‘Controversy’ has always been central to the Bret Easton Ellis brand. Since releasing his debut novel Less Than Zero at the age of 21 – a lurid catalogue of a rich, alienated college kid’s drug-fuelled summer – he has courted disapproval from New York Times reviewers, feminist critics and David Foster Wallace fans. But the ire he attracts is less a result of the explicit content of his novels than his attitude towards it. In American Psycho, for instance, Ellis’s narrator Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street worker and serial killer, gives equal thought to Whitney Houston’s discography as to the cutting out of a woman’s tongue. It’s not that Ellis is the first writer to refuse a kind of guiding moral compass in his work, but that his sharp Gen X cynicism and pathological inability to discern goodness in the world suggests a concerted effort to reject good taste.
What is problematic, however, is that Ellis has never actively engaged with the criticism he has received. For Ellis, if a woman detects a misogynistic authorial impulse in the grisly murder scenes of his most famous book, it’s not because her criticisms are based on textual evidence, but because she is hysterical. She is hypersensitive and tragically uncool for missing the irony. His response to charges like these is usually something like “a depiction is not an endorsement” – which is true, but is also a tried-and-true white male method of derailing productive debate. By dismissing his critics this way, he is able to both inure himself against meaningful critique and to absorb the controversy surrounding him into a kind of public mega-ego that attracts devoted fans and repels detractors in almost equal measure.
On his new podcast, creatively titled The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, Ellis exploits this mega-ego in order to attract big-name guests that are willing to travel to Beverly Hills to discuss film, music, and “the culture” with him. Each episode, he offers a lengthy monologue about whatever’s got him riled up that week (usually people who don’t like his opinions), and then purports to interview the person sitting in front of him. What’s notable about these interviews is that they are often far more about him than they are about his guests. Each episode he grinds his axe on the same topics: Do you think young people (“Generation Wuss”, as he calls them) are oversensitive? Is Hollywood dead? Does society’s need to create “sentimental narratives” mean that they’re unable to face an unmediated reality? He drags Molly Ringwald through an analysis of teen culture, Kanye West through his diagnosis of the film industry and Ariel Pink through a tired critique of “outrage culture”. It’s tedious as hell.
Now, I think Ellis is a better writer than he is often given credit for (despite his popularity, he is often written off as an author for nihilistic teen stoners), but he is not the dude to be exploring these topics. When he is discussing art and cinema as autonomous objects, he can be very insightful, but as soon as a social dynamic enters the equation, he is reductive, sneering and dogmatic. One of his favourite arguments is that Generation Y is extremely sensitive merely as a response to Gen X’s perceived detachment. He claims that, when he posts a “harmless opinion” on Twitter about how women can’t direct films, the Gen Y response is automatically outrage because they “can’t understand context”. Hey, buddy – fuck you! Maybe Gen Y is outraged at your garbage opinions because that is what they are, garbage, and because they understand that things like gender essentialism and gender-based inequality are bullshit and need to be called out when observed.
Look: I know The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast is quite bad, but I also know that pretty much nobody listens to it, which is why he had to cancel the pay-to-listen scheme he had going for a bit there. Which means I don’t feel so bad for listening to his bits on film. But really, if your only exposure to Ellis has been his books, and if you have had a positive experience with them, keep your relationship confined to the page. Hearing his voice just might spoil it forever.