In 1991 Bret Easton Ellis published his controversial second novel, American Psycho, at age 26. After 53 trips back to press, it has sold more than a million copies in the U.S. and been published in numerous international editions. Despite a rapidly changing cultural landscape, American Psycho continues to be relevant—it was published by Vintage in e-book format and is being developed into a Broadway play. For a book that almost never was, who could have imagined two decades later that people would still be dressing up as the iconic antihero, Patrick Bateman, for Halloween? PW caught up with Ellis to talk about how this straight-to-paperback book stays eerily present 20 years after it was first released.
What do you think it is about American Psycho that's kept it in print?
It's strange how that character has been co-opted into the culture in a way that he absolutely wasn't in 1991. Patrick Bateman seems to embody something about masculinity that was blooming at a certain point in the late '80s to early '90s. This kind of damnification of the male. This obsession with male narcissism and beauty. Men being looked at in a way that women had been looked at for decades. American Psycho was probably the first novel about a metrosexual. And of course that's now everywhere.
So the character is an early sign of the zeitgeist of sorts?
There is something other than that. Whenever I am asked to talk American Psycho, I have to remember why I was writing it at the time and what it meant to me. A lot of it had to do with my frustration with having to become an adult and what it meant to be an adult male in American society. I didn't want to be one, because all it was about was status. Consumerist success was really the embodiment of what it meant to be a cool guy—money, trophy girlfriends, nice clothes, and cool cars. It all seemed extremely shallow to me. Yet at the same time you have an urge to conform. You want to be part of the group. You don't want to be shunned. So when I was writing that book as a young man, I was having this battle with conforming to what was then yuppiedom—the yuppie lifestyle—going to restaurants and trying to fit in. I think American Psycho was ultimately my argument about this.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about this stage of life, now termed Emerging Adulthood. Would you say American Psycho's rooted in the kind of distress now associated with this stage?
As I get older and the book moves further away from me, I can put it in some perspective. There aren't a lot of books like American Psycho. It seems to me to be an extremely autobiographical novel in a lot of ways despite it being about a supposed psychopath. I was kind of lost in that, trying to figure out, where was this pain coming from. Why was I at this stage in my life where I felt very lost and confused about what the future was going to mean to me. The writer writes the book for his own reason and he's working out something. In my case, it's usually very personal things.
The book was hugely controversial even before it was published. Do you think it would stir the same controversy in this day and age?
No. It's a different world. It's a different literary world. The time span from when the manuscript was leaked to the press by angry people working at Simon & Schuster to when the book was actually published lasted as a news story for about four months. We were not as technologically advanced as we are now—stories play themselves out in 18 to 24-hour cycles. After the book was published, and people read it, the controversy stopped. I also don't think you can replicate that kind of controversy now because of the nature of the media, and, on some level, the nature of how we as a collective audience react to novels and to long-form fiction or serious fiction. It doesn't matter to us as much as it once did. I could go on my rant on how the big literary novel doesn't matter anymore, but then everyone brings up Freedom. It's not like there are 20 Freedoms out there—there's one. And there's not 12 Jonathan Franzens wondering around.
Did people understand [that it was a satire] once they read it?
Well, no, a lot of people still hated it. I think 99% of all those reviews were negative—at first. Then Fay Weldon wrote a review of it for the Washington Post—but that was months later. There were one or two positive reviews, but it was [almost] universally panned.
How much did the reviews matter? In the book, the characters seem to pay a lot of attention to reviews of, say, restaurants or music. Do you think reviews hold the same value now?
Right, now, that is not the case. People will read people on certain topics, but everyone thinks they are kind of an expert about things now. [Then,] it didn't really matter because the book was sort of review proof because of the controversy, so when it first came out, it was a bestseller. Sales were whatever they were, and then they dropped. They didn't really pick up until a year later when people saw that it wasn't really how the press presented it—with all that controversy describing hundreds and hundreds of pages of torture and death and blood and this is what people were expecting from the book. People started to talk about the book, and they also started to talk about how funny it was—when I was writing the book I remember thinking it was a black comedy. It's like 400 pages of social satire and people eating in restaurants and the guy with the various women in his lives and whatever. And its reputation began to change. The movie version helped change the reputation, too. And it all changed to the point that American Psycho is now considered an acceptable part of the culture.
It's definitely a present part of the culture. Patrick Bateman is one of the most recognizable characters in fiction. Would a Patrick Bateman be able to exist today?
Yes, that character has for some reason somehow resonated with audiences 20 years later. I think Patrick Batemans have existed throughout history. I don't think Patrick Bateman was something that was just invented in 1989. There's got to be something universal about him and what he's going through—regardless of how autobiographical and personal I felt it was. Obviously, what I was feeling was what a lot of other people were feeling. Someone could create a Patrick Bateman right now and a novel about Patrick Bateman circa 2011—I just don't know if anyone would read it.
I imagine you get a lot of attention from fans. What sort of things do you see a lot?
I cannot tell you how many times young men have come up to me and showed me on their phones pictures of them dressed as Patrick Bateman for Halloween. I see fake business cards all the time—people send me those as well. I am not sick of any of it. The fact that we are even talking about this book now is still surprising to me.
It's kind of gratifying that we are even having this conversation. As a writer, a book you wrote 20 years ago is still being discussed, and Publishers Weekly is calling you up wanting to talk about the 20th anniversary of it. That's kind of crazy. How could I say that's not cool? So I am not sick of any of it. I think the fact that people come up to me and tell me they really like the book or send me stuff on Facebook or Twitter about how much the book meant for them is totally cool.
Are you doing anything special for the 20th anniversary?
Nope, nothing. I think the book speaks for itself.