Bret Easton Ellis used to be famous for his controversial 1991 novel American Psycho. Now he’s infamous for being an American asshole: a Trump-loving, racist and sexist white guy. What happened? Social media happened: too many late-night tequila-lubricated tweets, controversial podcasts and celebrity profiles that caused the Twittersphere to go berserk with outrage. Ellis, in the 1980s a cool young member of the literary brat pack, has become, say his liberal-minded critics, an old, grumpy reactionary.
In White, his first work of non-fiction, Ellis presents himself as a fearless free-speech advocate fighting against ‘liberal fascists’, ‘whiney’ millennials, online censorship, intolerance, political correctness and the ‘authoritarian’ stranglehold of corporate culture on the American mind and art. The book is also a memoir covering his career as a novelist and his life as a celebrity, hanging out with the hip crowd in New York and LA. But where is the juicy gossip, where are the zinging, bitchy one-liners that one longs for? For a self-proclaimed bad boy, he is too nice about everyone – except liberals.
The topics he covers are interesting – art, culture, films, actors, social media, politics – but the thinking is thin and lazy. It’s all assertion and no analysis. That works fine in a blog, but a book demands persuasion and not just a relentless flow of opinion. It also could have done with some judicious editing. His long and detailed descriptions of American Psycho, various screenplays he’s written and projects he’s been involved in will surely be of interest to Ellis fanboys only.
He writes a lot about pop culture figures from the 1980s who aren’t really on the radar any more but are still close to his heart. Is anyone really interested in Judd Nelson (remember The Breakfast Club?), Molly Ringwald (ditto), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) or Richard Gere in American Gigolo? Okay, I confess I am! And there is much to enjoy here. It’s actually refreshing to read a novelist who spends more time discussing the music of The Bangles than the works of Bellow or Updike. But how many pages on the life and cultural significance of Charlie Sheen can one reader take?
Of course, Ellis is right to rage against the attempt to purge American popular culture and public discourse of anything that might cause offence or trigger hurt. A culture that has been made safe and sanitised by removing anything dark, difficult or controversial – one that doesn’t fit the Manichaean world-view of social justice warriors – isn’t a culture worth having. And his irritation with the ‘cult of victimization’, infantilisation, identity politics and liberal snobbery is easy to sympathise with.
The main problem is that this has all been said before – and is still said all the time. It’s the refrain constantly heard in conservative and centre-right publications (like The Spectator), both here and in the USA. Cultural commentators from Camille Paglia to Jordan Peterson have repeatedly said the same thing. Ellis has brought nothing new to this critique. I wish he had spent more time analysing the underlying causes of what he condemns, instead of merely criticising ‘virtue signaling’ and ‘moral hypocrisy’.
Ellis likes to presents himself as a great opponent of intolerance, a champion of free debate and civil disagreement. But he’s guilty of his own brand of intolerance. Anyone who complains too vociferously about Trump is instantly dismissed as a ‘spoilt’ baby who needs to get ‘sedated’, grow up, stop whining and get over it. Poor Bret is always having drinks and dinners with these sorts of people. We hear time and again that he was having a nice evening with old friends or new contacts when someone at the table embarked on a rabid anti-Trump rant and ruined his evening. The bastards.
The curious thing about White is that the America Ellis is dissecting and his angry feelings of alienation from it would be fertile grounds for a great novel. It’s the classic fish out of water, stranger in a strange land scenario that has always been his forte.