Gruesome Novel ‘American Psycho’ Hits Bookstores
“American Psycho,” the gruesome Bret Easton Ellis novel that sparked a storm of controversy after it was abruptly canceled by its original publisher and then rapidly acquired by another, quietly began arriving in bookstores this week, ahead of schedule.
For booksellers, it has caused consternation not seen since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” two years ago.
One West Hollywood bookstore has gone so far as to insert a disclaimer into each copy of the paperback original saying, “Dear Reader: Book Soup is making this book available to you because of our commitment to the doctrine of freedom of expression. This should not be construed to be an endorsement of the contents.”
Sensitive to the criticism, the publisher, Vintage Books, printed a relatively modest 65,000 copies of “Psycho,” refrained from sending press releases along with reviewers’ copies, and plans to keep its young author off the talk shows. “There was a conscious decision to publish as tastefully as we can,” said Katy Barrett, spokeswoman for Vintage, a division of Random House.
The 399-page novel chronicles the experiences of Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old investment banker from a wealthy family who leads an empty, aimless life but is obsessed with designer products. After blinding and stabbing a homeless man, the narrator goes on to talk in flat, impersonal tones how he tortures and kills several other people.
“This is a world in which the elegance of a business card evokes more emotional response than the murder of a child,” wrote Nora Rawlinson in an early review in the trade publication Library Journal.
Barrett denied that Vintage, which had earlier intended to publish the book in April, timed its actual distribution to the ground war in the Persian Gulf in the hope of minimizing publicity, as several booksellers surmised. “You can make a connection with the war but I don’t think it’s really accurate,” she said.
In a prominent disclaimer of its own, Vintage states in the book that the narrative, which is dotted with names of products consumed and worn by its affluent narrator, is not intended “to disparage any company’s products or services.” Barrett said this was unrelated to efforts by the National Organization for Women to alert several manufacturers that their products were mentioned in some of the more graphic torture scenes.
A “camel-hair coat from Ralph Lauren,” for example, is used in the book to stifle the screams of a woman whose hands have just been nailed to a board, but the clothing company has chosen not to become involved in the dispute. “We haven’t read the book, and we’re not in a position to comment,” said a spokeswoman for Ralph Lauren.
Barrett said a reference to the author’s being employed by American Express’ Shearson unit was deleted by Simon & Schuster, the publishing house that decided to drop the book last November, one month before its scheduled release. Ellis was able to keep his $300,000 advance and picked up a second advance for an undisclosed sum from Vintage.
The book became a cause celebre when several writers and the president of the Authors Guild accused Simon & Schuster of censorship. Further fueling the controversy was the announcement last December by NOW’s Los Angeles chapter of a boycott of Vintage and Knopf, both Random House divisions headed by Sonny Mehta, who made the decision to publish “Psycho.”
“We have never seen the kind or degree of hatred toward women that is involved in this book,” said Tammy Bruce, head of the NOW chapter, which is also spearheading a campaign to leaflet in front of stores carrying the book. Rather than try to prevent customers from buying “Psycho,” NOW will try to educate the public about why such a book is harmful to women, she added.
But the Library Journal review took issue with the charge that “Psycho” is merely pornography. “It is a serious novel that comments on a society that has become inured to suffering,” Rawlinson wrote.
Newsweek, while describing Ellis’ writing abilities as “only passably good,” also said the book is more “than an exercise in extreme sexual violence.”
For many booksellers, the issue was not fear of protest but a genuine dilemma over how to handle such an explosive book.
After polling its 800 stores, B. Dalton found that 98% wanted to sell the book, though 90% said it should not be publicized, according to spokeswoman Donna Passannante. The Waldenbooks chain issued a press release saying, “We believe in the right of an individual to make his or her own choice with regard to reading material.”
Several independent booksellers said they were not displaying the book prominently and had ordered fewer copies than they might have. One merchant, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was keeping copies near the cash register not to push them but to make sure they don’t get stolen.
Before ordering five copies, Terry Baker, co-owner of the mystery annex of Small World Books in Venice, said she had read everything that she could find on the controversy surrounding the book. Though she does not approve of it, “If I do not carry this book, I believe I’m participating in censorship,” she explained.
But Davis Dutton, owner of Dutton’s in North Hollywood, said he will not decide whether to order the book until he has a chance to read it. “I make these decisions all the time,” he said, challenging the notion that censorship is involved.
Glenn Goldman, owner of Book Soup, which ordered an undisclosed number of books and stuffed them with disclaimers, blamed NOW for the interest in the book. Within a day of its arrival, the store sold 18 copies, he said.
“If you’re talking about women’s civil rights, it’s probably better to have as little publicity as possible,” he said.