Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The first people to censor Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel American Psycho – one of the most controversial books published in the last 20 years – were its originating publishers, Simon & Schuster. Ellis had been signed to a substantial advance for the book, but when word started seeping out about the content, which was variously described as superficial, moronic, pointless, and pornographic, Simon & Schuster pulled the plug. Within days Sonny Mehta had signed the book at Random House/Knopf, where it was published under the Vintage imprint in March 1991. It has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since. The U.S. National Organization for Women castigated the novel, saying that it “legitimizes inhuman and savage violence masquerading as sexuality.” Naomi Woolf said that it was “a violation not of obscenity standards, but of women’s civil rights, insofar as it results in conditioning male sexual response to female suffering or degradation.” Canada Customs briefly disallowed shipments of the book across the border and the Defence Department removed copies from a Halifax navy library. One of the most infamous – and patently stupid – claims against the book was that sex killer Paul Bernardo kept a copy of it in his personal library.

Through it all, the critics missed out on the fact that the book is not pornography, but satire. One reason why people are made so uncomfortable may have to do with how closely Ellis mirrors our rabidly consumerist, media saturated, celebrity addicted, narcissistic culture. Patrick Bateman, c’est nous tous.

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From American Psycho:

… where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in … this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged …

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