Monsters, by Claire Dederer (Knopf, $28.00, 257 pp.)
We don’t seem to know any longer what criticism is for. The Internet has altered the ecosystem of opinion, lowering barriers to entry and rewarding the personal and the spontaneous over the putatively objective and the carefully reasoned. This flattening of critical authority is in some respects healthy—potentially, at least, an antidote to groupthink. But not all opinion is created equal, and the best can be hard to find. When everyone is a critic, then no one is.
The hierarchical model always depended on a tautology. The serious critics occupied their offices at The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic because they had the deepest knowledge and the soundest judgment. How did we know this? Because they worked for serious magazines. At their best, however, those writer-scholars—Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and others—represented the critic in his or her ideal state, austere, disciplined, cultivated, yet passionate. They have been replaced less by the democratic scrum of Goodreads than by an oligarchy comprised of the publicity apparatus of large publishers and the power of literary celebrity.
Into this breach comes Claire Dederer’s new book on the ethics of consuming the work of badly behaved artists, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. Dederer wants to know “how to separate the maker from the made.” She wants to know whether she can still watch Annie Hall.
Even a sympathetic reader will know he’s in trouble after the first paragraph:
It all began for me in the spring of 2014, when I found myself locked in a lonely—okay, imaginary—battle with an appalling genius. I was researching Roman Polanski for a book I was writing and I found myself awed by his monstrousness. It was monumental, like the Grand Canyon, huge and void-like and slightly incomprehensible.
This is not the worst writing in the book, but it is representative of the problems to come. There is the endless tolling of the first person pronoun. There is the weak use of figurative language: a spatial metaphor is not a very useful way to think about moral and ethical failings, and the reference to the “monumental . . . Grand Canyon” is simply lazy. Predictably, no illumination of the films or the life of Polanski is forthcoming. Monsters circles an interesting and pressing subject—the ethics of reading, listening, and watching—but circling is all that it ever does. Dederer never makes the kind of disciplined effort necessary to give us even a preliminary ethics of consumption. She is all in on feeling, of which she has plenty. The burden she refuses is that of thinking.
Monsters is relentlessly, maddeningly digressive. Just when an argument is beginning to coalesce, Dederer changes the subject. In a chapter on Picasso and Hemingway—who, between them, would seem to provide plenty to talk about—we get discussions of Tarot cards, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, and of course, Dederer’s personal history (“By the 1970s, I, a tubby grade-schooler with a Prince Valiant haircut . . . ”). What she writes on Hemingway is simply embarrassing, a mixture of name calling (“an asshole . . . just plain mean”) and recycling of stale critical-biographical formulations. (“[W]as he perhaps attempting to compensate for an overweening sense of his own femininity? After all, in his childhood his mother often dressed him as a girl.”) Dederer’s book purports to examine the difficulty presented by “the problem of the artist whose work we love and whose morals we loathe.” It is evident, though, that Dederer does not admire Hemingway’s writing. So why is he in the book?
It’s not that Dederer can’t think. Her reading of Nabokov’s Lolita is careful and persuasive. She seems to regard thought, however, as inimical to her project, representing, as she mistakenly believes, the specter of male authority:
Authoritative criticism believes in the myth of the objective response, a response entirely unshaped by feeling, emotion, subjectivity—a response free, in fact, of any kind of personal perspective. For the male critic, there’s no need to question that response because the work is being made by someone like himself.
Dederer is mostly focused on writers, but she also talks about “monstrous” painters, musicians, and film directors. The bad behavior of a writer arguably is different, because a novel or poem often makes a stronger ethical claim on us than a painting or a piece of music. If the author of Middlemarch had been abusive in her personal relations, that fact might blunt our appreciation of the book’s complex moral drama. I doubt that similar failings would affect our viewing of, say, Malevich’s White on White in quite the same way.
Dederer has no interest in such distinctions. And she doesn’t limit her discussion to artists. We get references to media figures (Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer); a boxer (Floyd Mayweather); a fashion designer (John Galliano); and inevitably, a certain Republican president. Conduct that would be blameworthy in a politician (for instance, serial dishonesty) would probably be less troubling or even irrelevant in considering the work of a musician. And I don’t know what ethical standards we can usefully apply to boxers, whose brutality is what we are paying to see.
Dederer’s true subject, we soon learn, is the increasingly vexed problem of critical authority. Dederer claims subjectivity as her guiding principle; apparently, she is content to be her own muse. “My subjectivity,” she proclaims, “is the crucial component of my experience as a critic, and the very best thing I can do is acknowledge that fact.” She extends this into an ethos: “I was beginning to feel that I wasn’t going to solve this problem of monstrous men by thinking. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if it might be solved instead by feeling. Not by referring to authority, but by referring to my own subjective responses.”
Dederer began her career reviewing movies, and she cites Pauline Kael as an early model. In a period when film criticism was highly theorized, Kael distinguished herself by having no theory. She watched and she reacted, as a fan would. I don’t think a critic needs a theory. A wide range of reference and vigorous prose style goes a long way. But a critic does have to think; she does need to be able to defend her point of view. As Dederer must know, Kael’s work has not aged well. Beginning with Renata Adler’s famous takedown of Kael’s 1980 collection, When The Lights Go Down (“piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless”), the once-vaunted critic’s reputation has collapsed. (Kael was an authoritarian in her own way, withering toward those who dissented from her ex cathedra pronouncements.)
Dederer says that in her early years she “struggled with the problem of authority.” She writes: “This was how culture worked. It was not just that you, as a critic, were dispensing opinions. You were also a kind of priest, channeling and translating the word and the work of the he-man auteur.”
But the cleric-critic of Dederer’s imagination no longer exists. I’ve never known a working critic in any field who didn’t operate on a cycle of confidence and doubt. I sometimes find myself asking, after making a series of positivist assertions—Willa Cather is an ambivalent modernist; Faulkner’s major period spanned the years 1929-1942; Joyce Carol Oates should publish less—“Says who?” I have no inherent authority to speak on such subjects: no doctorate, no tenured position, no published novels of my own. So each piece of critical writing I do must also contain an implied argument for why a reader should pay attention. This insecurity is useful when it forces me to work harder, less so when it leads to precious or preening prose. With each piece I need to overcome doubt and its compensations. Dederer’s program of critical emancipation would give me permission to abandon this struggle and embrace them both. This I feel unable to do.
We all have opinions, cultivated and otherwise, deeply held and casual. Criticism begins with the implicit claim that our opinion is worthy of attention. In this gesture lies the risk and responsibility of the critic. The risk is that one invites the lazy retort, “Who the hell are you?” The responsibility is to anticipate that rebuke, to honor it, and to meet it however we can. Arrogant, abusive, or venal artists are a challenge to our complacency about the ethical value of art. That’s a problem that feeling alone won’t solve.
Photos: Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images (left) / Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images (center) / Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images (right)