2018: I’m at a house party, and I’m characteristically nervous, despite knowing most everyone there. It’s time to shake some ass, I’m informed—somebody’s commandeered the aux cord and begun queuing up tracks, the first of which captures the room with a bouncing beat. Amid the chorus of drunk-girl “woos,” I’m now wearing a shit-eating grin. How could I not? Within the party anthem canon, “Ignition (Remix)” strikes a singular balance: both exceedingly danceable and mellow as a warm bath; at once a turn-up and a kickback, capturing in that cross section the irrepressible delight of each genre. Against the song’s assuring swagger, the force of my self-doubt doesn’t stand a chance: I’m bopping my head to the beat, feet planted, swaying awkwardly from the shoulders.
It takes a moment, I think, for that second wave of recognition to dawn—for a few smiles to falter, and the flailing of limbs to grow stiff and muted. Then, not quite loudly but clear as a bell, someone says: “That guy’s a fucking rapist.”
Eyes find eyes from across the room; brows furrow. It’s quiet—quiet, except for the music—and sheepish stillness lingers for a long moment before someone else suggests that we skip to the next song.
The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against R. Kelly, which are as varied and horrific as they are numerous, had been a matter of public record since the early 2000s. But in the summer and fall of 2017, as a cascade of new allegations brought renewed attention to Kelly’s crimes against women and underage girls, the weight of his abuses finally permeated the wider public consciousness. Kelly would eventually be sentenced to 31 years in prison, but that outcome seemed anything but likely in May of 2018, when Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora opted to stop promoting Kelly’s music on their platforms while keeping his catalogue available to stream. The move prompted backlash across the music industry, but for organizers of the viral #MuteRKelly campaign, it registered as a half-measure: they wanted Kelly taken off the radio entirely, arguing that the accumulation of wealth and cultural clout afforded to Kelly because of his music’s popularity was the very thing that had shielded him from legal consequences up to that point.
The question of whether one should get down to “Ignition (Remix)” sat in close quarters with the question of whether one even could continue to do so: ethics of consumption aside, had the song been irreparably tainted by context, the pure joy of it now sealed away into the irretrievable past? What were we to make of this development? And what would it mean if this weren’t the case—if we were to find, on the other side of what could not be unlearned, that Kelly’s butter-smooth vocals still hit the way they always had?
As #MeToo’s initial tear of reckoning echoed through the fall of 2017, these questions dominated cultural discourse in a way that felt potentially enduring: as the high-powered sex pests toppled like dominoes, it seemed as if a new paradigm lay ahead, waiting to be shaped. But the moment proved brief. In the intervening years, the status quo has reconsolidated: we’re left with smarmy homages (see: last year’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama She Said, a 2022 film based on a 2019 book whose rights were optioned nearly a year before its publication, recounting events from 2017; or Hannah Gadsby’s clumsy reckoning with Pablo Picasso at the Brooklyn Museum this summer) which sit uneasily alongside a cultural backlash (evidenced by the public response to high-profile allegations of abuse or assault such as those brought by Amber Heard and Megan Thee Stallion). Nearly six years out from Harvey Weinstein’s fateful downfall, as the hole ripped through the status quo has been sewn up stitch by stitch, the question of how we might relate to the vast canon of art and culture bearing the stink of its creators’ profound rottenness—in all its ethical, political, emotional and aesthetic dimensions—remains as open and unresolved as ever.
Enter Claire Dederer, whose third book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, begins its first chapter with a list of names that aptly illustrates the scope of the problem (“Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious”—it goes on from there). Dederer, a former film critic, was spurred to action by her love of Polanski’s oeuvre, and her horror upon learning about his rape of then-thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977. Yet her personal experience of Polanski’s films remains largely unaffected upon rewatching them: “The knowledge,” she writes, “just sort of hovered there.”
Dederer is determined to work through the ethical implications of engaging with the art of her beloved “monsters”—implications that have left her feeling hamstrung and uncertain. “I wanted to be a virtuous consumer, a demonstrably good feminist,” she writes, “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.” Aside from the latent churchiness of framing this endeavor around “behaving correctly” rather than in terms of a larger ethical or political project, this doesn’t strike me as a fruitless line of inquiry. For whatever you may think of the #MuteRKelly activists’ divestment strategy, they were correct in pointing out that Kelly benefited materially from the public’s willingness to keep buying his music—and that those profits allowed him to evade the consequences of his abuses, and to continue abusing, for so long. Consumers of culture, like consumers of anything else, are broadly disempowered by the forces of the market, but they are not entirely without opportunity to act strategically, leaving open to interpretation the matter of when, why and how they should choose to do so.
By the end of the prologue, however, Dederer changes her mind: she’s not searching for answers here, and casts aside the initial dilemma of ethical consumption. Instead, she declares her intention to write “an autobiography of the audience,” a phrase that seems to varyingly refer to her friends, acquaintances and fellow critics, but mostly to herself. What she’s describing is essentially a fusion of memoir and criticism, or perhaps more accurately, a memoir of the critic and her influences—a project that might find as much fertile ground in her personal experiences as a reader and viewer as in the art and artists it probes. The structure is loose and peripatetic, with each chapter approaching her titular dilemma from a new angle, such as the cultural mythology of “genius,” or the role of critics in arbitrating cultural success. She weaves her evaluations of filmmakers (Polanski, Woody Allen), visual artists (Picasso, Carl Andre), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, J. K. Rowling) and musicians (Richard Wagner, David Bowie, the punk band PWR BTTM) through the lens of memory—a section on Raymond Carver is informed by her own experience of alcoholism and recovery, while Doris Lessing’s abandonment of her children is placed in conversation with Dederer’s own struggle to balance her writing career with motherhood.
Dederer frames this approach as a necessary corrective to the scourge of more conventional criticism—what she calls “authoritative” criticism—which, in her view, “believes in the myth of the objective response, a response entirely unshaped by feeling, emotion, subjectivity.” This, she says, was the mode of criticism she was taught to aspire to while cutting her teeth as a film critic in Seattle, surrounded by men who proved all too eager to tell their readers what and how to think. (Authority versus subjectivity, thinking versus feeling—the uncritical reinscription of these binaries would be irksome enough without the gendered narrative flickering in subtext: boys might be naïve and egotistical enough to believe their analysis worthy of an authoritative stance, but we ladies know better, or at least, we ought to!) With her “autobiography of the audience,” Dederer promises to turn the paradigm of authoritative criticism, as she sees it, on its head: rather than march her reader down the prescriptive path of a defined argument, she invites us to join her as she follows the open road of her ranging emotion—her subjectivity—wherever it may lead.
But the wheels fall off rather quickly. As Dederer shuffles from monster to monster, a pattern emerges: between her dual focus on artists’ biographies and her evolving feelings about knowing what she knows of them, consideration of the art itself is largely squeezed out of frame. A great many pages are dedicated to Picasso—his life, his abuses, his public reception, his relationship to the slippery notion of “genius”—but analysis or even description of his work is all but absent, as is, for the most part, Dederer’s own response to the art itself. In a wildly misguided chapter on Lolita, she speculates that Nabokov may have shared Humbert Humbert’s sexual obsession with children and “channeled those desires” into the novel, even while acknowledging the total lack of evidence to support this claim. In a few chapters about women artists, she limits her focus almost exclusively to those who, like Doris Lessing, left their children to pursue their art; this, she argues, is the archetypal crime of the female monster. (There are, of course, plenty of canonical women artists marred by the same sort of bigotries and brutalities as male art monsters, but they are almost entirely absent here.) Dederer eventually stretches “monster” to accommodate so many uses that the word loses all meaning; at one point, she accuses herself of monstrosity on account of her writerly ambition. “And moreover I’ve done this: Written a book,” she writes. “Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.” I cannot imagine any reader of Dederer’s believing this; I doubt she truly believes it herself.
On Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Dederer does her best work, interweaving her exasperation at being accused by a (male) colleague of inability or unwillingness to consider the film “on its own merits” with a close reading in which she observes that Allen “is fascinated with moral shading, except when it comes to this particular issue—the issue of middle-aged men having sex with teenage girls. In the face of this particular issue, one of our greatest observers of contemporary ethics—someone whose mid-career work can approach the Flaubertian—suddenly becomes a dummy.” But she cannot seem to hold her focus on the text long enough to develop this point, and instead retreats back into a circular rehashing of the unresolvable tension between her love of Allen’s films and her affront at his conduct. “I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally,” she offers, the latent objectification of this phrasing underscoring a lack of real interest in the person on whose behalf she is ostensibly outraged. Is this written from a present lack of self-awareness, or is it a knowing interrogation of her past self? As is so common the case throughout Monsters, it’s impossible to tell.
Who exactly is this audience whose autobiography she’s writing? Is it a “we”—the pronoun she admonishes herself for hiding behind in an early chapter, then reverts right back to using—or an “I”? Dederer’s level of personal entanglement with these artists, after all, varies greatly: while sections like the one dedicated to Allen smolder with the red-hot intensity of her emotional investment, many other canonical artists are surveyed from a cool and clinical remove—one that suggests a lack of genuine interest in their work, let alone profound, self-implicating love for it. While her near-constant self-negation might at the outset appear to be part of an experiment in processing ambivalence, uncertainty and doubt—of writing, as Joan Didion did, to figure out what she is thinking—it scans by the book’s end as the tactic of a writer with little at stake in the first place. The inherent shiftiness of the “autobiography of the audience” concept turns out to insure her with plausible deniability about whose passions and predilections she might be speaking for at any time. “An autobiography of the audience should be subject to the same rules that govern all memoir,” she says, “including the rule that the writer of memoir must be onto herself”—in essence, she must entrust the reader with her shortcomings. But Dederer’s vacillation between self-flagellating and pointed self-justifying betrays an acute lack of trust in her reader; she appears so preoccupied with how her relationships to her subjects might be perceived or judged that the task of honestly interrogating those relationships falls by the wayside.
It’s difficult not to read into Monsters a view of art primarily defined by a perceived threat: that the rottenness inherent to the works or the circumstances of their creation might infect the once-perfect vessel of the reader or viewer; might taint them; might use them toward its own ends. The search for nuance devolves into a paranoid style of analysis, one that renders its critic seemingly afraid or unwilling to follow her lines of inquiry to any real conclusions.
In defining her vision of anti-“authoritative” criticism, Dederer has perhaps preempted this challenge: if the book is profoundly muddled, this is simply a testament to her capacity to reflect the full complexity of the topic at hand. If everything is subjective, guided by ineffable feeling, there’s no imperative for clarity or coherence. This is not a radical vision for what criticism could or should be: it’s a dismissal of its value, and an abrogation of its potential.
But Dederer’s “autobiography of the audience,” for all its limitations, remains just one possibility for how a critic might reckon with the various iniquities lurking within their personal canon. What, then, might a more rigorous vision of the critic’s memoir of influences look like?
“I want memoir and criticism to merge,” Margo Jefferson writes in the first pages of her 2022 memoir, Constructing a Nervous System. She opens with a surreal vision that came to her in a dream:
I stood in a bright, harsh light. The stage was bare.
I extended my arm—no, flung, hurled it out—pointed an accusatory finger, then turned to an unseen audience and declared,
THIS IS THE WOMAN WITH ONLY ONE CHILDHOOD.
The audience, she realizes upon waking, was in fact herself: the charge is that of subjectivity; of having been molded by a particular set of circumstances and influences to the exclusion of others. Jefferson then announces her intention to “construct another nervous system”: beyond simply evoking memories of her life and of the art and artists who shaped her, she must reinterpret them—must work with them, in the way a sculptor works with clay. “Look through your materials,” she instructs herself. “Find ways to make them new or good as new.”
Like Dederer, Jefferson is intrigued and “chagrined” (to use her wording) by what is rotten within the catalogue of her artistic influences: Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina; Willa Cather’s racism; the flattened and degrading tropes ascribed to black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone with the Wind. But there’s no handwringing or moralizing to be found here. Even as she points out, with forensic precision and poetic flair, the many ways in which the canon has failed her and the rest of its audience, she doesn’t flinch from how it has captivated her in past and present tense. Text, context, subtext; the artist’s biography, critic’s biography, culture’s biography: all these combine and recombine in thrilling permutations across Jefferson’s prose. Returning to the stage as metaphor, she poses: “Let’s say I’m auditioning to play the part of a critic locked in conflict with a work of art that enchants and erases her. … She must examine these contending forces in the art and in herself. She must pursue subtleties and ambiguities, study what’s cruel or mean; enter states of exaltation and abjection.” Thinking and feeling, per Jefferson’s critical method, are not mutually exclusive actions; they are essential, entangled components that mutually reveal one another.
Chagrin animates Jefferson’s reading of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, a novel she adores—“a luminous portrait,” in her words, “of a heroine shaping her destiny, not trapped by her fate”—but also one littered with racist depictions and imagery. In teaching the novel to university students, she is momentarily seized by doubt: In rebuking Cather’s racism in palpably personal terms, will she undermine her authority as instructor? The solution, she decides, lies in a combination of procedural rigor and strategic use of her own disaffection. Jefferson does not retreat into uncertainty, but pity. “The pity I would teach my students,” she writes, “must be clinical and unsparing. Not like Desdemona’s pity for Othello, born of sympathy and erotic fascination. No, my pity would come from a close analysis of Cather’s limits and vulnerabilities: of temperament and experience, of family and cultural history. I could pity Cather because for all her intelligence she could not free herself of these primal race needs and consolations.” Her analysis draws on The Song of the Lark as well as Cather’s Southern and Midwestern upbringing and her trove of critical writings; she charges Cather with an aesthetic and erotic veneration of whiteness that belies a fundamental lack of curiosity, but even in the face of Cather’s construction of black characters, which is dismissive at best and grotesque at worst, Jefferson maintains a degree of empathy for her—not out of a sense of obligation, but because she believes her criticism benefits from accessing the full scope of her own feelings. “More emotional range,” she writes, “would give me more power.”
Her affectionate case study of Ella Fitzgerald is catalyzed, too, by chagrin—at the critics, audiences and fellow musicians who belittled her for her weight and matronly image, but also at her preteen self, who cringed at Fitzgerald’s portliness and her tendency to sweat while performing. This admission comes free of self-flagellation and self-justification; Jefferson isn’t seeking absolution from anyone, least of all her reader. Instead, she uses her past embarrassment at Fitzgerald’s public image as an entry point to draw comparisons and distinctions between their experiences of race, class and gender. Fitzgerald’s sweat, Jefferson writes, “threatens to drag her back into the maw of working-class black female labor”; the risk of association implicates the younger Jefferson, whose security within the cultural milieu of 1950s and 1960s Chicago’s upper class is complicated by the fact of her black girlhood. She strives to be “physically impeccable,” hoping to protect herself against the scorn and condescension levied against Fitzgerald, but the threat of racial and gendered degradation still looms over her. As she untangles these dynamics, Jefferson’s chagrin steers her toward a furious and rousing repudiation of those who denigrated Fitzgerald—who, she concludes, was not only a virtuoso, but a musical auteur never fully recognized as such during her life. “People should have begged for the elixir of your sweat every step of the way,” she concludes, in direct address to Ella. “You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better refutation of Dederer’s (mis)diagnosis of “authoritative” criticism than Jefferson’s methods; critical authority, she demonstrates many times over, is facilitated by subjectivity rather than threatened by it. Chagrin, she notes, is a useful feeling precisely because it “implicates those who feel it”; where the threat of being implicated seems to trap Dederer in a superficial loop, it propels Jefferson ever deeper into her critical inquiry. Chagrin, in Jefferson’s hands, is a flashlight aimed down a dark path, illuminating the way forward. It’s a method, in addition to a feeling, or rather a feeling very intentionally repurposed as a method. It’s an invitation—a commandment, even—to act.
By “act,” I mean “act upon,” for this is what Jefferson does to great effect: she imagines her role as a critic as that of an alchemist, and her influences as materials in grand experiments of her own making, the rotten parts as useful in their own way as those that shine. Much like Ella Fitzgerald once interpolated several dozen melodies across classical, jazz and popular music into a rhapsodic solo over “How High the Moon,” Jefferson remixes and revises: she stitches together lines from Ma Rainey and Sylvia Plath to create a chilling portrait of abuse and abjection, juxtaposes George Eliot and W. E. B. Du Bois to imagine them swapping notes on double consciousness, and even rewrites the ending of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, allowing Tom to directly address Harriet Beecher Stowe in the moment before his brutal death. Where Dederer’s paranoid style collapses any space she might otherwise find between total rejection of the monsters’ canon and shrugging acceptance of it, Jefferson dialectically carves out that space herself.
Here lies the difference between viewing criticism as a passive medium of arbitration versus an act of creation—one that requires the critic to take a stand, to use her influences as materials, rather than be used by them. The synthesis of decades’ worth of “death of the author” debates, perhaps, is that the books, paintings, films and songs we grow among and within are simultaneously finished artifacts and ongoing cultural projects; the door is at once closed and open, and taking advantage of the latter state requires us to understand reading and viewing as creative acts in themselves. “Maybe it’s like learning a language that’s simultaneously dead and living,” Jefferson writes, “that requires you to amend it even as you absorb it. You must never deny how much you wanted it. You must never deny what delights it gave you. You must never disguise how punishing it could be. You must never deny how much and just what it cost you. In that collaborative consciousness lies your power.”
Art credit: Nur (CC BY-ND 2.0 / Flickr)