Late in 1990, Richard Snyder, chief executive of Simon & Schuster, read a book for which his firm had paid a large advance of $300,000.
It was a novel entitled American Psycho by a writer in his mid-twenties, Bret Easton Ellis.
Presumable Snyder had not read it before, but he was warned of the book’s contents by a Time article describing its scenes of torture and mutilation – including forcing a starving rat into the genitalia of a prostitute. Snyder quickly decided not to publish the novel; within a day, however, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, snapped it up and expected to sell out its first printing of 150,000 copies.
Handbook for murder
Yet from the first, American publishing insiders called it “the book from hell.”
The book has been called a handbook for the mutilation and murder of women.
The novel’s central character, Patrick Bateman, is a 27-year-old Wall Street investment banker who engages in a number of revolting activities, including the dismemberment of his sexual partners.
Author Ellis defends his story on the grounds of art; interviewed by the New York Times, he maintained that he “used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade.”
Violence against women
But after the first long drawn-out detailed description of sexual mutilation, wrote one critic, the novel loses its way: the remaining 150-odd pages are simply going back to the refrigerator for more frozen body parts. The reviewers are agreed in fact that the book is a grisly oddity, a novel without any literary merit at all.
Yet H.J. Kirchoff of the Globe and Mail defended it as at least encouraging people to about the issue of violence against women. Women thought differently. Tammy Bruce of the National Organization of Women organized a boycott not only of American Psycho, but of all other Random House books (except those by certified feminists). She regarded the novel as a symbolic target as Philop Marchand of the Toronto Star showed by quoting her at length:
“American Psycho is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s being propagated in the media. You can’t go to a bookstore or watch a television show or even pick up a detective novel without seeing a woman being beaten or dismembered or raped.
“We want to put into perspective that violence against women is of epic proportions. U.S. culture is the most violent in the western hemisphere. And images portrayed in the media are a direct contributory factor.”
Paradoxically, however, Bruce was relieved when she heard that Canada Customs, which had at first held up the book, had decided to release it: “The bottom line is that this book has been published and the ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the consumers.”
Similarly Ann McGrath of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women put forward a resolution expressing disapproval of any ban by Customs.
Alberta novelist Aritha van Herk said, “As a feminist I’m against pornography, but I’m also against censorship in any form.” Montreal feminist Dana Hearne made a similar comment: “I hate the idea that this book exists in the first place, but I can’t support a move that says, ‘We must ban everything we don’t like the sound of.”
Other women showed more sense. Elizabeth Kennedy, president of the Montreal’s Women’s Centre, told the Gazette that “We have to go beyond saying, ‘There can’t be any restrictions.’ Where violence is used against women, or where children are involved, we feel that federal legislation with a clear definition of pornography should be applied.”
Mona Forrest, executive director of the Montreal Women’s Centre, declared that “We shouldn’t sacrifice women’s safety for a theoretical concept (of free speech).”
In other words, the controversy over this book has produced the usual type of confusion, in which the literati of the U.S. and Canada show how frightened they are by a three-syllable word: censorship. One well-known Toronto writer wrote a letter to the Globe saying that he knew American Psycho was garbage, but he reserved the right to throw it into the garbage can himself.
If it is as offensive as most of the reviewers say it is, why was this novel published?
Individual taste may be involved, but so is the common good.
It should hardly be necessary to contend that books have effects, and that books depicting grotesque and grisly violence against women may affect the way women are viewed in our society and may increase the possibility of harm to them.
It is high time for Canadian authors to stop their knee-jerk reaction every time the word ‘censorship’ is mentioned, and to begin the serious consideration of what limits should be placed on offensive garbage.