In the span of one week in late 2018, Bret Easton Ellis realized his new book “White” was going to be galvanizing for its title alone.
“I showed the cover of the book to Rachel Kushner [the author of “The Mars Room”] on my iPhone, and she grabbed my wrist and squeezed and said ‘White? You’re calling it White?’” Ellis said via telephone from Los Angeles in early April.
“Then I was having dinner with an ex-boyfriend who is of Vietnamese and Irish descent — a very interesting look — and I never thought he was touchy about stuff like this. But again, he said ‘You can’t call your book this. First of all, it’s just a boring title. But also, come on!’ And he pushed himself away from the table.”
But Ellis insists that the title of “White,” which comes out on Tuesday, is not intended to be a provocation. It wasn’t even his first choice for what to name the book.
“The original title was ‘White Privileged Male,’ which I really liked,” said Ellis, who will be at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m. Friday April 19 to promote the book. “But my very liberal, Hollywood elite editor Matt Specktor thought that title was too jokey and would alienate people with the ‘Male’ and ‘Privileged’ in it.
“I ended up going with the shorter title, because it was more sweeping and it connected to Joan Didion’s ‘The White Album,’ which is my go-to book in terms of thinking about essays and how to write them,” Ellis said. “And I realized that if people’s buttons are going to get pushed by this title, then I’ve done my job. If you get triggered by this title, you’re absurd.”
Provocation has been part of the fabric of all of Ellis’ work, from his fiction (“Less Than Zero,” “American Psycho,” “Lunar Park,” “The Informers”) to his films (the notorious “The Canyons,” which was directed by Paul Schrader) to his ongoing “The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast,” which he launched in 2013.
But “White” is also an unusually candid book. The essays are brief, just a few pages each, and conversational in tone. The themes range between contemporary subjects (President Trump, “Black Panther,” Kanye West, the media, Quentin Tarantino, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo) and the formative influences on Ellis as a writer and a gay man (Pauline Kael, “American Gigolo,” Joan Didion, Stanley Kubrick).
The essays are also, of course, written from the perspective promised by the book’s title — a white privileged male. This point of view, Ellis argues in the book, has become anathema in a societal climate built on a “cult of likability” and “a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves.”
“Everyone has to be the same,” he writes, “and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.”
“White” is also devoid of satire, unless you read the entire thing as a work of satire. In the book, Ellis owns the media flare-ups his Tweets and comments have caused, but he doesn’t apologize for them. Although there is a performative aspect to the book’s prose — this is not a bare-all diary — Ellis addresses the reader directly, without the distance of a fictional narrative.
Take, for example, this passage from the book in which he revisits his inflammatory tweet from Dec. 2012 “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.
“Now I was trolling,” Ellis writes in the book. “And my desire was to have a good time, to be a provocative, somewhat outrageous and opinionated critic, to be a bad boy, a douche, to lead my own dance in this writer’s funhouse — all in 140 characters or less — and it became a problem for my Twitter self. The last thing Twitter seemed good for was to be ‘sensitive’ about anything, and I was often at odds with the notion that anyone could really, deeply care about a Tweet in the first place.”
Ellis eventually wrote a lengthy apology to Bigelow about the tweet. Today, Ellis doesn’t tweet as much as he used to. He admits to a new “trepidation” about sharing his thoughts via social media that he didn’t feel before. Instead, he uses his Twitter account primarily to promote his podcast.
“That’s where I’m at now,” he said. “On the podcast, I am able to talk about things with more nuance. Yes, the audience is tiny compared to Twitter. But it’s hard to be a public person — especially if you’re promoting something — and present your authentic self instead of a persona.
“I’m a little bit more careful about some things, I suppose,” he said. “But overall, I can’t erase my identity or the generation I’m from or what some of my thoughts and feelings are about certain things. It shouldn’t call for my head on a stick.”
The ‘Psycho’ controversy
At 55, Ellis is more than comfortable with controversy: He’s practically synonymous with it. He published “Less Than Zero,” his 1985 novel about the ruinous apathy and disillusionment among young people growing up in glitzy Los Angeles, when he was 21. The book’s depiction of privileged, zonked-out youth with irreparably damaged moral compasses turned Ellis into a Generation X figurehead, and the novel continues to be celebrated today.
Then came death threats and notoriety of the worst kind with the publication of “American Psycho” in 1991. The novel was a critique of late-1980s materialist, drug-addled Wall Street culture, punctuated by graphic descriptions of torture-murder that the book’s unreliable narrator, Patrick Bateman, may or may not have committed.
But the pre-release outcry over the novel’s horrific violence overshadowed its social commentary, leading its original publisher Simon & Schuster to cancel the book (Vintage Books stepped in and published it in trade paperback format).
One of Ellis’ friends and literary contemporaries — Jay McInerney, whose seminal novel “Bright Lights, Big City” was published the same year as “Less Than Zero” — has said that Ellis’ disdain for group-think and social media can be traced back to the furor over “American Psycho,” which instilled a permanent suspicion in the twenty-something Ellis about popular opinion.
“There might be some truth to that,” Ellis said. “But I don’t know if that was the moment when things flipped for me. I’ve always been somewhat of a contrarian and have seen the world differently. I would argue that realizing I was gay at the age of 6 or 7 and realizing that I was in a different world than everybody else had a lot more to do with it.
“Having to process the world on the sidelines, you do see reality in a way that your friends don’t. You’re reprocessing everything on a constant basis: This pop song, this movie, this novel. It ultimately moves you closer to the world even though you’re at a remove. You’re kind of like a secret agent. That’s built my world view and my outlook. And yet at the same time, I didn’t care about being gay. It’s a complicated thing.”
The Trump situation
Also complicated: Ellis’ stance on President Trump, a polarizing figure he has tracked since the 1980s.
“I’d made Donald Trump the hero of Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho,’” Ellis writes, “and researched more than a few of his odious business practices ... the young men, Wall Street guys, I hung out with as part of my initial research were enthralled by him. Trump was an inspiration figure, which troubled me in 1987 and 1988 and 1989, and also why he’s mentioned more than 40 times in the novel. He’s who Bateman is obsessed with, the daddy he never had, the man he wants to be.
“Maybe this was why I felt prepared when the country elected Trump as president; I once had known so many people who liked him, and I still did.”
Ellis is quick to point out that he did not vote for Trump. But he is fascinated by what he describes in the book as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” or the inability by his liberal friends to confront Trump’s presidency “without losing their minds,” as he puts it.
“Many people have it,” he said. “I saw it last night at dinner with two of my liberal friends. One is a writer on ‘VEEP’ and one worked at the Clinton White House. I casually mentioned I had been invited to dinner with Bill Maher and Ann Coulter tonight. I’m not going to go. I can’t make it. But at the mere mention of Ann Coulter, who is a friend of Maher’s, their faces twitched and they recoiled and said ‘What!’
“These are educated adults who have been around,” Ellis said. “I could not believe it. This is the question my boyfriend asks me all the time: How can I deal with Trump? I think there’s a destructive quality in him — not about policy — that is admirable. But I’m also not interested in politics.
“And I have to say, as a creative, that if someone like Trump can manage to trigger such a vast populace, he must be doing something right. The people I know who are hardcore Democrats and liberals are totally convinced he’s going to get reelected in 2020. No one is going to touch him. What’s going to happen for four more years? Won’t people have to calm down? What is it about him that is so awful?”
Ellis loses interest when you try to delve a little deeper into his political views. Ask him what he thinks about Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana and a married, gay millennial whose swelling popularity among Democrats could make him the party’s nominee for the 2020 presidential election, and he immediately sounds bored.
“I don’t know,” Ellis says flatly. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nice guy, I guess. I don’t know. It’s just the same platitudes. I think he thinks he’s a little more butch than he really is. I don’t know. I’m glad gay men are throwing their hats into the ring. But if you look at any of the Democratic candidates on display, they are all total duds and a real reflection of the problem with the Democratic party and what it’s representing.”
The early reviews of “White” have not been kind — The Washington Post praised aspects of the book but declared it “a self-defeating exercise” — and Ellis’ insouciant attitude toward the Trump administration backfired during a lacerating interview with the New Yorker published this week.
But Ellis has been in this situation before, and often. His unflappability in the face of furious criticism can sometimes seem like a gimmick, a put-on. But the truth may be much simpler — at least according to what Ellis writes on page 129 of “White”
“Laugh at everything, or you’ll end up laughing at nothing. As a young writer in Ireland, James Joyce realized, ‘I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.’”
“An Evening with Bret Easton Ellis” in conversation with Miami Herald writer Rene Rodriguez will take place at 8 p.m. Friday April 19 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets are $26 and include a copy of his book “White.” For more information, visit books and books.com or call 305-442-4408.