a long talk

Bret Easton Ellis on Why He Named His First Book in a Decade White

Photo: Vulture

On Tuesday evening, news broke on Twitter that Bret Easton Ellis, the author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero, was publishing a new book, his first in nearly a decade. A collection of essays that look at how free speech is “threatened in today’s society,” the book, provocatively titled White, is sure to infuriate many. In fact, it already has. The working title (since changed) was White Privileged Male, and that, combined with a one-sentence description of its contents and Ellis’s controversial persona, was enough to spark the fires of Twitter outrage.

Ellis, an ironist through and through, has never been one to shy away from provocative subjects. Over the last few years, he has become one of Hollywood’s most gleeful iconoclasts, railing against snowflakes and woke culture on Twitter and his podcast. But Ellis, for his part, rejects the provocateur label. ”There always seemed to be a disconnect between what I was trying to do and ultimately what I was labeled,” he said. “I think I’ve been as honest as I possibly can be and try to be, and I do think that that has alienated people from me.” The author chatted with Vulture about the new book, why he stopped tweeting, and how Ellis’s socialist millennial boyfriend is saving him from his “old man on the porch disillusioned way of looking at things.”

How are you doing?
I’m doing fine, I’m doing okay. It’s just … whatever. It’s the first time I’ve talked to someone in terms of promoting a book in about eight or nine years.

How does it feel to be back to doing that?
Well, it feels very different. Because you either feel that you have to be very careful or somehow feel that you have to say something super-controversial to make the piece rise above the din in this ocean of information, which is even worse than it was in 2009, 2010. That’s what I was thinking about, just briefly before you called.

To that point, I noticed you stopped tweeting.
Twitter, as we all know at a certain point, became not a place to have fun and to be cheeky and offensive and say whatever you want to say, but it became a virtue-signaling site. Now people seem to sense the entire humanity of an individual in a tweet, and then everything’s wrecked.

I do miss those days, and I do talk about it in the book, those wild days of tweeting where really anyone could say anything, and that was why you joined Twitter. I mean, it’s why Twitter was fun. Twitter was fun because of James Gunn. The tweets weren’t that funny, but the notion that James Gunn tweets like that, or Roseanne Barr’s tweets, or whatever, was part of the appeal. And it just seemed the natural way to approach it instead of screaming about politics.

What was the final straw for you?
I don’t know if it was a particular thing or if it was just a long, slow realization that I don’t find this fun anymore. You would’ve thought that the final straw would’ve been when I thought I was texting a drug dealer and I actually tweeted out “come over at do bring coke now.” I think that was about five years ago. Actually, the tweet was meant for my boyfriend, who was out that night and I’d come home before him. You think that would’ve been it, but it wasn’t.

I don’t think it was anything in particular. Sometimes I wish I was back doing it, but you get to a point where it is tiresome to defend yourself. I even feel like in my book, I do go to places where I, if not defend myself, then at least try to give a larger picture of what happened during certain controversies in my life, especially correlating to Twitter.

So how did you come up with the title for this book?
I was putting this book together with a friend of mine who had helped me see the light on how to do this book, Matthew Spector, who’s a novelist and an editor. My favorite book of essays is The White Album by Joan Didion, who is probably my favorite writer. I said, “This isn’t really a book of essays, I’m not an essayist, but okay, I’m just going to think of something white,” like “The White Album,” “The White Decade,” or something. And then the title became both a reflection of what was in the book and also a satiric take at what’s in the book, and that was White Privileged Male, so we were fooling around with that. But Matthew didn’t like it, and in the span of one day I had talked to Matthew, and he said, “Why don’t you get rid of privileged male and just call it White?”

When we were designing the book, we were thinking about a lot of white spaces, and that white meant neutrality, white meant blankness. And also, the reader could either get very upset or annoyed by it, or take in the spirit in which it was offered. I do talk about my whiteness at certain times and defend it to a degree. Matthew’s a super-liberal Hollywood kid, but I had dinner with a very conservative person that night who had been very interested in this book and I said, “I want to call it White Privileged Male,” and he said, “Privileged Male is too jokey, too wink-wink. Why don’t you take it out and call it White?” And so those were from two very different people on different sides of the aisle, and I didn’t really think it was something that I was going to call the book, and then I ended up calling the book that. What do you think about that title?

I think it’s provocative, and kind of hard to parse in some ways. It suggests that the book is going to be about race in some way, or at least, it’s hard to read it without thinking about race and some of your commentary on political correctness. But also it’s a little ambiguous because you don’t really know what position it will take. Also who is the book for? Is it for white people? Or is it about white people?
Look, it seemed like a neutral enough title in the way that I was thinking about it, because the book really isn’t about race. It is about the white privileged male take on things, and if people don’t want to hear that then that’s completely fine, and if they do they can read the book. But it is … I don’t know, I think I completely hear what you’re saying with that. It’s going to be called this, but I don’t know, I’m not even that concerned about that.

Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Do you see this work as an extension of that aspect of your persona through these decades?
I don’t know how pure a provocateur you can really be if you’re so conscious about it. That’s always why I’ve felt mislabeled. American Psycho has about, I don’t know, 7 pages out of 400 of extreme violence. I guess those 7 pages are impactful enough so they blind people to the rest of the book, or maybe they don’t, depending on the reader. But it has to come from a pure place or else it does feel fake and cheap. I can’t imagine working on Glamorama for eight years just to be provocative and I can’t believe that all the work I put into American Psycho for three years just to get a rise out of somebody. It was an artistic endeavor, you know what I’m saying? There always seemed to be a disconnect between what I was trying to do and ultimately what I was labeled. I talk about this in the book, where this character and the book came from, and provocation was not in its essential DNA.

I’ve read you talking about how it was an expression of where you were at in your life then, and an expression of a kind of darkness inside you that felt really personal.
It did, it did. And I do think that’s one of the reasons that [American Psycho] stuck around, this experimental novel that I thought would sell no copies and then I would give my publisher maybe a more commercial novel next (which of course never happened). Because I do think people read that book and do see something of themselves in it in terms of relating to a person trapped in a society that they don’t believe in, yet they don’t know where else to go. And I think that does keep the book going … There’s a kind of universality to it that I think people might respond to. Or maybe they just like the sex scenes. I don’t know.

Bret Easton Ellis Photo: Billy Farrell/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

It feels like there’s a common thread between American Psycho and your new book. I haven’t read White yet, but just from looking at the press release it seems like it’s a commentary against the dominant culture.
Kind of, kind of. The book is a mash-up of pieces that I’ve written and published over the last ten years and monologues from podcasts, and some new material. I never saw myself as an essayist or a journalist. I wrote these pieces for various magazines and they were always in a kind of “notes on” style. I could never really write that coherent, brilliant essay that Joan Didion or many other people I admire could write. So you might call the book a rant of what’s been going on in the last ten years, put into eight sections in about 65,000 words. And in a way, when I talk to other friends of mine, it’s about being a disillusioned Gen-Xer, which is really going to minimize the audience. But it’s about last ten years and where I ended up, and how I felt always that I was a fairly liberal gay man, if I want to identify myself like that, and have found myself, in 2018, living with a socialist millennial verging on communism and finding that I’m actually more center than I ever thought I would be, and how did this happen?

It really is about weird things that were very particular to me, and made me realize I got rather disillusioned … and rather, I don’t know, strangely neutral. I’m neutral about stuff, and I do think that is really what the book is arguing. It is arguing that neutrality is sanity and it is arguing that the only way to really be able to survive right now is with a sense of neutrality, and a sense of distance, that whiteness that the title conjures up. And just looking at that white wall and being more calm.

Even the idea that whiteness is neutral is intensely provocative. We could argue that it’s a great privilege to be neutral. Like, isn’t that the greatest privilege of all?
It is, and that is why for a long time the book was called White Privileged Male, and that privilege is explored, it is talked about, it is up front in the book, so it’s not that that is something that’s not acknowledged. It’s certainly true when I talk about certain films, and my reactions to them compared to other friends’ reactions. I talk about Fruitvale Station and how I felt very distanced from it, whereas my friend, who’s a black entertainment lawyer here, even though it wasn’t really his kind of movie, did get wrecked by it, and then we had a conversation about it. Believe me, this is acknowledged in chapter after chapter, so it’s not as if there’s a blindness to that notion, but it usually comes out when I’m talking about cultural things.

Do you still see yourself as apolitical even though you’ve written what sounds like a pretty political book? If so, what does that mean today?
This is exactly what my boyfriend keeps screaming at me: “How can you be apolitical? How can you be apolitical in this moment?” I guess I have gotten slightly, maybe more political. Not in the sense that I care about politics. I’ve always found politics itself to be a kind of Band-Aid over the dark heart of man’s lawlessness and sexual proclivities. As an ironist, it’s very hard to take politics seriously. That’s the big argument my boyfriend makes. He’s not an ironist, so he does take everything very seriously. I make fun of both sides of the aisle and it kind of drives him crazy because he really does believe there is a “right side” and a “wrong side,” which is exactly what’s wrong with the country right now. There is not this bridge, there is not this sense of community.

I really did start paying attention during the election, which I never used to do. There’s a long section in the book about the weeks after the election here in L.A. and how annoying it was to be living here. But I don’t understand where my boyfriend’s resistance has gotten him. It’s gotten him nowhere, and he would’ve been much happier if he had taken some deep breaths, planned for 2020, and then put his plan into play. But the Resistance has moved nothing, it has done nothing, it has been a complete washout and it has caused people a tremendous amount of pain and anguish. I saw this happening and I thought, “What are they doing? Why are people letting themselves get Trumped?” I mean, you just plan for the next cycle, get rid of him, and move on. That’s how it is. I’m 54 years old, I’ve been through this like four or five times. It was Nixon, then Carter, then it was Reagan, then it was Clinton, then it was Bush, then it was Obama. It just keeps happening. It’s a cyclical thing. And I think when you’re younger you don’t feel that, you feel that you’re so in the moment, everything is so immediate, it means so much and you have so much more passion that you get fired up.

Yes, you could say there is a place on the balcony of privilege that also, to me, seems to be the only way to get through stuff in the moment we’re in. I tell this to my boyfriend, and he’s much younger than me and just doesn’t get it. He’s much angrier than I am.

But when you put it like that, it almost seems like it’s all about one’s personal state of mind versus what I was thinking when I asked you the question. It seemed that just writing a book about political correctness is itself a political act in a way.
Of course, of course.

And that’s what I’m curious about. What is that political act to you?
Well, it’s true that many people saw American Psycho as a political book even though that was not at the forefront of my mind. People look at Less Than Zero as a political work. Look, everything is political, of course. It depends on if that is really what you are most interested in exploring. I just never have been. I remember when I first started to get into these arguments with my boyfriend, telling him to calm down. We would get into these fights because it was often about optics and aesthetics and whether it was liberal fascism or conservative fascism, this notion of aesthetics playing into how we felt about the politics themselves, whether it was Trump as orange devil or whether it was … who else? I do think a huge amount of the problem with Trump is aesthetics. When you see people being interviewed about him, “What don’t you like about Trump?” it always comes down to his mannerisms, his personality, his rudeness. And when I even asked my boyfriend about this at times, he doesn’t have that answer either. It’s just “I hate him.”

That’s what people like about him, too. His fans talk about those same things.
Correct. They love him as blindly as people hate him. And again, as I’ve gotten older, I believe in this kind of neutrality. I do agree with you, I do believe that neutrality, to a degree, is privileged. I wish that people would just calmly accept the fact that this too will pass. But we are in a very exhibitionist display culture where people want to share how they feel.

Well, that gets me to another thing I wanted to ask you about, the reputation economy. What does that mean to you? Why is that something that you wanted to write about in the book?
It’s from a piece that I wrote in the New York Times that was really about how the reputation economy feeds into the main theme of the book, which is the cult of likability, the notion that we’ve branded ourselves and we’re exhibiting ourselves, and we do want to exhibit a best self. Facebook encouraged us to do this. And in order for the reputation economy to work, you have to present a kind of fake self in order to sell yourself. Do you turn yourself into a neutered Clockwork Orange [character] by following all the rules and then you’re not showing your real self? Or do you show your real self and scare people? That’s the theme that’s running throughout the book. The reputation economy is touched on just as a way to get to this sense of the cult of likability. I know virtue signaling is now considered part of the list of bad words someone doesn’t want to use, but whatever that is in terms of wanting to put your best self out there and prove to people that you’re virtuous and that you care.

And what do you think? Where do you wind up in that question about, do you reveal yourself or not?
Well, I’ve had to many times, maybe to my detriment in terms of getting jobs or being a spokesperson or something. I think I’ve been as honest as I possibly can be and try to be, and I do think that that has alienated people from me, certainly on social media, where it is about half-negative, half-okay in terms of how people respond to me.

What is your greatest fear about the world right now?
[Long pause.] Probably something that’s too complicated and abstract to fully explain in an interview. I don’t know, that’s all I got.

It’s a big question. Do you think it’s tied to this idea of political correctness, or is it something totally different from that?
Well, look. Political correctness is not what I’m railing about. I’m railing about corporate culture and freedom of expression and how the two are intermingling now and how corporations are deciding what people can say and how they can express themselves, whether you’re an actor or a comedian or whatever.

This is something that happened to me in 1990 with American Psycho when a corporation canceled the book because they were offended by it, rather than the publishing company themselves. It seems that this is happening with far greater frequency now, and we’ll see where it goes. I know that with Roseanne Barr and James Gunn, that was a very scary thing that happened that summer, where people were whispering about it all over town, but of course, everyone is so lemming-like out here nobody actually went out and said, “Hey, this is completely wrong.” The Guardians of the Galaxy cast did that, but everyone else kind of went along with those decisions based on tweets, tweets. And yet James Gunn got hired to do Suicide Squad 2 and executives at ABC said they made a mistake by firing Roseanne. So I don’t know if this is going to end up in a frightening new world order of “you’d better shut up and you’d better follow the corporation.” And what’s scary about that is in Hollywood, everything’s so consolidated that you really only have two corporations that are going to be running everything, and that means that you are going to have to let the corporation dictate the way you express yourselves if you want to feed your family. That’s kind of a worrisome thing. But I guess in a way, the scariest thing is a lack of neutrality right now. I know you’re talking about the world, but culturally that is something that bothers me pretty much every day. That’s probably it.

To me, when I think about neutrality, it kind of seems like a fantasy. I don’t know if it’s ever really existed.
You don’t believe in Buddhism? Zen mastery and all that stuff?

Maybe I could if I moved to a monastery in Tibet and I wasn’t reading the news and was just spending my days in walking meditation. I feel like I probably could in that context believe in it, but in our world as it exists now, it’s impossible.
Yeah, when you put it that way that sounds pretty much right — though I try.

What does your boyfriend think of your book?
We agree on a lot of stuff. I’ve never been a believer in democratic socialism, and he does fervently believe in it. He was into Bernie Sanders when I thought Bernie Sanders was absurd, and we had our minor tiffs about that. He disagrees with a lot of what I think, and I talk about those disagreements in the book. Whenever I go into a certain area, I always wonder “what would Todd think?” and I do talk about that and Todd lets me know. And living in this condo is a bit of a sitcom. It’s like a bad Norman Lear sitcom: disillusioned Gen-Xer and a feisty millennial living together in West Hollywood! I’m not a democratic socialist, but look, I’m whatever I am. It is generational. Living with Todd gives me a pair of eyes to see the world in a way I don’t think I would have necessarily. I would’ve been locked into my old man on the porch disillusioned way of looking at things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bret Easton Ellis on Why He Named His New Book White