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Claire Dederer on her book 'Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Is it OK to enjoy art if its creator is compromised? Maybe you love Michael Jackson's music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON SONG, "DON'T STOP 'TIL YOU GET ENOUGH")

RASCOE: ...Or you want to watch Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE HALL")

WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) A relationship, I think is like a shark. You know, it has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

RASCOE: ...Or laugh at Bill Cosby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL COSBY: And I looked, and there was chocolate cake. The child wanted chocolate cake for breakfast.

RASCOE: What do we do with the art of monstrous men? - asked writer Claire Dederer in an essay back in 2017, amid the Harvey Weinstein revelations and #MeToo movement. It's a question that continues to trouble her as she tracks more examples, like Kanye West. And it's not all men - think some Harry Potter fans distress over J.K. Rowling's comments about gender. It's all part of Claire Dederer's new book called "Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma". Thank you for coming on the show.

CLAIRE DEDERER: Thank you for having me. It's a thrill to talk with you.

RASCOE: Well, so, you know, there are examples of so many people in this book, and you do caution against equivalencies. So how did you come to define monster for this book?

DEDERER: Yeah, I think that was a really challenging part early in the process. I started sort of thinking about this problem in maybe 2014 or 2015, and then came the kind of big reckoning we had at the end of 2017. And in the context of that moment, this idea of the monster sort of emerged. You know, this way that we would sort of look at these men who are being accused and think of them as monstrous. And I - at first, I sort of went unthinkingly with that language and sort of the way that it just held all this anger and all this blame. So I started to question whether it was really the right word to describe what was happening. Because what I really saw was just the work being disrupted by the acts of these people who'd done this rotten thing.

RASCOE: And the way that you talked about it - and I think that this is kind of an apt metaphor - is that you kind of said it's like a stain.

DEDERER: Right. And I think the reason the stain was such a useful image for me to think about was that I liked the idea that indelibility - like, that stain, that just, like, indelible mark is not a choice. Like, when you drop the wine on the carpet, you're not making a decision for it to spill across the floor, which I feel like is my experience when I learn something about an artist whose work I love. You know, I don't want to know it, but I do know it. And now I have to figure out what to do.

RASCOE: You got your start as a film critic. And so in a lot of this book, you talk about how you've struggled with some of the directors.

DEDERER: Yeah, I think that Roman Polanski was really where this all started for me. I had been researching his rape of a 13-year-old girl in a previous book I was writing. I read the girl's deposition. I - you know, I really learned all about the crime, and I was still able to consume the work. And so he's sort of the ultimate kind of embodiment of the problem. Because the work is so good to me and so important to me, and the crime is truly awful. It's something that I have a strong sense of identification with the victim, right? So there's a way in which there you are, you're stuck between two immovable objects. So, yes, Polanski was the jumping off point. But I also think there's a way in which music is really crucial to this question. You know, you go see a film or you sit down and read a book, but music is there and it lives with you.

RASCOE: And you play it over and over.

DEDERER: But also it comes to stand in for these, like, eras in your life. You know, you remember when you were a teenager or when you were falling in love with your partner or whatever. There's often music that's really tied to that. So the musical examples tend to be the really heartbreaking examples for a lot of people.

RASCOE: You invoke your kids at points in this book, their friends. There is a generational thing to it because it does seem like there is a - been a shift in fandom and in the way we process, you know, fandom and being obsessed with something. You talk about this in the book. I'm going to have you read a little bit of it.

DEDERER: Sure. I'll read a little bit about this idea of obsession that you brought up.

(Reading) Obsession. When we say we're obsessed with something, it means I am a fan, a super fan, an intergalactic fan. I am verily defined by this thing. It is my personality. It is me. I am it.

RASCOE: And so, to me, I do feel like that is just so key because it feels like when people say they are a fan of someone these days, they're not just saying, oh, I like their music, oh, I like their art. They're saying this person is a reflection of me and my values, and if this person is bad, then that means I'm bad, right? Like, is - am I reading that correctly?

DEDERER: Yeah, I think you are reading that perfectly. I think that that's one of the reasons that it's important to think about this stuff right now. You know, there's this sort of question of, why write this book now? Why address this now? How is this moment different from moments in the past? And, you know, I'm 56 years old. And when I was young, I was certainly a fan of things. I was a fan of lots of things. I just didn't know anything about the makers of those things. You know, I would have the four photos of the Beatles on my bedroom wall, and I'd be - you know, obviously George is the cutest. And that was sort of the extent of what I knew.

And now that is 180-degree turn around. We now know everything about everyone. So there's this kind of simultaneous self-expression as fan and too much knowledge as fan and - or maybe just the right amount of knowledge for some people. But it comes together to create this very intense identification between the person who loves the work and the artist themselves.

RASCOE: But is this a solvable dilemma? Because when you talk about how deep that identification can be, you know, people may no longer listen to R. Kelly music. And then do you watch a Harvey Weinstein movie? Like, where are the lines?

DEDERER: Right. I think in every single case, there is a set of circumstances that we can look at and that are specific to that artist. But one of the big projects of the book is to get out of this idea that there's an authority there telling us what we ought to do, in both cases. You know, there's - I feel like there's often a response that you just have to separate the art from the artist. And what I very quickly realized as I started thinking about that is, like, that's impossible for me in the case of, for instance, "Manhattan" by Woody Allen. You know, it's this film about a 40-something man having a relationship with a teenage, high school girl. But I don't get to tell you what your line is.

This whole conversation is predicated on a moment and a movement where people say when they were hurt by somebody, when somebody stands up and says, this happens to me. And the way that we deal, what happens after that person says that, is not perfect. But that moment of the person saying that this is wrong is crucial because if we don't listen to people when they say something's wrong, how can we do better?

RASCOE: And then you have the information to make an informed decision about what you consume.

DEDERER: Exactly. And I don't think that that decision is necessarily a decision that's based on forgiveness. And I don't think it's based on forgetting. I think that you can know what you know and live with that complexity and be a complicated person yourself with your own history, and at the same time maybe still engage with the work.

RASCOE: That's Claire Dederer. Her new book is "Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma". Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEDERER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.