The transgressive novel, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis received conflicting views from audiences and critics when first released in 1991 and continues to spark debate amongst academics as to whether it should be considered an artistic postmodern text or misogynist novel that celebrates violence against women. The narrative features a first-person perspective and focuses on the double life of Wall Street yuppie, Patrick Bateman, an investment banker by day and gruesome serial killer by night.
Author, Bret Easton Ellis came to prominence in the 1980s for his transgressive and post-punk style of writing, known today as ‘blank generation fiction’. The blank fiction genre focused on subversive youth who indulged or participated in crime, alcohol, sex, violence, and drugs, often struggling to come to terms with their own identities amidst a burgeoning consumerist America (Annesley 1998). The genre utilised satirical elements, black humour, dull and minimalistic prose, to best represent the raw and gritty nature of current life.
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in the 2000 film adaptation of ‘American Psycho’ © Alamy
The American Library Association claimed that the book was one of the most challenged books of the nineties. From the beginning of its release, the book caused major controversy when the original publisher, Simon and Schuster decided to reject it after giving Ellis an advance of $300,000, stating that it went against the company’s values of what a book should articulate. However, amidst complaints of "corporate censorship" Vintage Books bought American Psycho within 48hrs of its rejection from Simon and Schuster (Ettler 2013).
As Patrick Bateman’s insanity continues to become more intense throughout the story – simple stabbings turn into prolonged scenes of rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and necrophilia which are written in meticulous detail – it is clear why restrictions of sales and discussions over censorship were prominent at the time. The extent to which the violence and objectification of women was showcased in the story and how Bateman justified these actions were major reasons for censorship. For example, in one cannibalistic scene, Bateman rationalises his brutal actions by remarking "though it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I'm doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing" (Ellis 1991:345).
However, within the United States, the controversy surrounding the book eventually died down, and despite boycotts and death threats towards the author still occurring today, it has never been completely banned. The majority of the American literary establishment (as well as audiences) argued that the book could influence readers in a negative way, implying that it gave people permission to commit violence or contribute to violence. But there were writers, alongside a few literary critics, who claimed that banning the book was an unnecessary act of censorship since its overall intention was not to promote violence but rather condemn it (Study 2014).
The book continues to be prohibited or restricted in several countries. In Germany the book was banned until 2000, as it was deemed to be ‘harmful to minors’ (Salvatierra 2016). Whilst Australian and New Zealand national censorship legislations continue to classify American Psycho as ‘R18’ and it must be shrink-wrapped when sold at bookstores or when borrowed from libraries (Forbes 2014). At the time of publication, it was banned completely in the state of Queensland – technically it is still banned under the law but is not enforced as it previously was and can still be purchased in state-wide bookstores to those over 18.
The feminist debate surrounding the novel’s misogynistic elements was of key concern. Many feminists interpreted the novel as an example of Susan Faludi’s anti-feminist backlash that came to prominence in the eighties and nineties. Upon publication, The National Organisation for Women (NOW) called for a boycott of the book. President of NOW’s L.A. chapter, Tammy Bruce, claimed that the novel was "not art" and discredited Ellis as "a sick young man with a deep hatred of women who will do anything for a fast buck." (Ettler 2013:68). Furthermore, there were mixed reactions amongst audiences and journalists with reviews by The New York Times and The Guardian criticising the book’s content and "poor writing".
Novelists and authors who advocated for free speech in literature, were the ones to defend Ellis’s novel over censorship, praising the book for its postmodern style and noted that because the story was so overly exaggerated, nobody would consider it a truthful account or something to be taken seriously. As the author, Ellis mentioned, "I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface—food, clothes—that is what defined people" (Ellis 1991).
"Extreme lives are all around us, every day, and fiction must reflect them, too."
Hanya Yanagihara, The Guardian 2019
Should it be censored today?
Personally, I have a mixed opinion about the novel’s censorship but believe Australia’s restrictions against the sale of American Psycho to those under 18 was justified. As a feminist, I can’t ignore the ‘pornography vs art’ debate. Radical feminist, Gail Dines (2013) states how it is "impossible to have real gender justice in the world when there is porn widely available that showcases dehumanising, body punishing, and brutal sex, that is basically about misogyny and woman hating" (Porn Wars. Dines, Cannold, Holden & Lumby 2013). She explained that boys as young as eleven view porn online, and fears that having access to this content can shape them to view women in such a way when they are older. I agree with Dines’s statements and her stance against ‘gonzo’ pornography in distorting the minds of children. As Plato mentions in The Republic, "a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal", and thus I believe that Australia’s restrictions and rules for shrink-wrapping the text upon sale seem adequate and responsible for protecting a child’s innocence.
However, as a writer of transgressive fiction myself, I do not think the book should have been banned completely (as it was in Germany and the state of Queensland). As mentioned earlier, I acknowledge that the depiction of violence towards women is extreme, but the novel can also be viewed as a postmodern allegory that portrays the commodification of the female body in a patriarchal society. Today, postmodern academics and critics look upon the novel with enthusiasm as it showcased parodic representations of society at its darkest; a type of deadpan satire, that utilised laconic voice, and repulsive nature, to successfully present a glutinous reflection of a society that indulged in materialism and self-obsession.
In addition, using Susan Sontag’s ideas on distinguishing art from pornography, I would not consider American Psycho to be a pornographic text (as most critiques claim). The book does not intend to arouse the reader sexually, there is a distinct beginning, middle and end, and Bateman engages in fully formed relationships with characters. Ultimately, there is an underlining story that shines through the graphic depictions of violence.
Ellis essentially opened up a critical discussion over the representation of violence within fiction. As Larvor states, "the only way to correct such mistakes is yet more experience and critical discussion" (2006:1). Therefore, the existing arguments from various feminists and factions provided a critique on the representations of women by male authors whilst also improving public awareness of gender equality and re-igniting the pornography debate within art.
Let me know what you think in the comments. Should American Psycho be banned?
Annesley, J (1998), Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel, Pluto Press, London, United Kingdom.
Benedictus, L 2019, ‘Would American Psycho be published today? How shocking books have changed with their readers’, The Guardian, weblog post, 2 May, retrieved 25 August 2021, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/02/has-fiction-lost-its-edge-american-psycho-bret-easton-ellis-leila-slimani>.
Ellis, B. E 1991, American Psycho, Vintage Books, New York, United States.
Cohen, R 1991, ‘Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of American Psycho’, New York Times, 6 March 1991.
Ettler, J 2013, ‘The Best Ellis for Business: A Re-Examination of the Mass Media Feminist Critique of American Psycho’, PhD English thesis, University of Sydney, retrieved 23 August 2021, University of Sydney Database.
Forbes, D 2014, ‘Fahrenheit 2014: 11 Books That are Still Banned Today’, Airship Daily, weblog post, 21 January, retrieved 24 August 2021, <http://airshipdaily.com/blog/01212014-11-books-banned-today>.
Larvor, B 2006, On Liberty of Thought and Discussion, University of Hertfordshire Research Archive, retrieved 25 August 2021, <https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/2312/902438.pdf?sequence=1>.
Plato. And Lee, H 1974, The Republic, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Porn Wars. Dines, Cannold, Holden & Lumby 2013, YouTube, Schwartz Media, 3 May, retrieved 24 August 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spDVaIkktU8&t=2686s.
Salvatierra, P 2016, ‘Banned Books: American Psycho’, Sla Media, weblog post, 1 November, retrieved 25 August 2021, <https://www.slamedia.org/topmenu/american-psycho-review/>.
Study.com 2014, Why was American Psycho banned?, Study.com, retrieved 25 August 2021, <https://study.com/academy/answer/why-was-american-psycho-banned.html>.