never thought of non-fiction as “spoilable,” but Monsters is just that good).
Finally, Monsters is a thoughtful book because Dederer is a thoughtful writer; that is, it’s a thoughtful book because its author so firmly roots herself in her own writing. Perhaps this goes without saying, but in a book like this it needs to be said, and Dederer says it aptly, clearly, insightfully, unwaveringly. It’s a very intertextual book, in conversation with works by artists, novelists, poets, musicians, moviemakers; but it is also a book that’s in conversation with itself, self-aware, its ideas not set down so much as they are continually negotiated. An example of this that especially struck me is the way that Dederer is always distinctly alive to the slipperiness of speaking to a reader versus speaking for them: “But hold up a minute: who is this ‘we’ that’s always turning up in critical writing? We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority.” And more than just enriching her ideas, Dederer’s personal voice is just so damn enjoyable to read. Her writing takes seriously the questions it poses, but it also isn’t afraid to be funny or wry. Even more, I listened to Monsters on audio and Dederer’s excellent narration of her own book just made me love it that much more.
Monsters is, to put it simply, a book that rang true to me: in its efforts to contend with contentious questions, in its frank recognition of the open-endedness of these questions, in its willingness to ask them anyway.