The Strange Fame of Bret Easton Ellis 
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly January 1999

The story of novelist Bret Easton Ellis is a story of American fame, one that takes place—as if in one of his novels—in a culture that devours celebrity. It's a dark coming‑of‑age, a melodrama, a tragedy and a farce. You want it to be a comedy, too, you really do, and in a way it is—you can certainly laugh—but it's the kind of laugh that leaves you feeling empty, defeated and cynical.

It begins, surreally, with Whitney Houston. People magazine, July 19, 1985. Right there, on page 92, are Bret Ellis and Whitney. Together. She's tall, skinny, almost spindly, to be honest, and her hair is huge. She's saying how she began singing at 11, how she "stood there stiff as a board, but [she] sang that song and people went crazy"; she's saying how her cousin, "pop diva" Dionne Warwick (who has not yet begun her stint on the Psychic Friends Network), really helped; she's saying how her voice is a gift from God, how she looks forward to the future. They are "up and coming," Bret and Whitney, the representatives of the next generation of American artists and entertainers.

But if Whitney is thankful and gracious, Bret is her foil: jaded, darker. If he weren't already a writer, he'd have to be an actor playing a writer. He's wearing a rumpled black suit, a white shirt and loafers. He's 21 and has just finished his junior year at Bennington College in Vermont. He has a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. And he looks, on page 92 of People, like he was born with that cigarette and beer instead of fingers.

He's talking about the movie deal for his first novel, Less Than Zero, talking, with all the gusto and pretension of an English major, about how shameless Hollywood is, how he knows they're going to ruin his book when they try to film it (boy, do they). He doesn't want them to "turn it into some kind of mainstream film." He'd be "really pissed off about that."

He's talking to People—a magazine purely about image and celebrity, one that champions shallowness as a central philosophy—like someone who wouldn't use People to line a bird cage. He's a little drunk, maybe. He's a celebrity now, like it or not, morphing, through no fault of his own, into a timeless one‑dimensional image, as much a representative thing to be photographed as a person or artist. He would like someone to ask him about the book. Just one book question. He is a writer, right?  But the questions are all about clothes, who he's dating, where he hangs out at night, movie deals. Over in the corner, Whitney is all bright, white teeth and long legs, modeling her new celebrity like a fur coat. Ellis, though, looks a little green, like he might puke.

For those who don't know the 1985 novel Less Than Zero, the book that first made Ellis famous, it is about rich kids in Los Angeles who have become so anesthetized by American culture, so strangled by empty consumerism, spiritual hopelessness and suffocating ennui, that they take near-lethal amounts of drugs, have promiscuous polysexual sex, laugh at dead bodies, prostitute themselves to pay off crack debts, watch snuff films and finally shoot a 12‑year‑old girl up with heroin and gang rape her, in roughly that order.

There aren't so much characters in the book as automatons carrying warning messages, a host of Gucci‑wearing, BMW‑driving ciphers slowly delivering grand polemical statements about youth, carelessness, the dangers of drugs and, beyond that, the dangers of being an American kid and living in a world where the only thing real is an image of something that was once real.

It's not a great novel, but it's not a bad one either; it has its moments and, considering it was written while Ellis was 19 and 20, you've got to give it up for the guy. The novel's structure is associative, one vignette leading to the next. There is no plot to speak of, but that doesn't seem to matter. The strength of the book is its modesty of ambition. It takes place in less than two weeks, is written in the first‑person present‑tense and has a feeling of elapsing in real time. The writing is solid, if not stunning. It is heavily influenced by some of the great deadpan minimalists and existentialists: Camus, Didion (whose Play It As It Lays seems like the drunk, therapy‑needing parent of Zero) and Hemingway, most obviously.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times said Less Than Zero possessed an "unnerving air of documentary reality." John Rechy, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, wrote: "Expertly, Ellis captures the banality in the speech of his teenagers." Some reviewers compared Ellis to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Salinger. Other reviews were mixed. Still others panned the book as talentless and gratuitous. But it didn't matter. Ellis was 20, eminently photogenic and, by all accounts, a serious literary writer, whether you liked him or not. He showed up with the right book and the right look at exactly the right time. Some critics, and all public relations people behind the novel, seemed to insist that Zero, like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises or Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors, captured a particular time and place and attitude between its covers (we can partially blame the "Gen X" moniker on the critical response to this novel).

There was a great deal of interest in youth culture (even more so than usual) in 1985, particularly the grim story of its moral and ethical decay. At the same time, it was the era of "yuppie lit," or, as critic Ted Solotaroff called it, the decade of "lifestyle fiction." Ellis, along with writers like Jay McInerny, Tama Janowitz and Jill Eisenstadt, became a cultural personality, a celebrity whose work, once it got him into the spotlight, became almost beside the point. This was not, of course, the first time this had occurred. Steinbeck, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were all cultural personalities far beyond their actual novels. (Steinbeck's politics, Hemingway's macho travels and Fitzgerald's weird marriage and gross expenditures were all worthy of headlines.) Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams had made the rounds on the talk show circuit a decade before Ellis and had graced the pages of major magazines (their sexuality and social life were of most interest).

What was different about Ellis, Janowitz and crew, what was anomalous and very 1980s, had to do with the fact that their work seemed completely expendable in the grand equation of celebrity in a way that it was not with Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote and Williams. Capote's In Cold Blood or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, for instance, will be read well into the next century, but Janowitz's Slaves of New York and McInerny's Ransom are already painfully dated, based upon a narrowly focused zeitgeist that most Americans feel little more than embarrassment about. Reading these books now is like looking at your old license and seeing that you had a bi‑level haircut and were wearing a Cyndi Lauper T‑shirt.

But Ellis was better than the other "yuppie lit" writers, often called the "brat pack"—at least in that first novel. And the People profile shows some of his resentment about the fact that he had become all image. He wasn't drunk, belligerent and ready to pounce on the artistic paucity of Hollywood for nothing. He was a serious, if flawed, young writer. He was a moralist, for God's sake. He came bearing warnings for the world. Didn't anybody get it?

He was railing against American vacuousness and at the same time becoming his subject matter.

His second novel, the barely readable Rules of Attraction (1987), sold for a lot of money. The book, however, sank like a stone. It lacked the edginess of Zero. It was yuppie lit and nothing more, lacking all the promise of his first novel. What some people called gratuitous in the first novel, others called bold; It was hard to call his second book anything but tepid and often very poorly written. Zero suddenly seemed like luck or good editing, or something, because this second novel was beyond sophomoric. It made you wonder if it would have even been published if it hadn't been written by the very famous, movie‑deal‑having, ever‑photogenic Bret Easton Ellis, a writer who suddenly came bearing fashion tips and Lifestyle.

So Ellis bombed—partially because the book was bad, partially because now there was a reactionary response by critics and, by extension, readers against "yuppie lit" and its practitioners; everyone was ready to axe the writers who were once It. I couldn't find one good review of Rules of Attraction. What Ellis was known for was his unflinching look into darkness—maybe it was schlock, maybe it was for pure shock, but, nonetheless, after Zero that was his calling card, his recognizable quality, what, frankly, along with a dash of talent, his second novel lacked.

Then it got weird.

At the end of 1990, before his third novel was published, he became, in the eyes of many, the most infamous sadist and misogynist since De Sade.

Perhaps you've heard this part. Ellis' American Psycho was a bloodbath on many levels. If Ellis wasn't a household name before, he almost instantly became one.

The furor over the book—the media event—started in the spring of that year, four months after Ellis submitted the final draft to his publisher, Simon & Schuster. After the manuscript made the rounds, several women at the publisher refused to work on the book, an explicit first‑person account of a yuppie serial killer named Patrick Bateman (a riff on Norman Bates), parts of which are so graphic the marketing division at Simon & Schuster began to wonder whether it was something they could publish. Then George Corsillo, who had designed the covers of Ellis' first two books, refused to work on the project, saying that "he had to draw the line" and that "he felt disgusted with [him]self for reading it."

Despite the commotion within the publishing house, the book inched its way toward publication, got an okay from the editorial board, was set in galleys, and preliminary review copies were distributed. And then the media swung into action.

Here is an excerpt of the novel that Time published under the bold headline "A REVOLTING DEVELOPMENT" on October 29, 1990:

I start by skinning Torri alive, making incisions with a steak knife and ripping long strips of flesh from her legs and stomach while she screams in vain, begging for mercy in a thin, high voice. I stop doing this and move over to her head and start biting the top of it, hoping she realizes her punishment is ending up being comparatively light compared to what I plan to do with the other one.

This is rather tame compared to another excerpt from the book, published in Spy, in which Patrick has oral sex with a severed head. In fact, throughout the second half of the book (in the first half he describes everyone's clothes and stereo equipment, presumably so that when we get to the gore he's earned the right to be a stickler for the details), he dismembers, eats, rapes, etc. in long‑winded, often shoddy prose.

A frenzy began. Under pressure, Martin Davis, then chairman of Paramount Communications, the parent company of Simon & Schuster (and, incidentally, distributors of the Friday 13th movies), canned the book, saying that it was "a matter of taste," letting Ellis keep his $300,000 advance. Factions of the press cried corporate censorship, invoking the trials of Lawrence, Joyce, Burroughs and Selby. But within two days, Sonny Mehta at Vintage Contemporaries, a paperback imprint owned by Random House, bought the book for $75,000 and moved the publication date from January to March.

Enter the National Organization for Women, led by Tammy Bruce. NOW called for a boycott of the book and of Random House. Bruce began a hotline in which she read gruesome passages from the book so listeners could hear how misogynistic it really was (the logic of which action—reading to people from a book you want banned—seems a bit suspect). Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and other leading feminists got behind the boycott.

American Express threatened to sue Vintage because Bateman, before, say, frying a woman's breast and eating it, was using his platinum card to lift coke to his nose. Norman Mailer, who has had his own troubles with censors (check out The Deer Park), published an editorial in Vanity Fair saying, essentially, publish it, but I won't defend it. A book tour had to be cancelled because Ellis was receiving numerous death threats, putting him in the rare rage‑inciting company of Salman Rushdie, who, at the time, had a reward on his head via the Ayatollah for The Satanic Verses.

Psycho's stunning mediocrity didn't help. Hard to believe, given the subject matter, but it's actually tedious to read, even boring when it's not repellent. There's a saying: Great art is its own defense. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, for instance, is much more disturbing and violent than American Psycho; it's also a work of lasting art, unimpeachable, often compared to Moby Dick. And British writer Will Self's My Idea Of Fun traverses nearly identical subject matter as Psycho does, but is somehow blackly funny in the same way Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is—as both farce and parable. No one seemed willing to stand up and defend American Psycho, because it was just so damned aesthetically unimpressive as a novel, much closer to Friday the 13th than Melville or McCarthy or even Self.

In its defense, though, American Psycho, like Less Than Zero, is an absolutely moral book—a polemic, a diatribe. That's its major problem, not the violence. It is so heavy‑handed, so intent on bludgeoning readers with a message, a warning, a moral about the dangers of the Reagan/Milken/Trump 1980s, that it forgets that great fiction is all about specificity, particulars, individuals and individuality, not messages (see Blood Meridian; see Moby Dick). Great writing might contain a message—often it does—but it's a message the reader acquires through sharing in an experience the book offers. Being force-fed a point is the crass, simple stuff of advertising and political punditry, the very things Ellis seems to detest most.

If Less Than Zero tossed a rock through the window to let us all know there is some seriously bad stuff going on in America and that it has to do with the fact that we live in a spiritually barren consumer culture (not a new idea), then American Psycho came armed with Molotov cocktails.

Reviewers had a field day. Here is my favorite critique, at once moronic and hypocritical and absolutely indicative of how far out of hand the whole thing had gotten, by Time's William Tynan: "How much feces can a young writer smear on the wall before Mommy and Daddy really get angry?" The answer? As much as he wants, unless Mommy and Daddy decide shit on the wall is the issue du jour.

It was, of course, a national bestseller.

In 1994, after the storm over American Psycho had passed, Ellis published The Informers. The book is not quite a collection of stories, because none of the disparate pieces are, by themselves, something whole; yet it's not exactly a novel either. It introduces some American (Californian) Types and trundles forward, without rising or falling action or complication, toward a kind of dramatic ellipsis. One could assume that in The Informers Ellis is trying to subvert the accepted notions of form, and that's why the novel, stories, whatever, takes on a dramatically formless form, eschewing real characterization and story in the same way his previous novels did, relying, instead, on the harsh and telling (shocking) incident to raise the aesthetic level of the narrative. If we're charitable enough, we might convince ourselves, based on publicity alone, that Ellis is a real maverick, a Poe or a Beckett or a Joyce, not just ahead of his time but beyond the constraints of cultural time, a writer to be truly and finally appreciated by a future generation. But it's also easy, given his record, having actually read the books, to doubt that and simply wonder if he knows what he's doing, wonder if carte blanche from editors because of big sales and a big name is such a good thing when the talent is, at best, suspect. And even if his story is something of a paradigm of contemporary American celebrity, does that make it easier to swallow?

This month, as Ellis' fifth novel Glamorama (Knopf) hits stores, there is no question that he is one of the most famous young literary writers in America. The questions have to do with how he got there.