Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Editor’s introduction

Neil Croally

For those educated in literary criticism in the 20 th century, the text rather than the author was the thing. More than anything else, a critic had to avoid the related traps of the biographical and intentional fallacies. While the essay that most vigorously argued for such a position was published in 1946, 1 the critical view goes back at least as far as T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the individual talent’, where Eliot argued that the focus should be on the poetry rather than the poet. 2 In the 1960s, as part of a very different philosophical and indeed political project, Roland Barthes declared the death of the author, thereby forcibly removing him from the critical gaze (and it was ‘him’ then). 3 But I was never quite comfortable with the pious, new critical insistence on the integrity of the text (even though I cannot now find any evidence for the biographical detail about William Burroughs that allowed me to stop even trying to read his work). 4 This was partly based on what I took to be an honest uncertainty about where text ended and context began (or vice-versa), but also on a conviction that we were surely within our rights to use any information – biographical, intentional, contextual – that help to produce compelling interpretations. This approach was not meant to be relativistic, so much as open and catholic. I was pleased, then, to see the publication this year of Claire Dederer’s Monsters: a fan’s dilemma , 5 a book that seemed unafraid to grapple with the problem of how we appreciate artwork produced by men (it is normally men) whose actions we find inescapably offensive (the ‘monsters’ of the title). This problem has always been with us, but the biographical fallacy and the death of author tended to shut down discussion, until, that is, movements such as #metoo demanded a reappraisal. For what become obvious reasons, Dederer concentrates on male monsters, such as Picasso, Hemingway, Polanski and Miles Davis, though she also spends some time discussing those female artists who, one way or another abandoned children for the sake of their art (Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath and Joni Mitchell). The appetites of those male artists for monstrous transgression are unflinchingly described and, at first, it seems as though Dederer is going to adopt a position of unequivocal rejection of their work based on an unambiguous condemnation of their lives. However, by the time we reach the end of the book, she argues that, if we love a work of art but hate – or feel the stain of – the actions of the artist, we must try to accommodate both responses, however inconsistent. We know that 1 Wimsatt & Bearsley 1946; later published in Wimsatt 1954. 2 The essay is available in Eliot 1932. 3 Barthes originally published his essay in 1967; the earliest English translation appeared in Barthes 1977. See Foucault 1979 for a provocative response. 4 I heard, or though I heard, that Burroughs, while struggling with his heroin use, would pass the time by shooting his cats. However, some quick internet research shows only that he seems to have been very fond of cats. 5 Dederer 2023.

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