Free Speech Protects Even an ‘American Psycho’
I am not sensitive.
Or rather: I am not sensitive in the politically correct sense of the word.
I like red meat, rare. I eat veal, sometimes twice a week. My wife has a fur coat; I think she looks terrific in it. And, if a cure for cancer can be found in the mass slaughter of white rats, then, I say, let the little buggers go to the wall.
I smoke cigars. I like whiskey with color in it. I prefer red wine to white and wine of any sort to mineral water. I believe in beer and big families.
But, most important, I believe that freedom of speech is the necessary, although not sufficient, condition of societal decency. The mere existence of free expression does not, of course, guarantee that a society will, at any given moment, behave decently. The absence of such liberty, however, is a characteristic of every society whose behavior is utterly depraved.
For that reason alone, speech--even when it is offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, blasphemous or just plain hurtful--demands protection. A minority of Americans, those who persistently confuse authority with authoritarianism, long have dissented from this notion. But for most of us, it has, for some decades at least, been one of those self-evident truths.
That is no longer the case. And the fault line along which consensus most sharply divides is the new conception of sensitivity. This is the notion that distasteful, hurtful speech, particularly that of the majority, can itself be an act of oppression. According to this view, those who are relatively powerless--say, women, racial minorities or religious fundamentalists--should not suffer the consequences of liberty become license.
The best known of the recent cases in which this new sensibility has played a part is that of Bret Easton Ellis and his novel, “American Psycho.” The book was dropped by his then-publisher, Simon & Schuster, because it contained graphic descriptions of the protagonist’s murder, mutilation and sexual abuse--often in that order--of eight women, nine men, a child and various animals. When another publisher, Knopf, acquired the book, the National Organization for Women began an organized protest, including a boycott.
“American Psycho” has been in the stores for several weeks, and recently I discussed the case with two friends who have made a profession of literature.
One, writer and bookseller Diane Leslie, had hoped that Dutton’s bookstore, where she works, would make the novel available on loan but not sell it. The other, writer David Rieff, formerly a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has criticized “American Psycho” as a work of literature but has strongly defended Ellis’ right to publish it and see it sold.
Some of the points Leslie and Rieff made during our talk are counterposed here:
Leslie: “I haven’t read the book. I first became aware of it when I read that Simon & Schuster had decided not to publish. I thought, ‘Good for them.’ Then, following the story through the newspapers, we realized that we would have to decide whether or not to carry the book. We had several discussions about it.
“To me, it’s a question of taste, not a censorship issue. We all know that a lot of publishers have refused to publish books for a lot of reasons less valid. We didn’t feel threatened. It was just a question of whether we wanted to carry something that is cruel to women.”
Rieff: “Americans like to turn something that is broad into an anecdote. The point about this book is that, taken on its own, it is no more objectionable than, say, Thomas Harris’ ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ After all, what is being claimed is that depictions of violence against women are themselves an incitement to violence against women and others.
“But the reason that the Ellis furor happened was not because people concerned with this tendency read the book and decided against it. It happened because they had this anecdote in their hands. This anecdote being that Simon & Schuster decided to cancel the deal with Ellis, and Knopf decided to buy the book.
“When people think about these questions these days in this country, there always has to be a demon and, in this case, it is Ellis. It’s as if Americans no longer can think seriously about questions in which personality isn’t everything.”
Leslie: “What I had suggested was that our store buy a couple of copies and just loan them to people who want to order it. That way, we wouldn’t have to sell it. But we finally decided by consensus to initially order five copies of the book, which is rather low.
“Of those, two were purchased by female employees of the store and one was bought by a collector of banned books. He was asked, by the way, whether he was going to read it, and he said, ‘Oh, no. I just need it for my collection.’ ”
Rieff: “It has not been demonstrated that books like ‘American Psycho’ cause anybody to do anything. I think they tend to reflect rather than encourage whatever one finds deplorable about this society.
“The comedy in all this is that liberals talk about pluralism, but they don’t seem to mean it. If plurality of expression means anything, it includes unwelcome expression.
“I’m not a fan of the book, which is a bad book. The misunderstanding it has engendered is testimony to Ellis’ inability to write it as well as such a book would have to be written. Far from seeming like an incitement, I find those gruesome murder scenes preposterous. It’s mutilation by the numbers.”
Leslie: “I’ve read so many reviews of this book that I’m already bored with it without ever having to read it. I’m never going to read a book that includes torture of women. For that reason, I’m not going to see ‘Silence of the Lambs’ either. I don’t like gore, and I don’t like torture. There are so many worthwhile books that I haven’t read yet that I’ve decided to do that first.”
Rieff: “The appropriate response to this controversy is that Bret Ellis is an American writer and he has an absolute right to do whatever he pleases. That’s the point of being an American writer. And if we’re going to change those rules, then let’s talk about that--and what it could mean.”
I have read “American Psycho,” and I think that its most notable characteristic is its rather remarkable fusion of viciousness and artless prose. I defend Ellis’ right to publish it, but I don’t want my daughter to go out with him.
Maybe that is a kind of sensitivity.