In the annals of censorship, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho holds a special place of honour. Ever since its release, the book has been the subject of controversy and repeated attempts to have it banned; notoriously, the first to suppress the book was Ellis’s own erstwhile publisher, Simon & Schuster. After getting a look at the manuscript – about a rich Wall Street player in 1980s New York City who moonlights as a vicious serial killer – S&S decided to cancel the book’s contract. Random House quickly picked it up, bringing it out under the Vintage imprint, where it has remained in print ever since, despite successive attempts to have it removed from availability.
In Australia, the book – which has alternately been called “deeply and extremely disgusting” (Andrew Motion) and “one of the greatest novels of our time” (Irvine Welsh) – has been classified R18 since its release, meaning that it can only be sold to adults and only in plastic shrinkwrap.
Late last week, Imprints Booksellers in Adelaide was the subject of a “gentle and polite” raid by authorities after someone complained that the store was selling copies of a newly released Picador Classic edition of the book that had not been prophylactically encased in plastic. The co-owner of the store, quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, claims the books were received in unwrapped condition, and he assumed that meant the ban had been lifted.
The bookseller, Jason Lake, also said he felt the complaint was “ludicrous” and that “people should be free to read what they want.”
The fact that Ellis’s novel – a blistering satire of ’80s excess which contains some of the most graphic scenes of sex and violence (and sexualized violence) in western literature – is still capable of provoking such heated responses is testament to its continued relevance as a cultural artifact. It is difficult to think of another contemporary novel that has spurred such intense ongoing debate, or that nails a particular brand of Gen-X anomie quite so accurately and mercilessly.
Ellis himself addressed the matter of American Psycho in an interview with Vice last year. The outspoken author ranged widely, calling the millennials “Generation Wuss” and referring to the late David Foster Wallace as “a complete fraud” before focusing in on his most infamous novel:
I got shit for American Psycho, with people saying it was calculated to offend people. If that was true, I wouldn’t have spent three to four years on it, and I would have just filled every page with horrible descriptions. I was writing about my life. I was writing about being Patrick Bateman – a young man in New York during that era – and being lost in that yuppie culture, which is really just consumerist culture. Feeling that I had to have all of the things that a young man had at that time and hating myself for not having them and hating society and not wanting to grow up. That’s really what American Psycho was. It was a very personal novel.