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24 April 2023

An idiot’s guide to cancel culture 

What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Claire Dederer’s flimsy, simplistic new book has no answers.

By Ann Manov

The Seattle native Claire Dederer – best known for her book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses – has been publishing reviews for more than two decades, boasting bylines in the New York Times and the Atlantic. Indeed, her 2017 Paris Review essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”, published during the height of the #MeToo movement, went “viral” – as the copy for the book commissioned off that essay, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, proudly states.

Yet even after all that time – and a half decade’s labour on her new release – Dederer confesses that she’s not all that sure if there is a point to criticism. In one of this book’s many memoiristic passages – it is more memoir than criticism – she harkens back to her days as a young writer for the Seattle Weekly. When she attended film screenings with other critics from the area, she found herself filled with disdain for the self-serious attitudes of her (overwhelmingly male) peers.

“I always sat toward the back,” Dederer writes, “popping snacks and cracking up and covering my eyes during the scary bits.” Why did they sit at the front, quietly scribbling, constraining their grins and grimaces to a tasteful apathy? Weren’t they all ordinary audience members: why did they have to pose as critics? But if they were just ordinary moviegoers what, ultimately, was the point of writing a review?

I sort of thought the point of a review was pretty obvious: to say “watch” or “don’t watch”, or in the case of books, “read” or “don’t read” (by the way, this review is a “don’t”). Dederer, however, found it more helpful to develop a three-part formula for a review. First: what is the creator’s goal? Second: is that goal a worthy one? Third: do they achieve it?

Let me try: Claire Dederer has set out to analyse how fans should re-evaluate works of art, if at all, in light of revelations that their creators have committed bad acts (ie, they “are monsters”). Or, as she writes, “It all began for me in the rainy spring of 2014,” as she rewatched Roman Polanski’s films, ensconced in her living room “flooded with light even on the gloomiest Pacific Northwest afternoon” (though, she bemoans, furnished with Ikea furniture). Polanski had been the subject of boycotts, protests and public outrage, yet she still adored his films. How could she love Repulsion, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, she wondered, knowing that Polanski had drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl? And so Dederer set out “to solve the problem of Roman Polanski – the problem of loving someone who had done such a terrible thing”. She writes:

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I wanted to be a virtuous consumer, a demonstrably good feminist, but at the same time I also wanted to be a citizen of the world of art, a person who was the opposite of a philistine. The question, the puzzle, for me was how I might behave correctly, confronted with these twin and seemingly contradictory imperatives. I felt pretty sure the problem was solvable. I just needed to think harder.

The goal is a worthy one. In the wake of #MeToo, it has become broadly acceptable to “cancel” men who have been revealed to have committed sexual crimes. The arts are full of horrible sexual predators. Young, talented women who are trying to break into nearly impenetrable industries are all too often treated like offerings on a buffet table. The contours of “cancellation”, however, have never been clearly mapped. Should one, say, stop releasing Woody Allen films? Stop screening them? Stop streaming them? Or perhaps, even, stop liking them?

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[See also: Being single should neither be demonised nor celebrated – it’s just life]

This last option has proved surprisingly popular. One might think it safer to keep a predator away from film sets, or see a capitalist logic in shrinking their royalties, but in many circles even fandom has come under fire. To say one likes Annie Hall, let alone Manhattan, sounds like a dog whistle. Yet it isn’t obvious why: is the work supposed to be a moral reflection of the creator? Is admiration or enjoyment of a work a sign-off on some misogynistic subtext? What, after all, is supposed to be our relationship – emotional, political or otherwise – with artists who’ve behaved badly (a category which, if we go far back enough, might encompass virtually all of them)?

Dederer, however, does not achieve her goal. I’m not sure how she has spent the past five years, but it is hard to imagine she spent much of it researching this book. Dederer includes some interesting, though mostly well known, biography (did you know Richard Wagner was anti-Semitic?), and a little equally well-trodden interpretation (did you know that Humbert Humbert is an antihero?), but if you’re looking for a book that actually engages with the logic of “cancellation”, this isn’t it.

Early into her book-writing project, Dederer tells us, she asked a former college professor for help (“I’m writing to you in your Herr Professor role,” begins her somewhat painful email). She tells him that she doesn’t know where to start, “aside from Arianna Huffington’s Picasso book”. It is revealing that her first thought is a book by the founder of the Huffington Post, and it is troubling that she fails to take her professor’s reasonable suggestion of looking into the reaction to authors who were Nazi sympathizers. It’s simply unacceptable that she then fails to do further research into the ample critical literature on the work of “evil” men, contenting herself with apparently harrowing rewatches and rereads from her seaside home instead.

Dederer’s only allusion to the idea that multiple schools of criticism have existed, in which biography has played varying roles, comes in the form of a pithy anecdote about her college professor who said that New Criticism was only popular with critics “scattered across the American prairies, far from the libraries of Europe, not a primary source in sight” because it gave them an excuse not to do research. I suppose this theory has a certain adorable determinism about it, but if it persuades the reader at all, it does so only because Dederer omits that New Criticism was in fact invented at Cambridge.

Nor does Dederer mention, say, European and Russian formalism, or Roland Barthes’ well-known essay “The Death of the Author”. This condescension also carries an ironic resonance coming from the author who so proudly eschews research in favour of memoir (and her frequent reference to her own writing prowess makes her mixed metaphors and astonishing verbosity all the more grating).

I admit that – to borrow some words from Dederer’s vocabulary – it’s hard to read without getting “emotional” or taking things “personally,” and when one develops a “personal” dislike for the author, it’s hard to look at the work “objectively”. That said, I imagine that I won’t be the only reader who is “offended” by the central conceit of her book, one essentially reproduced from her original essay and stretched to book length. To the extent Dederer argues anything, it’s that we distance ourselves from the art of “monsters” such as Allen and Polanski to repress our own “monstrousness”, which is ironic because artistically inclined women have to become selfish “art monsters” who eschew domestic burdens if they wish to complete their art projects. Polanski abused a child; Dederer attended an artists’ residency in Marfa, Texas, to work on her memoir.

This critic, at least, is able to summon up little sympathy for, or interest in, Dederer’s plight. Dederer does report that various women have done worse things – Doris Lessing abandoned her kids, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol – though she never extends her concern to any woman who simply has a job. Her equation of violent male monsters, female “art monsters”, and the monster within us all is deeply offensive to women artists, particularly those without generational wealth. More importantly, it is shockingly callous towards the female victims supposed to be at the heart of #MeToo.

It’s also completely asinine. These men did bad things, some women did others; Dederer likes some artists, she doesn’t like others. What are we supposed to make of any of that? Cui bono? Dederer herself doesn’t know. Over more than 200 pages, she reads Lolita while sipping bourbon in a hammock over Puget Sound, chats about a band with the woman making her daughter crêpes at a café and quaffs wine with a fellow female writer who doesn’t have to work outside the home. She decides that “the stain” is a “powerful metaphor” (and therefore  deploys it 65 times). But she stops there, insisting that “philosophy” and “reason” shed little light on the topic (or perhaps drinks by the shore were just a nicer way to pass the time). If any reader makes it through the entire book, they will be rewarded with the conclusion: “There is not some correct answer. You are not responsible for finding it.”

Well, sure: she was. I would imagine that Dederer may have signed a deal for Monsters quickly after her Paris Review essay was published. Perhaps she did not have a clear idea of what that book would look like, but she knew she was grappling with important questions, and difficult ones. She has had several years to think about them, and owes her readers more than just a cop-out. If she can’t offer them any meaningful analysis, perhaps she ought to return to the question she asked herself at the beginning of her career as a critic: “Why should they listen to me?”

[See also: Do we really need Rawls?]

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma
Claire Dederer
Sceptre, 288pp, £20

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age