‘Psycho’ Drama

Simon & Schuster decided that Bret Easton Ellis’s new slice-and-dice novel was too loathsome to print — but Knopf snapped it right up.

Studio portrait of author Bret Easton Ellis. Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Studio portrait of author Bret Easton Ellis. Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Studio portrait of author Bret Easton Ellis. Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

There were the literary lions of New York — publishing and social stars all — preening at the black-tie gala at the Public Library last month. And there — like a skunk lurking at a garden party — was the … problemAmerican Psycho, the misogynistic new novel by 26-year-old Bret Easton Ellis that Simon & Schuster was going to publish in January.

As Brooke Astor and Mercedes Bass and their peers chatted up E. L. Doctorow and Jerzy Kosinski and their peers, Dick Snyder, the taut CEO of S&S, took Binky Urban, Ellis’s agent, aside.

Only two weeks earlier, Time magazine had published a scathing condemnation of American Psycho, calling it a “childish horror fantasy about a Wall Street yuppie whose tastes run from nouvelle cuisine to the most appalling acts of torture, murder, and dismemberment ever described in a book targeted for the bestseller lists.” The piece included one brutally graphic paragraph describing the vivisection of a young woman, and said the book had caused a big row at Simon & Schuster. Even more damaging was a piece in the December issue of Spy, with lengthy, horrifically violent quotes from Ellis’s novel, back to back with a story about a “purge” at Paramount, S&S’s parent company.

Urban was upset about the leaks. Snyder says she told him that if S&S was unhappy with American Psycho, she could take it to a number of other publishers. (Most of them hadn’t actually read the book, although purloined manuscripts and a few bound galleys were making the rounds.) The dinner gong interrupted them. American Psycho would just have to wait until after the literary lions feasted. The Psycho drama kept building. A week later, in a move that shocked the publishing world, Simon & Schuster announced that it was canceling the book, with the enthusiastic endorsement of Paramount. Within 48 hours, Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf and Vintage, sent out a press release announcing that he had acquired the novel, which would be published in the Vintage Contemporaries series.

A lot of people immediately concluded that Martin Davis, Paramount’s pugnacious chairman, had killed American Psycho. “Corporate censorship!” cried First Amendment enthusiasts. Davis and Snyder insisted that although they’d discussed the problem, Davis hadn’t called the shot: Snyder said he’d made it alone, based on “taste.”

Ellis was instantly elevated to the pantheon of culture victims, right up there with Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, and 2 Live Crew. “What is involved here is a giant corporation responding to prepublication controversy and strong-arming its publishing division into abandoning its own tradition of fearless publishing,” said Urban. Ellis said he was “completely stunned and disappointed.” The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women set up a hotline to spur a nationwide campaign to boycott Random House, Knopf’s parent. Besides phone numbers for Random House chairman, Alberto Vitale, Mehta, and Urban, the hot line even offers a recitation of a painfully graphic paragraph from the book. Publishers Weekly held forth in an editorial damning nearly everybody associated with the fiasco.

A “black day for American publishing,” proclaimed Robert Massie, president of the Authors Guild. Actually, the Psycho saga isn’t about censorship at all. Instead, it’s an illuminating tale of the book business in the nineties — in its way a lot more interesting than Ellis’s tortured manuscript.

The players are some of the most powerful people in publishing. Dick Snyder, the 57-year-old head of $1.4-billion Simon & Schuster, is a 30-year-veteran of the firm. Snyder has survived any number of past crises, including his own messy divorce proceedings from publisher Joni Evans. (After the split, Evans left the imprint she had been given by Snyder at S&S and became publisher of arch-rival Random House — until last month, when she was replaced by Harry Evans; now she’ll have her own imprint.) The Dick-and-Joni wars took their toll; some people date the friction between Davis and Snyder to the juicy press about the divorce.

Binky Urban, 43, once an administrative aide at New York, is one of a handful of literary superagents, with a string of authors including John le Carré, Jay McInerney, Richard Ford, Allan Gurganus, and Tom McGuane. Elegant and remote, Sonny Mehta, 48, who took over Knopf when Robert Gottlieb went to The New Yorker, has dodged all sorts of bullets in his three and a half years in New York, including rumors that he was going to be fired, and the surprise departure of Random House chief Bob Bernstein. And then there’s Bret Easton Ellis, who at twenty became a star when he published Less Than Zero, a disturbing novel about drugged-out teenagers in L.A.

Ellis’s story begins in 1982, when he was a freshman at Bennington about to be kicked out for his bad grades. But he was also a prize pupil in the writing workshop taught by Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vision and other best-sellers. McGinniss sent Ellis’s work to Morgan Entrekin, a young editor at Simon & Schuster, who encouraged Ellis to write a novel. McGinniss also sent some of Ellis’s essays to Robert Asahina, who was then an editor at Harper’s Magazine.

Ellis plugged away for a year at his bildungsroman. It was McGinniss who helped trim the 400-page draft of Less Than Zero to 200 pages and who then submitted it to S&S. In 1983, Asahina became a senior editor at S&S, and he and Entrekin brought the book to the attention of the editorial board. Even then, Ellis’s work prompted a stir. One editor fired off a sarcastic memo: “If there’s a novel for coke-snorting zombies, by all means, let’s buy the book.” Ellis got a $5,000 advance.

Recalls Urban, who became Ellis’s agent not long after Less Than Zero was sold to S&S by Sterling Lord, “I was reading this manuscript and my two-year-old daughter came into the room, and I instinctively hid it behind my back. I thought, If this book makes me do that, if it’s that powerful, I have to represent this writer.”

Entrekin was supposed to edit the book, but when he left S&S to start his own imprint at Atlantic Monthly Press, Bob Asahina inherited the job. The novel was Asahina’s first real taste of editing fiction, and it was exhilarating. The book became a best-seller. S&S sold 75,000 hardcover copies the first year, and when Penguin published Less Than Zero in paperback, the first printing was 100,000 copies. Ellis joined the literary Brat Pack along with Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz (to whom he pays homage in American Psycho.) In 1985, thanks in part to the success of Less Than Zero, Asahina was promoted to vice-president of the S&S trade division.

In 1987, Ellis published a second book, The Rules of Attraction. This time, his gang of drugged, debauched, and consumer-crazed kids were college students on a campus not unlike Bennington. The book was a critical and commercial flop. “They lost money on it,” says a source at Penguin.
Asahina, 40, is considered brilliant, ambitious, and, say some ex-colleagues, hard to take — something of a young-fogey conservative. Most of the books he has worked on have been fairly mainstream, among them The Closing of the American Mind, academic Allan Bloom’s surprise best-seller. Ellis may be an exception among his writers — but Asahina is very loyal to him. Urban submitted Ellis’s half-page proposal for a book about an upscale serial killer just before Rules of Attraction came out, landing Ellis a contract with, it’s said, a $300,000 advance. Ellis turned in a first draft in the fall of 1989, got comments from Asahina, and went back to work.

When the second draft of American Psycho was passed around a publishing meeting at S&S in July, many of those present — including, insiders say, publisher Jack McKeown and editorial director Alice Mayhew — hated it.

One can only imagine how Mayhew, a liberal and a feminist who’s edited many of S&S’s biggest nonfiction books, must have reacted to a “parody” about a serial murderer who delights in grisly operations on women (dead or alive). And Jack McKeown was certainly no fan. When Snyder finally talked to his senior staff, just before canceling the book, he says, he learned from “Jack, Alice, Charlie [Hayward, trade-division president], [editor-in-chief] Michael Korda, and Bob Asahina that there had been consternation among senior people at all levels regarding the publication of this book, and it was not confined just to women — men were as vociferously outspoken.”

Insiders say that Asahina, backed by Hayward, successfully defended the book during this stage, in part by pretty much keeping everyone else out of the loop. Certainly, forfeiting the $300,000 advance and dropping the book was never a serious consideration.

Asahina did very little editing, and the book moved routinely through the publishing mill, though there was the occasional outburst. Some staffers grumbled about working on the novel. Then, George Corsillo, the artist who had designed the jackets of Ellis’s first two books, vehemently refused to do the cover for American Psycho, claiming that he was “disgusted with himself for reading it.”

When the novel was presented at a Simon & Schuster sales conference last August, some salesman protested that the book was offensive. Asahina had synopsized the book in a “tip sheet”; he also circulated a chapter that included the grisly torture of a young girl who is electorcuted by jumper cables that have been clipped to her nipples.

But Hayward assured Urban and Ellis that he had the situation under control. By September, things had calmed down. Bookstores were buying American Psycho (a reported 19,400 copies had been ordered by early November). American Psycho was hyped on page 13 of Simon & Schuster’s winter 1991 catalogue as “a black comedy, a disturbing portrait of a psychopath, a subtle send-up of the blatant behavior of the eighties — and a grotesque nightmare of lust and insanity.” The book was scheduled to be shipped in December, with a publication date of mid-to-late January, and Ellis was booked for a five-city promotion tour. By now, Asahina was out of the picture — he had been promoted to editorial director of Summit Books, an S&S imprint.

In mid-October, S&S circulated a few bound galleys to magazines with long lead times. Others had Xeroxes of the manuscript that, like chain letters, got passed from reader to reader at various publications, even though Jack McKeown kept the bound galleys locked in his office. Then came the explosion in Time magazine. American Psycho had not even been published, but it was off to a violent start.

In fact, American Psycho shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to anyone who read Less Than Zero, which has a number of drug-and-death scenes, including the rape of a drugged twelve-year-old girl (fellatio with pinioned heads seems to be a favorite image) and a woman who is raped, murdered, and then has her breasts hacked off, the wounds adorned with candles.
Indeed, in the last pages of his first book, Ellis stakes out his future terrain: “The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city … Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards …” Five years afterward, to be exact.

American Psycho is Less Than Zero on Wall Street, the story of 26-year-old Patrick Bateman, a pathological investment banker who prefers “murders and executions” to mergers and acquisitions. He dresses impeccably, works out several times a day, eats designer food and drinks designer water, does a lot of drugs, and has rented Brian de Palma’s Body Double 37 times. His favorite scene is the one of a woman being killed with a power drill. Bateman himself prefers a nail gun and a chain saw. He would rather kill girls, but he also does some unspeakable things to dogs, rats, bums, and homosexuals. American Psycho gives the term fashion victim new meaning.

“Bret even scared himself,” says Binky Urban. “He would call me up and say, ‘I’m so frightened, I can’t even leave my apartment.’ He did a tremendous amount of reading about serial killers. People confuse the author with the protagonist. But Bret is such a sweetheart.”

Ellis claims that the violence represents only about 10 percent of his new book, and he’s right: The rest of the manuscript I read is a litany of brand names, restaurants, clubs, hair salons, talk-show topics, menus, record reviews, and more designer labels, some so esoteric even a WWD editor would get confused. If he’s setting out to numb and desensitize by sheer volume of boring detail, Ellis succeeds. The book is supposed to be a parody of the eighties that equates rampant consumerism with untrammeled violence. The problem is that serial murder isn’t funny.

Ellis’s fans, though, are enthusiastic about American Psycho. Says Entrekin, who talked to Urban about buying it for Atlantic Monthly Press in the two minutes before it was snatched up by Sonny Mehta, “It’s brilliant in parts. It’s too long and would benefit from some judicious cutting. The book is flawed, but it is an intelligent attempt to do something shocking and disturbing.”

Some suspect that Ellis, trying to get back into the limelight after his last book, figured that shock value had at least some value. Joe McGinniss, who read the bound galleys several weeks ago, thinks otherwise. “The one thing I know for a fact is that Bret did not write this for sensational or commercial reasons,” says McGinniss. “It’s a very disturbing book, but he’s writing from the deepest, purest motives. The whole thing is a caricature, as if William Burroughs had written Bonfire of the Vanities. Not to make a pun, but it’s a tour de force. It’s a quantum leap beyond his earlier books.”

McGinniss, who didn’t use quite such bloody descriptions in his account of real-life murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, did concede that one of the scenes (involving a mutilated woman and a live rat) in American Psycho is “the single most revolting thing I’ve ever read. If I saw that all by itself, I would get halfway through the first page and throw it away.”

Ellis wouldn’t talk about American Psycho for this article. In a phone call the week after the book had been canceled and resold, he said that Urban and Mehta had suggested that he steer clear of reporters until the book was finally out. “I’m in the middle of discussing the book with Sonny Mehta,” said Ellis. “It won’t get much editing or any. When it is published, I will talk your ears off about it and defend it to the hilt.” (Ellis did not sound as if he meant this as a pun, although Bateman has a gruesome collection of cutlery.) “I think the book speaks for itself,” he said. Ellis called back about ten minutes later to reiterate that he couldn’t talk.

But Ellis explained his choice of subject in an interview that was part of the sales material for American Psycho. “I already had the idea to write about a serial killer before I moved to New York in 1987,” he said. “That summer, before the Crash, I was hanging out with a lot of Wall Street guys. What fascinated me was that they didn’t talk about their jobs at all — only about how much money they made, the clubs and restaurants they went to, how beautiful their girlfriends were. It was all about status, about surface. So I thought about juxtaposing this absurd triviality with extreme violence … If people are disgusted or bored, then they’re finding out something about their own limits as readers. I want to challenge their complacency, to provoke them … American Psycho is partly about excess — just when readers think they can’t take any more violence, or another description of superficial behavior, more is presented — and their response toward this is what intrigues.”

He certainly didn’t bargain for the response he ultimately got. Whether it was Davis or Snyder who first decided to cancel American Psycho, it was an extraordinary move.

Snyder says that he became aware of the controversy only after reading Time magazine, which he saw a week or so after its October 22 publication. The Spy piece, which came out nearly two weeks later, further piqued his concern, and he asked McKeown, Hayward, Mayhew, Korda, and Asahina “to take me through the sequence of events, how things had got to this point. I felt then because of the two pieces I had read that this was a significant problem and that under no circumstances could this book be published without a caveat. We were dallying with ideas like a bellyband that sealed the book and warned against the graphic contents so that a purchaser would have to make a very overt purchase.” On Friday, November 9, Hayward called Urban to discuss the bellyband, as well as disclaimer language within the book itself. He read a proposed statement to Urban, who said she would have to get back to him.

Meanwhile, Snyder spent the weekend reading the book. “I got a copy of the galleys and went up to the country and read it and found it went beyond the boundaries of acceptable taste as far as I was concerned,” he says. On Sunday, says Snyder, he called Marty Davis to advise him that Simon & Schuster was not going to publish American Psycho and that this was likely to become a big story. On Monday, November 12, he again met with the group of senior executives and editors and told them that “a bellyband would not be satisfactory and that we could not in good conscience publish this book.” Then, he says, he called Binky Urban and told her of his decision. He suggested issuing a joint press release. Urban said no thanks, and the cancellation was not announced.

Despite Snyder’s detailed account, a lot of people in publishing, including many at Simon & Schuster, believe that Davis got wind of the furor after reading Time and Spy, and asked Snyder to cancel the book.

The popular scenario — unconfirmed on some key points — goes like this: Running a $1.4-billion-a-year business, Snyder has few hands-on dealings with the trade division and had no idea American Psycho was such a time bomb. When Davis called to talk about canceling the book, Snyder had to play catch-up. So he grilled his senior management staff. That night, November 8, he ran into Urban at the Literary Lions dinner and mentioned the problems with the book.

The next day, he discussed not publishing the book with his senior editors, who balked. To pull a book so close to its publication date was unheard of — and to bow to corporate authority was a precedent nobody wanted to set. Snyder, say these sources, found himself caught between his staff and his boss: Don’t publish, or perish. Snyder read American Psycho over the weekend, and by Monday, the twelfth, the decision was definite.

“There was discussion back and forth,” says Snyder, “and everybody had their say, and in the end, I as CEO made the decision. This was a Hobson’s choice; either decision was unpleasant.”

Says one S&S source, “No one here is very happy about the book’s being canceled, and everyone is furious at the way it was handled. I’d resign if I believed in the book. The most unfortunate thing about this whole controversy is that the book is a piece of s—. It’s hard when something like this becomes an issue of censorship, because you want to rush to its defense, but you can’t.”

On Tuesday, November 13, there was a dinner at the River Club honoring Sally Bedell Smith’s S&S book on William S. Paley. Snyder, Mayhew, Hayward, McKeown, and Urban did not discuss Psycho. Next day, Laura Landro, an entertainment-industry editor for the Wall Street Journal, telephoned Marty Davis to try to confirm that S&S was dumping the book. Not expecting a question about American Psycho, he took her call — and Paramount released a statement endorsing S&S’s decision. With the news breaking, Snyder tracked Urban down at lunch at Palio to tell her the word was out. By Thursday references to corporate interference by the chairman of the company that makes movies like Friday the 13th were appearing in several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

But Binky Urban hadn’t wasted any time. After making sure Ellis would keep his advance (he could have sued for damages of breach of contract), she forged ahead. She talked to a number of publishers who might want to acquire the book: Sonny Mehta at Knopf (who published paperback editions of both of Ellis’s earlier books while at Picador, in London), Kent Carroll at Carroll and Graf, Tom McCormack at St. Martin’s Press, Larry Kirshbaum at Warner Books, and Morgan Entrekin of Atlantic Monthly Press were all interested. Mehta read American Psycho and decided to buy the book, without discussing the book’s acquisition with anyone at Vintage.

The American Psycho deal was done by Thursday evening. By Friday noon, Sonny Mehta sent out a press release trumpeting, “It seems to me appropriate, given the immense coverage and curiosity about Mr. Ellis’s new book, that we bring out American Psycho now in the original trade paperback edition, to swiftly reach the widest possible readership.” The talk is that Ellis got another $350,000 from Vintage; the truth is closer to $50,000. That day, says a source, everyone at Random House was in shock.

Mehta also refused to talk about the book for this piece. When I introduced myself to him at the National Book Awards ceremony on November 27, Mehta, sleek in a black Nehru jacket, threatened to “set himself on fire” if I tried to question him about American Psycho. This was the same Mehta who had told Roger Cohen of the New York Times, “Profit is one way that you can take pride in the way you publish things and insure that you can go on doing it.” When I asked Random House’s proprietor, Si Newhouse, if he was pleased with the new acquisition, Newhouse simply said he hadn’t read American Psycho. Later, Mehta had a small party at his Park Avenue apartment. Among the guests was Dick Snyder, who had been brought along by Morgan Entrekin. (Publishing is an incestuous circle, a sort of inky snake eating its own tale.) The following day, the Random House staff departed for a sales meeting on Sanibel Island, off the west coast of Florida. The resort buzzed with anticipation about the Vintage presentation on Thursday, when American Psycho would be discussed. It turned out to be very low-key. The jacket that S&S had designed was shown. A date was set for March or April. The first printing would be 40,000 copies. And the price of the book would probably be $9.95. Mehta told his colleagues that although it wasn’t the greatest book ever written, it deserved a chance to be read. He said that he and Ellis would work together to edit American Psycho — but only for aesthetic and structural changes.

Dick Snyder says S&S offered film of the printing plates of American Psycho to Vintage “but was advised that they were going to make extensive editorial changes. The book that S&S turned down for bad taste may not be the book that is eventually published by Knopf,” Snyder suggests.

“That may be Dick’s fondest hope,” says Binky Urban, “because it’s his only chance to come out looking anywhere remotely good. But that is not going to happen. Sonny and Bret have met and talked, and I always felt some cutting should be done in the beginning sections, and that is one of the first things that Sonny said, and Bret is open to Sonny’s suggestions.”

The Ellis episode comes at what could be a ticklish time for Snyder. Simon & Schuster took a $140-million charge against 1990 earnings for books the house paid too much to acquire and other problems. The firing of Allen Peacock, a highly respected editor with a list of authors that included William Gaddis, Stanley Elkin, and Robert Coover, was an unpopular move that cause thirteen of Peacock’s writers to object in a letter to Davis and Snyder. Ronald Reagan’s memoirs, An American Life, for which S&S gave him a $6-million advance, has the look of a turkey. Trying to streamline the company, Snyder is considering folding the trade division of Prentice Hall into S&S’s trade division, causing high anxiety at Prentice Hall. And recently, Snyder had a meeting with Davis that may linger in his mind.

John Calvin Batchelor, one of Peacock’s authors, wrote his own impassioned letter to Marty Davis on November 15, praising him for his decision to cancel American Psycho. Batchelor went on to say he hoped Davis would be equally effective in dealing with Snyder’s dismissal of Peacock. “The next afternoon,” says Batchelor, “Martin Davis called me and invited me for a breakfast meeting at Paramount.”

Davis also summoned Dick Snyder to hear Batchelor hold forth. As he spoke, Batchelor says, Davis nodded understandingly. Then Snyder justified Peacock’s dismissal as a business decision. Even so, Batchelor was thrilled by the episode. “I made my case for literature,” he says.

But at the moment, it’s Ellis who seems to be getting the last word. Last week, he published a front-page essay in the New York Times’s “arts & Leisure” section about the apathy of his generation. There was no overt mention of the Psycho drama. But it was not difficult to read between the lines. “If violence in films, literature and in some heavy-metal and rap music is so extreme that it verges on the baroque,” wrote Ellis, “it may reflect the need to be terrified in a time when the sharpness of horror-film tricks seems blunted by repetition on the nightly news.” This spring, when American Psycho is finally published, readers will have a chance to judge for themselves whether Ellis’s “baroque” and brutal violence is in any way justified.

Phoebe Hoban, a former contributing editor at New York Magazine, has written about culture and the arts for numerous publications, including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Observer, and ARTnews, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty; and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open.

*This article appeared in the December 17, 1990, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Story Behind American Psycho’s Cancellation