The Real Filth in American Psycho

A Critical Reassessment

How to Cite

Brien, D. L. (2006). The Real Filth in American Psycho: A Critical Reassessment. M/C Journal, 9(5).
Vol. 9 No. 5 (2006): 'filth'
Published 2006-11-01


An afternoon in late 1991 found me on a Sydney bus reading Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). A disembarking passenger paused at my side and, as I glanced up, hissed, ‘I don’t know how you can read that filth’. As she continued to make her way to the front of the vehicle, I was as stunned as if she had struck me physically. There was real vehemence in both her words and how they were delivered, and I can still see her eyes squeezing into slits as she hesitated while curling her mouth around that final angry word: ‘filth’. Now, almost fifteen years later, the memory is remarkably vivid. As the event is also still remarkable; this comment remaining the only remark ever made to me by a stranger about anything I have been reading during three decades of travelling on public transport.

That inflamed commuter summed up much of the furore that greeted the publication of American Psycho. More than this, and unusually, condemnation of the work both actually preceded, and affected, its publication. Although Ellis had been paid a substantial U.S. $300,000 advance by Simon & Schuster, pre-publication stories based on circulating galley proofs were so negative—offering assessments of the book as: ‘moronic … pointless … themeless … worthless (Rosenblatt 3), ‘superficial’, ‘a tapeworm narrative’ (Sheppard 100) and ‘vile … pornography, not literature … immoral, but also artless’ (Miner 43)—that the publisher cancelled the contract (forfeiting the advance) only months before the scheduled release date. CEO of Simon & Schuster, Richard E. Snyder, explained: ‘it was an error of judgement to put our name on a book of such questionable taste’ (quoted in McDowell, “Vintage” 13). American Psycho was, instead, published by Random House/Knopf in March 1991 under its prestige paperback imprint, Vintage Contemporary (Zaller; Freccero 48) – Sonny Mehta having signed the book to Random House some two days after Simon & Schuster withdrew from its agreement with Ellis. While many commented on the fact that Ellis was paid two substantial advances, it was rarely noted that Random House was a more prestigious publisher than Simon & Schuster (Iannone 52).

After its release, American Psycho was almost universally vilified and denigrated by the American critical establishment. The work was criticised on both moral and aesthetic/literary/artistic grounds; that is, in terms of both what Ellis wrote and how he wrote it. Critics found it ‘meaningless’ (Lehmann-Haupt C18), ‘abysmally written … schlock’ (Kennedy 427), ‘repulsive, a bloodbath serving no purpose save that of morbidity, titillation and sensation … pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts, a dirty book by a dirty writer’ (Yardley B1) and ‘garbage’ (Gurley Brown 21). Mark Archer found that ‘the attempt to confuse style with content is callow’ (31), while Naomi Wolf wrote that: ‘overall, reading American Psycho holds the same fascination as watching a maladjusted 11-year-old draw on his desk’ (34). John Leo’s assessment sums up the passionate intensity of those critical of the work: ‘totally hateful … violent junk … no discernible plot, no believable characterization, no sensibility at work that comes anywhere close to making art out of all the blood and torture … Ellis displays little feel for narration, words, grammar or the rhythm of language’ (23). These reviews, as those printed pre-publication, were titled in similarly unequivocal language: ‘A Revolting Development’ (Sheppard 100), ‘Marketing Cynicism and Vulgarity’ (Leo 23), ‘Designer Porn’ (Manguel 46) and ‘Essence of Trash’ (Yardley B1). Perhaps the most unambiguous in its message was Roger Rosenblatt’s ‘Snuff this Book!’ (3).

Of all works published in the U.S.A. at that time, including those clearly carrying X ratings, the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) selected American Psycho for special notice, stating that the book ‘legitimizes inhuman and savage violence masquerading as sexuality’ (NOW 114). Judging the book ‘the most misogynistic communication’ the organisation had ever encountered (NOW L.A. chapter president, Tammy Bruce, quoted in Kennedy 427) and, on the grounds that ‘violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable’ (McDowell, “NOW” C17), NOW called for a boycott of the entire Random House catalogue for the remainder of 1991. Naomi Wolf agreed, calling the novel ‘a violation not of obscenity standards, but of women’s civil rights, insofar as it results in conditioning male sexual response to female suffering or degradation’ (34). Later, the boycott was narrowed to Knopf and Vintage titles (Love 46), but also extended to all of the many products, companies, corporations, firms and brand names that are a feature of Ellis’s novel (Kauffman, “American” 41).

There were other unexpected responses such as the Walt Disney Corporation barring Ellis from the opening of Euro Disney (Tyrnauer 101), although Ellis had already been driven from public view after receiving a number of death threats and did not undertake a book tour (Kennedy 427). Despite this, the book received significant publicity courtesy of the controversy and, although several national bookstore chains and numerous booksellers around the world refused to sell the book, more than 100,000 copies were sold in the U.S.A. in the fortnight after publication (Dwyer 55). Even this success had an unprecedented effect: when American Psycho became a bestseller, The New York Times announced that it would be removing the title from its bestseller lists because of the book’s content. In the days following publication in the U.S.A., Canadian customs announced that it was considering whether to allow the local arm of Random House to, first, import American Psycho for sale in Canada and, then, publish it in Canada (Kirchhoff, “Psycho” C1). Two weeks later, when the book was passed for sale (Kirchhoff, “Customs” C1), demonstrators protested the entrance of a shipment of the book. In May, the Canadian Defence Force made headlines when it withdrew copies of the book from the library shelves of a navy base in Halifax (Canadian Press C1).

Also in May 1991, the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), the federal agency that administers the classification scheme for all films, computer games and ‘submittable’ publications (including books) that are sold, hired or exhibited in Australia, announced that it had classified American Psycho as ‘Category 1 Restricted’ (W. Fraser, “Book” 5), to be sold sealed, to only those over 18 years of age. This was the first such classification of a mainstream literary work since the rating scheme was introduced (Graham), and the first time a work of literature had been restricted for sale since Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. The chief censor, John Dickie, said the OFLC could not justify refusing the book classification (and essentially banning the work), and while ‘as a satire on yuppies it has a lot going for it’, personally he found the book ‘distasteful’ (quoted in W. Fraser, “Sensitive” 5). Moreover, while this ‘R’ classification was, and remains, a national classification, Australian States and Territories have their own sale and distribution regulation systems. Under this regime, American Psycho remains banned from sale in Queensland, as are all other books in this classification category (Vnuk).

These various reactions led to a flood of articles published in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and the U.K., voicing passionate opinions on a range of issues including free speech and censorship, the corporate control of artistic thought and practice, and cynicism on the part of authors and their publishers about what works might attract publicity and (therefore) sell in large numbers (see, for instance, Hitchens 7; Irving 1). The relationship between violence in society and its representation in the media was a common theme, with only a few commentators (including Norman Mailer in a high profile Vanity Fair article) suggesting that, instead of inciting violence, the media largely reflected, and commented upon, societal violence. Elayne Rapping, an academic in the field of Communications, proposed that the media did actively glorify violence, but only because there was a market for such representations: ‘We, as a society love violence, thrive on violence as the very basis of our social stability, our ideological belief system … The problem, after all, is not media violence but real violence’ (36, 38). Many more commentators, however, agreed with NOW, Wolf and others and charged Ellis’s work with encouraging, and even instigating, violent acts, and especially those against women, calling American Psycho ‘a kind of advertising for violence against women’ (anthropologist Elliot Leyton quoted in Dwyer 55) and, even, a ‘how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women’ (Leo 23).

Support for the book was difficult to find in the flood of vitriol directed against it, but a small number wrote in Ellis’s defence. Sonny Mehta, himself the target of death threats for acquiring the book for Random House, stood by this assessment, and was widely quoted in his belief that American Psycho was ‘a serious book by a serious writer’ and that Ellis was ‘remarkably talented’ (Knight-Ridder L10). Publishing director of Pan Macmillan Australia, James Fraser, defended his decision to release American Psycho on the grounds that the book told important truths about society, arguing: ‘A publisher’s office is a clearing house for ideas … the real issue for community debate [is] – to what extent does it want to hear the truth about itself, about individuals within the community and about the governments the community elects. If we care about the preservation of standards, there is none higher than this. Gore Vidal was among the very few who stated outright that he liked the book, finding it ‘really rather inspired … a wonderfully comic novel’ (quoted in Tyrnauer 73). Fay Weldon agreed, judging the book as ‘brilliant’, and focusing on the importance of Ellis’s message: ‘Bret Easton Ellis is a very good writer. He gets us to a ‘T’. And we can’t stand it. It’s our problem, not his. American Psycho is a beautifully controlled, careful, important novel that revolves around its own nasty bits’ (C1).

Since 1991

As unlikely as this now seems, I first read American Psycho without any awareness of the controversy raging around its publication. I had read Ellis’s earlier works, Less than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987) and, with my energies fully engaged elsewhere, cannot now even remember how I acquired the book. Since that angry remark on the bus, however, I have followed American Psycho’s infamy and how it has remained in the public eye over the last decade and a half.

Australian OFLC decisions can be reviewed and reversed – as when Pasolini’s final film Salo (1975), which was banned in Australia from the time of its release in 1975 until it was un-banned in 1993, was then banned again in 1998 – however, American Psycho’s initial classification has remained unchanged. In July 2006, I purchased a new paperback copy in rural New South Wales. It was shrink-wrapped in plastic and labelled: ‘R. Category One. Not available to persons under 18 years. Restricted’. While exact sales figures are difficult to ascertain, by working with U.S.A., U.K. and Australian figures, this copy was, I estimate, one of some 1.5 to 1.6 million sold since publication. In the U.S.A., backlist sales remain very strong, with some 22,000 copies sold annually (Holt and Abbott), while lifetime sales in the U.K. are just under 720,000 over five paperback editions. Sales in Australia are currently estimated by Pan MacMillan to total some 100,000, with a new printing of 5,000 copies recently ordered in Australia on the strength of the book being featured on the inaugural Australian Broadcasting Commission’s First Tuesday Book Club national television program (2006).

Predictably, the controversy around the publication of American Psycho is regularly revisited by those reviewing Ellis’s subsequent works. A major article in Vanity Fair on Ellis’s next book, The Informers (1994), opened with a graphic description of the death threats Ellis received upon the publication of American Psycho (Tyrnauer 70) and then outlined the controversy in detail (70-71). Those writing about Ellis’s two most recent novels, Glamorama (1999) and Lunar Park (2005), have shared this narrative strategy, which also forms at least part of the frame of every interview article. American Psycho also, again predictably, became a major topic of discussion in relation to the contracting, making and then release of the eponymous film in 2000 as, for example, in Linda S. Kauffman’s extensive and considered review of the film, which spent the first third discussing the history of the book’s publication (“American” 41-45). Playing with this interest, Ellis continues his practice of reusing characters in subsequent works. Thus, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who first appeared in The Rules of Attraction as the elder brother of the main character, Sean – who, in turn, makes a brief appearance in American Psycho – also turns up in Glamorama with ‘strange stains’ on his Armani suit lapels, and again in Lunar Park.

The book also continues to be regularly cited in discussions of censorship (see, for example, Dubin; Freccero) and has been included in a number of university-level courses about banned books. In these varied contexts, literary, cultural and other critics have also continued to disagree about the book’s impact upon readers, with some persisting in reading the novel as a pornographic incitement to violence. When Wade Frankum killed seven people in Sydney, many suggested a link between these murders and his consumption of X-rated videos, pornographic magazines and American Psycho (see, for example, Manne 11), although others argued against this (Wark 11). Prosecutors in the trial of Canadian murderer Paul Bernardo argued that American Psycho provided a ‘blueprint’ for Bernardo’s crimes (Canadian Press A5). Others have read Ellis’s work more positively, as for instance when Sonia Baelo Allué compares American Psycho favourably with Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988) – arguing that Harris not only depicts more degrading treatment of women, but also makes Hannibal Lecter, his antihero monster, sexily attractive (7-24). Linda S. Kauffman posits that American Psycho is part of an ‘anti-aesthetic’ movement in art, whereby works that are revoltingly ugly and/or grotesque function to confront the repressed fears and desires of the audience and explore issues of identity and subjectivity (Bad Girls), while Patrick W. Shaw includes American Psycho in his work, The Modern American Novel of Violence because, in his opinion, the violence Ellis depicts is not gratuitous.

Lost, however, in much of this often-impassioned debate and dialogue is the book itself – and what Ellis actually wrote. 21-years-old when Less than Zero was published, Ellis was still only 26 when American Psycho was released and his youth presented an obvious target. In 1991, Terry Teachout found ‘no moment in American Psycho where Bret Easton Ellis, who claims to be a serious artist, exhibits the workings of an adult moral imagination’ (45, 46), Brad Miner that it was ‘puerile – the very antithesis of good writing’ (43) and Carol Iannone that ‘the inclusion of the now famous offensive scenes reveals a staggering aesthetic and moral immaturity’ (54). Pagan Kennedy also ‘blamed’ the entire work on this immaturity, suggesting that instead of possessing a developed artistic sensibility, Ellis was reacting to (and, ironically, writing for the approval of) critics who had lauded the documentary realism of his violent and nihilistic teenage characters in Less than Zero, but then panned his less sensational story of campus life in The Rules of Attraction (427-428). Yet, in my opinion, there is not only a clear and coherent aesthetic vision driving Ellis’s oeuvre but, moreover, a profoundly moral imagination at work as well.

This was my view upon first reading American Psycho, and part of the reason I was so shocked by that charge of filth on the bus. Once familiar with the controversy, I found this view shared by only a minority of commentators. Writing in the New Statesman & Society, Elizabeth J. Young asked: ‘Where have these people been? … Books of pornographic violence are nothing new … American Psycho outrages no contemporary taboos. Psychotic killers are everywhere’ (24). I was similarly aware that such murderers not only existed in reality, but also in many widely accessed works of literature and film – to the point where a few years later Joyce Carol Oates could suggest that the serial killer was an icon of popular culture (233). While a popular topic for writers of crime fiction and true crime narratives in both print and on film, a number of ‘serious’ literary writers – including Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kate Millet, Margaret Atwood and Oates herself – have also written about serial killers, and even crossed over into the widely acknowledged as ‘low-brow’ true crime genre. Many of these works (both popular or more literary) are vivid and powerful and have, as American Psycho, taken a strong moral position towards their subject matter. Moreover, many books and films have far more disturbing content than American Psycho, yet have caused no such uproar (Young and Caveney 120).

By now, the plot of American Psycho is well known, although the structure of the book, noted by Weldon above (C1), is rarely analysed or even commented upon. First person narrator, Patrick Bateman, a young, handsome stockbroker and stereotypical 1980s yuppie, is also a serial killer. The book is largely, and innovatively, structured around this seeming incompatibility – challenging readers’ expectations that such a depraved criminal can be a wealthy white professional – while vividly contrasting the banal, and meticulously detailed, emptiness of Bateman’s life as a New York über-consumer with the scenes where he humiliates, rapes, tortures, murders, mutilates, dismembers and cannibalises his victims. Although only comprising some 16 out of 399 pages in my Picador edition, these violent scenes are extreme and certainly make the work as a whole disgustingly confronting. But that is the entire point of Ellis’s work. Bateman’s violence is rendered so explicitly because its principal role in the novel is to be inescapably horrific. As noted by Baelo Allué, there is no shift in tone between the most banally described detail and the description of violence (17): ‘I’ve situated the body in front of the new Toshiba television set and in the VCR is an old tape and appearing on the screen is the last girl I filmed. I’m wearing a Joseph Abboud suit, a tie by Paul Stuart, shoes by J. Crew, a vest by someone Italian and I’m kneeling on the floor beside a corpse, eating the girl’s brain, gobbling it down, spreading Grey Poupon over hunks of the pink, fleshy meat’ (Ellis 328). In complete opposition to how pornography functions, Ellis leaves no room for the possible enjoyment of such a scene. Instead of revelling in the ‘spine chilling’ pleasures of classic horror narratives, there is only the real horror of imagining such an act. The effect, as Kauffman has observed is, rather than arousing, often so disgusting as to be emetic (Bad Girls 249).

Ellis was surprised that his detractors did not understand that he was trying to be shocking, not offensive (Love 49), or that his overall aim was to symbolise ‘how desensitised our culture has become towards violence’ (quoted in Dwyer 55). Ellis was also understandably frustrated with readings that conflated not only the contents of the book and their meaning, but also the narrator and author: ‘The acts described in the book are truly, indisputably vile. The book itself is not. Patrick Bateman is a monster. I am not’ (quoted in Love 49). Like Fay Weldon, Norman Mailer understood that American Psycho posited ‘that the eighties were spiritually disgusting and the author’s presentation is the crystallization of such horror’ (129). Unlike Weldon, however, Mailer shied away from defending the novel by judging Ellis not accomplished enough a writer to achieve his ‘monstrous’ aims (182), failing because he did not situate Bateman within a moral universe, that is, ‘by having a murderer with enough inner life for us to comprehend him’ (182).

Yet, the morality of Ellis’s project is evident. By viewing the world through the lens of a psychotic killer who, in many ways, personifies the American Dream – wealthy, powerful, intelligent, handsome, energetic and successful – and, yet, who gains no pleasure, satisfaction, coherent identity or sense of life’s meaning from his endless, selfish consumption, Ellis exposes the emptiness of both that world and that dream. As Bateman himself explains: ‘Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in. This was civilisation as I saw it, colossal and jagged’ (Ellis 375). Ellis thus situates the responsibility for Bateman’s violence not in his individual moral vacuity, but in the barren values of the society that has shaped him – a selfish society that, in Ellis’s opinion, refused to address the most important issues of the day: corporate greed, mindless consumerism, poverty, homelessness and the prevalence of violent crime. Instead of pornographic, therefore, American Psycho is a profoundly political text: Ellis was never attempting to glorify or incite violence against anyone, but rather to expose the effects of apathy to these broad social problems, including the very kinds of violence the most vocal critics feared the book would engender.

Fifteen years after the publication of American Psycho, although our societies are apparently growing in overall prosperity, the gap between rich and poor also continues to grow, more are permanently homeless, violence – whether domestic, random or institutionally-sanctioned – escalates, and yet general apathy has intensified to the point where even the ‘ethics’ of torture as government policy can be posited as a subject for rational debate. The real filth of the saga of American Psycho is, thus, how Ellis’s message was wilfully ignored. While critics and public intellectuals discussed the work at length in almost every prominent publication available, few attempted to think in any depth about what Ellis actually wrote about, or to use their powerful positions to raise any serious debate about the concerns he voiced. Some recent critical reappraisals have begun to appreciate how American Psycho is an ‘ethical denunciation, where the reader cannot but face the real horror behind the serial killer phenomenon’ (Baelo Allué 8), but Ellis, I believe, goes further, exposing the truly filthy causes that underlie the existence of such seemingly ‘senseless’ murder.

But, Wait, There’s More

It is ironic that American Psycho has, itself, generated a mini-industry of products. A decade after publication, a Canadian team – filmmaker Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), working with scriptwriter, Guinevere Turner, and Vancouver-based Lions Gate Entertainment – adapted the book for a major film (Johnson). Starring Christian Bale, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon and, with an estimated budget of U.S.$8 million, the film made U.S.$15 million at the American box office. The soundtrack was released for the film’s opening, with video and DVDs to follow and the ‘Killer Collector’s Edition’ DVD – closed-captioned, in widescreen with surround sound – released in June 2005. lists four movie posters (including a Japanese language version) and, most unexpected of all, a series of film tie-in action dolls. The two most popular of these, judging by E-Bay, are the ‘Cult Classics Series 1: Patrick Bateman’ figure which, attired in a smart suit, comes with essential accoutrements of walkman with headphones, briefcase, Wall Street Journal, video tape and recorder, knife, cleaver, axe, nail gun, severed hand and a display base; and the 18” tall ‘motion activated sound’ edition – a larger version of the same doll with fewer accessories, but which plays sound bites from the movie.

Thanks to Stephen Harris and Suzie Gibson (UNE) for stimulating conversations about this book, Stephen Harris for information about the recent Australian reprint of American Psycho and Mark Seebeck (Pan Macmillan) for sales information.

Author Biography

Donna Lee Brien