When Bret Easton Ellis strode into a Midtown auditorium for his TimesTalk last night, I was almost surprised to hear the enthusiastic applause. After all, his just-published first collection of essays, White, has provoked reviews with headlines like “Bret Easton Ellis’s Non-Fiction Is Lazy, Boring” and “Bret Easton Ellis’s Book ‘White’ and Why You Don’t Need to Read It.” Add to that, a New Yorker interview about Trump that was so awkward that a friend forwarded it to me with an “Oof.” For a moment, it seemed like the author of American Psycho—the writer who “was canceled before cancelling was a thing,” as fellow provocateur Bari Weiss recently put it— was about to truly be canceled in much the same way his most famous novel was ditched by its original publisher.
Of course, Ellis is used to weathering this sort of thing. He told last night’s interviewer—Lauren Christensen, who wrote the Times profile, “Bret Easton Ellis Has Calmed Down. He Thinks You Should, Too”— that he learned at a very early age that the best approach to criticism was to “have a very chill, detached, reserved response.” He remembered a mixed Village Voice review for Less Than Zero that “built a kind of armor, to not take it all so seriously.”
And yet, while reading White—a collection that takes its cues and its title from Joan Didion’s highly personal essays in The White Album—it’s hard not to play armchair psychologist and wonder whether Ellis is suffering from a sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ellis would likely dismiss the PTSD diagnosis as the stuff of millennial “snowflakes” (a word he enjoys using “because it seemed, amazingly, to push so many buttons”), but it’s hard not to imagine that the uproar over American Psycho and the vilification of its author as a depraved misogynist is at the root of this new book’s litany of complaints about “groupthink” and “thought policing.”
In fact, at one point in White, Ellis makes the connection clear: “Some people who wanted the book banned then regarded Bateman’s crimes (which might have been entirely imaginary thought crimes) as my crimes, a hideous mistake that contributed to the death threats I subsequently received, and to the censorship with which I was threatened. In 1991, this seemed like an unusual and curious response but these days people routinely mistake thoughts and opinions for actual crimes.”
Ellis, in a chapter about writing American Psycho, says that he was “never happier than I was in the summer of 1991,” implying that it all went downhill after the book’s publication that fall. And while he never explicitly identifies the American Psycho backlash as a psychological turning point, one of his best friends, fellow Brat Pack writer Jay McInerney, told the Times that, in his opinion, “would-be censors” of the book “shaped his view down to the present day about political correctness and freedom of expression.”
Ellis clearly enjoys taunting millennials– or as he prefers to call them, Generation Wuss. When he read the BookForum takedown in which Andrea Long Chu called the collection “a rambling mess of cultural commentary and self-aggrandizement,” he found it “so shocking to see someone so upset by this old white man who shouldn’t be published by Knopf.” He continued: “Triggering millennials, I don’t want to do it or anything, but it’s kind of delicious; it’s like eating frosting. When I see these reviews for White and the reviews are written by enraged young people, I can’t help it if I— I don’t know, I’m not going to say I get off on it but there’s a little frisson of pleasure.”
Throughout the book, he complains about the victimization narratives of movies like Moonlight and believes coddled millennials—not to mention middle-aged, bubble-dwelling liberals devastated by the election of Trump—should “pull on their big boy pants” and understand that, among other hard truths, “life will be made up of failure and disappointments.”
Ellis writes: “If you’re afflicted by these traumas that occurred years ago, and that is still a part of you years later, then you probably are still sick and in need of treatment.” And elsewhere: “This widespread epidemic of self-victimization—defining yourself in essence by way of a bad thing, a trauma that happened in the past that you’ve let define you—is actually an illness.”
Despite the cavalier stance, it’s hard not to wonder whether Ellis himself is still affected by career traumas, and whether White is his version of “professional help.” After all, he dedicates sections of the book to rehashing the artistic and commercial failures of Less Than Zero’s film adaptation and American Psycho’s musical adaptation. He rehashes his disinvitation from the GLAAD awards because of tweets that offended the LGBTQ organization. And, of course, he rehashes the fallout over American Psycho, though not in as much detail as he could have: “There’s still a book to be written about that, and I have not written it yet,” he said during the TimesTalk.
Here’s Ellis describing the misinterpretation and cancelation of the novel: “Maybe this was a case of an actual ‘offense’ against a privileged white male, though these rightly are never tied to oppression, but it’s also true that I wasn’t ever offended because I’d understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals.”
If Ellis claims not to have been offended by the backlash, he has certainly spent a lot of time talking and writing about it, most conspicuously in his meta novel Lunar Park. And if he took the condemnation from Gloria Steinem, Norman Mailer, and all the others personally, it’s easy to understand why. He told Christensen that American Psycho was in part “a very personal story about me not knowing how to become a man, in a way; I hated the values that were extolling what it meant to be a man, and I kind of bought into and I kind of didn’t.”
Asked whether Patrick Bateman’s misogyny came out of Ellis’s conversations with stockbrokers or something broader, he gave a typical response about the tropes of the serial killer narrative, his research on Ted Bundy, and the fact that Bateman also kills men and animals. But he started his response by asking: “Was it within me? I mean, that really is a question. I’m asking that honestly: Was that [misogyny] actually within me? I don’t like to think that it was.”
Whatever the answer to that question, American Psycho is a much more personal novel than one might think, given that it’s often viewed merely as satire of the Gordon Gekko culture of ’80s Manhattan. So you have to wonder whether the calls for a boycott—the fact that “no one wanted to get close to American Psycho; it was too nuclear,” as Ellis put it in the TimesTalk— has colored many of the opinions in White, and might even be its driving force.
Though one snarky headline called White “a book on politics,” it isn’t that. The Trump sections take up about 45 pages of the 261-page book, which can be read in one sitting. The rest of the book is mostly nostalgic commentary on the current state of art and culture, with a common thread: Ellis likes to be “upset and even damaged by art,” and he wants artists to be free to “act brashly, and sometimes badly, without apology.” For all of his complaints about self-victimization, he perceives artists such as himself as potential victims of a “self-censorious society in which everyone tiptoes around trying to appease every group that might take offense at any opposing view, in essence shutting down creative excellence thanks to the fears and insecurities and ignorance of others.”
In short, he wants an environment that will welcome a novel like American Psycho, a book that, he told an audience member, he feels wouldn’t be published today.
In his movie reviews, Ellis spends a fair amount of time complaining about “liberal Hollywood’s fake-woke corporate culture,” which results in trite, PC narratives that reduce minorities to little more than victims or to tropes such as “Gay Man as Magical Elf.” But political correctness isn’t the only enemy of art; he also gripes about the sort of tame conformity that transformed Less Than Zero from a fragmented novel without much of a linear plot, into a movie that was more conventional, heterosexual, and conservative.
Ellis mockingly writes that if you’re experiencing microaggressions (e.g. “some dude tries to grope you at a Christmas party”) and “you need a safe space, then you need to seek professional help.” But isn’t Ellis also asking for a safe space? Doesn’t he want art to be a safe space where its creators don’t have to face “outrage” (meaning strident criticism) or have their art judged in relation to their personal failings? (He calls Michael Jackson “the ultimate victim of Empire celebrity, a tortured boy lover and drug addict who humorlessly denied he was either.”)
Ellis observes that when millennials are criticized, “they seemed to get so defensive they either collapsed into a spiraling depression or lashed out at the critical parties and called them haters, contrarians, trolls.” The more reasonable response, it would seem, is to write a book about the haters, calling them “social justice warriors” and “snowflakes” instead of contrarians and trolls.
Recalling a profile of Sky Ferreira that some criticized as sexist, Ellis bemoans the “authoritarian language police” while at the same time dismissing their criticism as “hissy fits.” By his own definition, isn’t Ellis policing their language? Don’t they have a right to express an opinion, just as Ellis did when he famously tweeted that The Hurt Locker was overrated because Kathryn Bigelow was a “hot woman” and her other movies were “just OK junk”? (He now writes that he’d take back the word junk, though he told the TimesTalk audience that “Twitter isn’t real; the minute you start thinking Twitter is real and the minute you start getting offended by tweets, you might as well move to Temecula.”)
Ellis argued in both the book and the TimesTalk that members of Gen X are more stoic than millennials, in part because they weren’t coddled by their parents and political correctness. But at the same time that he says “Twitter encouraged the bad boy in me,” he admits to “an anxiousness, an oppression I felt whenever I ventured online, a sense that I was going to somehow make a mistake instead of offering an opinion or make a joke or criticize someone or something.” It’s easy to imagine this line being repurposed to fit into Ellis’s rant about millennials: “If you feel ‘anxious’ or ‘oppressed’ every time you go online, seek professional help.”
And who knows, maybe some day Ellis will repurpose the line. White is not without its self-awareness. Ellis, who says he generally has a “moral ambivalence about politics,” admits that after he got sucked into the Trump conversation by “hysterical,” “rich and entitled liberals,” he realized that “the hyperbole I was accusing others of… I was now voicing myself—but I couldn’t help it.” And while calling social media content “rushed and kind of shitty,” he acknowledges that the widely panned movie he wrote, The Canyons, “felt like that to many people.” (For better or worse, this book doesn’t go on at length about The Canyons in the way Ellis has on his podcast, from which much of White‘s material was stitched together.)
He also acknowledges that his opinions are colored by his, well, lack of color. The collection’s working title was White Privileged Male, “because the book is from the point of view of a white privileged male and the book talks about this all the time,” Ellis explained at the TimesTalk. (The title was ultimately deemed too “jokey.”)
“All the time” is a bit of an exaggeration, and where Ellis does acknowledge his privilege, he doesn’t seem as eager to adopt the language of the left as he is the language of the right. Instead of simply acknowledging his white male privilege, he acknowledges “what was now referred to as” white male privilege.
Ellis also showed some self-awareness about that “mess” of an interview with the New Yorker, in which he fumbled to justify his opinion that there’s a “overreaction to Trump” in light of the fact that “there are plenty of people who like what he is doing.”
“It was like flailing in space, and I knew it was going to be bad,” he said of it, adding that, “Yes, I said all these things, flailing around, and if that is what one takes from it, one does. I have to own the piece. I think it’s not representative of me; I don’t think it’s representative of the book. I think it was a prank, effectively orchestrated.”
In that interview and others, Ellis seems eager to remind people that in American Psycho, Trump is portrayed as the rapist and murderer’s hero— or his “father figure,” to use the author’s language as well as the language that his friend Kanye West used about Trump. “I kind of did my homework,” Ellis told the TimesTalk crowd. “I read Art of the Deal, and I found out about Roy Cohn, and I found out about Fred Trump’s uneasy feelings about minorities in his housing apartments, and also there was a whole thing about the Central Park Jogger case that unnerved me as well. And so I thought it was funny to make Trump Patrick Bateman’s father.”
Asked whether he still finds Trump funny, Ellis couldn’t resist another dig. “I live with a Socialist Democrat millennial who finds nothing funny. And so, no, I guess I don’t find Trump funny; if I want to keep peace in my apartment, I don’t find anything funny about Trump.”
“But it’s all absurd,” Ellis added. “Isn’t it all absurd?”