Thursday, March 21, 2019

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters*

I originally wrote this in response to Claire Dederer’s November 2017 piece. Yesterday, though, Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic offered a timely essay on Michael Jackson called “The Art of the Monster.” Here’s my earlier piece. 

So many monsters . . .

Forget my name. Don’t forget my name.

I’m haunted by “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” by Claire Dederer (The Paris Review, November 20, 2017). It isn’t that I agree with every little thing she says. (I know some moms especially who are upset, though I am not among them.) It’s that I think she asks the question well. What do we do?

Really. What Do We Do?

Can you watch the latest Woody Allen film? Will you let your children watch “The Cosby Show”? Are you done with “House of Cards”? What about “lesser monsters”? Lesser monsters”?!? At least Sherman Alexie wasn’t going for children, right? I’m obviously going to get myself into trouble on this one. This is the beauty of my writing, maybe: I’ll say anything?

And what does this have to do with my novel, And So We Die, Having First Slept? I made the protagonist, Brett, into a pretty distraught woman who happens to be a film critic specializing in Woody Allen. It’s a minor thing, but it’s there nonetheless. I could’ve edited it out, but I didn’t. Though the action of the novel takes place in pre-#me-too days, I feel as if I should reckon with my own narrative choices. I chose Woody Allen, and I did so because I like Woody Allen films. I must deal with that. And I’m not sure how.

So I join Dederer in asking, “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?”

Let’s do this in three parts: First, the Bug/Monster Problem which asks, Who Is A Monster?  Second, the Shaun Cassidy Debacle, which suggests that Art is Monstrous. Third, the Monster Spectrum, which makes value judgments.

The Bug/Monster Problem
I know I’ve told this story before because it’s a Love Slave story. That’s my first novel. A friend of mine, upon whom I ended up basing Madeline Blue, said, “All people can be categorized as one of two things: bugs or monsters.” I sat with this for a minute or two, and then she asked, “Are you a bug or a monster?”

Another minute or two passed.

I said, “Monster.”

Which invariably became a value judgment (I was twenty-five, okay?). All cool people were monsters. All fun people. All smart people. All interesting people. Monsters had texture. Monsters had panache. Monsters were eccentric, witty, and unpredictable. You wanted to be a monster.

Bugs were boring. Bugs were incessant, routinized, unquestioning, pests. You know how an ant colony is. You know about busy bees. You’ve seen those pain-in-the-ass mosquitoes.

It’s silly and childish. However, it might beg a question. Who is actually a monster?

I’m going to suggest that we are all monsters. (We are all bugs too. We are multifaceted in our makeup. There is no bug/monster dichotomy.)

I guess that this is a matter of philosophical presumption. Do you believe—you!—that humans are basically good? Or do you think that humans are essentially not-so-hot? Call me a cynic. Call me Old Fashioned. I see bad stuff. (That isn’t to say that I do not believe in transformation or reformation or that I’m hopeless.) I think we’re all monsters, and it behooves the honest artist to deal with our monstrosity.

I’m a monster; you’re a monster.

I hope you don’t think I’m a cynic, too.

The Shaun Cassidy Debacle
Having admitted that I’m a monster, I suppose it’s fair to re-frame Dederer’s question: What do we do with the art of monsters? Which really might be this question: What do we do with Art? Which might be this question: What should we do with MY Art?

For this, we might need to go back even further than my roaring twenties, prior to the Love Slave-imbued Days.

It’s probably fair to say that Shaun Cassidy was my first celebrity crush. I cannot even imagine the emotional makeup of my affections for him, but I can assure you that it was asexual and mostly involved singing along to the 1976 hit, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” to which you should now listen because it’s hilarious.

I was six or seven.

Somehow or other, I found out that Shaun Cassidy—my Shaun Cassidy—smoked (the bloody paparazzi!) cigarettes. He was a smoker!

I was heartbroken. I sat on my bed, the bewitching debut album cover propped on my skinny knees, innocence over, and I stared deep into his sweet addict-eyes.

Guess what I did next.

I prayed. I prayed that Shawn Cassidy would stop his dissipated behavior, and I promised to love him forever, no matter what. Thereby officially launching my life as a woman forever bewitched by Moral Degenerates . . .

All I can tell you is that things got worse after Shawn.

That could be a subtitle to my novel: After Shawn.

Or: Things Got Worse.

Or Best: Things Got Worse After Shawn.

And then, without further adieu, I went on listening to “Da Doo Ron Ron” until I switched over to Andy Gibb in 1978. (Watching Dear Andy now, I can see my own evolving criminality.)

This, of course, leads directly to my novel about Moral Degenerates, And So We Die, Having First Slept. (Notice, also, early traces of religiosity that continue to show up in my narratives.)

Perhaps we might say that Art is for monsters. Maybe there really is something to the idea that the monstrous compels us to go in the direction of the artistic, that we implicitly and unconsciously turn to the Arts both to deal with our own inherent monstrosity. Through Art, we can certainly express our beastliness; however, we can also strive for Truth and Beauty and Goodness. This is all murky, but I think it’s true! Though one might question the artistry of Shawn, one might think broadly upon Led Zeppelin or punk rock or Hemingway or even The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  Are we not perpetually turning to artistic expression in order to come to terms with the Heart of Darkness? Don’t we both love and loathe the ugliness? Was not my early Shawn devotion just a reflection of my affiliation with that aesthetic/intellectual/emotional/spiritual wrestling?

The artist—the art—the patron: are we not all in this monstrous business together?

Remember that creative writing edict by Janet Burroway (it proves true every time): “In literature, only trouble is interesting.”

In art, only trouble is interesting.

What, then, do we do with the Artist?

I’m in love with Elena Ferrante’s philosophizing on the insignificance of her true identity with regard to her work, but still: there might be something to this communion, this unholy alliance, this Priory of Sion/Knights of The Round Table or Templar, triumvirate of Art and Artist and Patron.

My Shawn prayer was none other than an early inkling of that communion of non-saints.

I am still stung by the grad-school-words-I-read of John Gardner: “All Art begins in a wound.” Pain, gore, mess. Decay, needing balm, bandages. The human condition.

With Shawn, we might recognize that we are in cahoots with monsters because Art is so terribly human—so revelatory of all that we are. A human endeavor, made up of human monsters.

Let’s move on.

The Monster Spectrum
But, really, this doesn’t accomplish anything. Or does it?

I’d offer a few comments.
1.    Monsters are ubiquitous. We can’t shake them. I am a monster. You are a monster. Monsters are flawed humans. There are, of course, degrees of criminality, legal issues involved, and contexts to consider. This isn’t to excuse culpability; rather, it’s to humanize people. I think this solves some things, not all things. Recognizing our inherent monstrosity may allow one to see the value in the work of fellow-monsters. Some of them, anyway.

I’m listening to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential right now (not my usual fare—is that a pun?). He was a pretty rough-talking guy with serious issues (though rather ethical!). As I’m listening, I’m hit hard by both his humanity and his artistry, despite the fact that we might’ve clashed over values. It isn’t that I now approve of his behaviors; instead, his humanity is made real to me. I get things I wouldn’t have gotten, had I not bent towards him with compassion. Am I calling him a monster? I’m calling him a human.

2.    Artists are definitely intrinsic to any work of art, but we should separate them—à la Elena Ferrante. I’m immersed right now in Frantumaglia, Ferrante’s nonfiction collection of letters and interviews. She is so insistent on the separation of Art from Artist that, I admit, I’m sold. She writes, “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own.”

This romances me, seduces me, touches me. First, it seems true. I don’t really love Beowulf, but Beowulf. Second, I know I’ve messed this up. I have, I think, a pretty large personality (in print—I’m a bore in person). And I believe I’ve confused, at times, promoting my work with promoting myself. It gets ugly. And I don’t want to hold myself up to the “taste test” of public scrutiny.

Let me give a few examples of the effect of the artist upon one’s perception of Art. How does it affect your perception of my work if you know that I’m decidedly not a fan of Trump’s? You might be fine with this. Or you might dismiss my fiction. How does it affect your perception of my work if you know I declaw my cats? You might think I’m a barbarian. How does it affect your perception of my work if you know I’ll eat a gay wedding cake and Chick-Fil-A on the same day if I get the chance? How does it affect your perception of my work if you know I still don’t get the stock market or I love “The Walking Dead” or I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” or I cuss too much AND go to church? You see my point. (In truth, I feel the danger even in writing those questions.) My work stands over there. I am here. So, monster that I am, I give you these books . . .

What if you knew nothing about me?

3.    But, really, there must be a spectrum. I mean, yeah, everyone talks bad about his or her mom, but not everyone has secret buttons behind his desk to lock interns behind office doors (Matt Lauer?) and not everyone asks a young girl to do something with his feet (Dustin Hoffman?) So, do we regard all monsters as the same? Probably not.

A spectrum? And, admittedly, this gets weird. On one end, the “forgivable end,” would we put Morgan Freeman, the seemingly-baffled-by-the-accusations, because—maybe, just maybe—he’s (just?!?) an Old School Dirty Old Man? Near him, might we stick Aziz Ansari, since he’s all gross and pervy but maybe not criminal? Edging towards the “bad” end, should we stick in Junot Diaz, because he’s possibly an ego-fueled/hyper-sexual bully but no rapist? Wait. Does Sherman Alexie come in now, or before Diaz? Alexie sounds like a philanderer and adulterer, though let’s keep in mind that there were no children involved—so where should he go? Charlie Rose? Garrison Keillor? Louie C.K.? I’ll tell you this: I’m putting Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby on this other end, the Stop-Talking End. I have no clue what to do with Woody Allen, in all honesty, because they’re only allegations but I tend to advocate listening to children but I just don’t know about Mia’s mom role and I’m pretty sure Woody is a miserable S.O.B.—so What Do We Do With Woody? I FULLY ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I, TOO, AM CONFUSED.

On Woody, a friend, Deirdre O’Malley Keating, wrote, “His best art aligns with his own issues and eventually makes me feel complicit in the lives he damaged.” I so agree about his best art, but complicity . . . ? (She said that I could quote her, as long as it was clear that she finds him repugnant now.) In other words, our money supports his monstrosity. How responsible are we for the Art of monsters? How responsible are we for anyone’s Art? Isn’t money our way of talking? We put our money where our mouths are . . .

Are we complicit monsters?

As I wrote my spectrum bit, I realized it’s probably a lousy idea. I can speak of my own thoughts. I was heartbroken over Alexie. Devastated, really. I was saddened over Diaz. Allen, to me, is a brilliant and ugly statement on the human condition, and I’m not sure what the correct stance is. I publicly confess that I just read Blasphemy by Alexie and I re-read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz; both were amazing. I also saw four recent Woody Allen films. His Wonder Wheel was emotionally hard-hitting. I’m not sure I can watch Manhattan ever again. “The Cosby Show” is ruined for me. I wanted to see I Love You, Daddy, but I doubt I ever will.

I think, at the end of the day, it’s Elena. Go with Elena.

I have mixed feelings, and I think, ultimately, there is no black-and-white answer. Which is hard. But creating that Elena-endorsed Distance between Art and Artist seems best.

I conclude by not offering a conclusion, just some reflections.

I’m a social media hog, but I love the idea of anonymity, of Art on a pedestal—distinct and unburdened by the corruption of its creator. What do we do with the art of monstrous men (or women)? Do away with celebrity?

I love, also, the irony involved in the fact that I’m in the midst of Book Promo Season.

Forget my name. Don’t forget my name.

I wrote a new book: And So We Die, Having First Slept.

Feel free to comment here on Michael Jackson.

*The title of this refers to a great graphic novel by Emil Ferris.


  1. Hmmm. I glad you don't come to a clear conclusion---it is murky. For me, reading a book by a monster is less gross, because the reader is more of a co-creator and there is time to put it down, get some distance and evaluate. There isn't that same time or distance with music or a movie---they are literally directing what we see.

    Woody taking nudes of his (ex)girlfriend's adopted daughter (which is not disputed by him or anyone), albeit his now wife, when she was in college---he had been with her mother since Soon-Yi was nine. None of this is surprising once we pay attention to the just how sexualized young women are in his movies---or his interest in cheating within a family (Hannah and Her Sisters). I was a major fan of his movies, and for years said I could only watch the ones in which he did not appear, like as long as I didn't have to see him, I could separate the art and the artist (and still enjoy my favorite, "Purple Rose of Cairo"). But that was me making false exceptions and now I just disdain him and don't want to see any of his art.