It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning, and in the skylit private dining room of a London hotel Bret Easton Ellis is worshipping Edith Wharton. “I’m finally reading The House of Mirth,” he says, “which my 20-year-old male kind of minimalist sensibility just did not get at all. For some reason, I had this ancient paperback from college and I picked it up – and I think it’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. I can’t believe the mastery of the prose, I can’t believe the God’s-eye neutrality of the voice, and how prescient it is in terms of where we are now – if we’re talking about women, about the patriarchy. It’s wonderful.” There’s an earnestness to his tone, one you might not expect to hear if you’ve read much of the press that’s appeared in the wake of White, a collection of essays which is his first book of non-fiction.
“Nonsensical, vapid,” was the Guardian’s verdict on White; “You want to throw the book across the room,” announced the New York Times. There was a car-crash Q&A interview in The New Yorker in which, when asked what he thought about the protests against President Trump’s policy of child separation, Ellis replied: “I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.” And it’s hard to get away from the fact that White is less a collection of essays than a prowl through what can seem like a randomly gathered set of Ellis’s musings and memories. It’s a form that suits the podcast he’s been hosting since 2013 – recent guests include Chuck Palahnuik and David Shields – but comes across as rambling when set down on the page. The results are mixed, the good parts being his recollections of the freedom of an unsupervised Los Angeles childhood in the 1970s and the incisive film critiques. I never imagined I’d read anything that made me want to see American Gigolo again, but Ellis did that for me, at least. Much less attractive are sweeping generalisations such as “Everything has been degraded by what the sensory overload and the supposed freedom-of-choice technology has brought to us, and, in short, by the democratisation of the arts.” “Everything”? “Degrading”? He dislikes, he writes, the “aesthetics” of the Black Lives Matter movement; he wonders idly whether film directing is a “medium more suited to men”.
It was this sort of thing that made me want to throw White across the room; my annoyance compounded by a clear recollection of just how much I’d loathed Ellis’s most celebrated novel, American Psycho, when it appeared in 1991. Reading it again three decades later I discovered a book of eerie, prescient intelligence. The murderous Patrick Bateman embodies the end-state of capitalism’s fever-dream; his affectless blandness gives him the power of a character in a folk tale. My memory of American Psycho was not American Psycho; which is how Ellis and I came to be talking about Edith Wharton. I told him I was sorry for how much I’d hated the novel. He was unfazed. “I don’t think I’ve ever hated a book,” he said.
In person he is generous and appealing. He has sloped in to meet me carrying a coffee; and is instantly personable, clearing his throat and apologising – I’m the first person he’s spoken to today. His hair pretty much matches the title of his new book. At 55, he’s been around the block. He’s surprised, he tells me evenly, by how strong a reaction White has provoked; though, in the echo chamber of social media, everything provokes a strong reaction now. But – as it has been since he burst on to the scene in 1985 with the publication of his first novel, Less Than Zero, while he was still a junior at Bennington College – Ellis has his admirers as much as his detractors.
A couple of nights before we met he did an event at London’s Bridge Theatre, after which he signed books for two hours. It was the same, he tells me, in Dublin and Miami and Manchester. “The haters don’t come out,” he says with a shrug. “That’s what I was worried about: it’s been ten years, this book is getting a lot of angry press, and what is going to happen at the readings? Am I going to get punked, physically? Is someone going to…?” He trails off; and I’m not entirely surprised he thinks someone might haul him off stage and smack him after some of the reviews he’s got (and yes, Ellis reads all of his press). But it wasn’t like that: there were, he says, “Hundreds and hundreds of fans at every reading. And I realised, why would a hater bother to go and do that in front of a bunch of fans? I’m not a politician. I’m not putting policy into play; it’s just this vision that I’m selling to some people, and some people really like it. It’s not as if it’s law or facts or prophecies, or as if I’m demanding something of you.”
In a sense that’s part of the problem: Ellis isn’t demanding enough, of himself, of his readers. But, as he says, he has been famous – notorious – since he was “a baby”. He has had to negotiate other people’s perceptions of himself for a long time. “I still do,” he says, recalling the publication of Less Than Zero. “The first year, I didn’t. And then the second year, you suddenly realise you do have to, because the perception – which was growing and getting bigger – didn’t conform to how you saw yourself, and panic set in: ‘OK, this person is going to overtake me.’” The person in question being the Bret Easton Ellis depicted in the press, the high-living Brat Packer who hung out with Jay McInerney at all the hottest joints in 1980s New York.
But, according to Ellis, that was never who he was: “and so anxiety and stress entered the picture. And then, you kind of accept it and deal with it, and then I never let it really trip me up or distract me.” Now he says he doesn’t care what other people think. He comes to meet me wearing black sweatpants and a hoodie; the Bret Easton Ellis of old, he notes, would definitely have been in a suit.
He refers, in the book, to himself as a writer “or as a brand” – the suit was part of the brand. But when I interrogate him about what exactly that “brand” means to him, it’s clear it exists in the perceptions of other people. “Obviously there is one, because people have a conversation about it,” he says; pointing out, for example, that his books are all printed in the same font. “But I don’t feel that I’m the kind of brand-name writer who’s recognised in the street. I can tell you the number of times on one hand that I’ve been recognised in public.”
And yet living up to the brand has not come easily. Imperial Bedrooms, his last book, was published nearly a decade ago; writing it was agony. At the time he was also working on the screenplay of The Informers, a widely derided movie based on his 1994 story collection of the same name.
“I would crawl into my office late at night after coming back from the set of this movie, and I would pour myself a large glass of tequila and make my little scratches” – he mimes a cramped and painful scribbling – “and think, ‘I want to die, I want to go to sleep and not wake up.’ And then I’d pass out and the alarm would ring and you’d have to be on set for this disastrous big-budget indie movie that was completely falling apart. I mean, you know, white people problems, but still.”
White people problems, indeed. Since Imperial Bedrooms was published in 2010 Ellis has continued to move in the world of privilege – of dinner parties in LA and New York – that he has chronicled for much of his life. In his defence, he says, he’s not a politician, and he’s not an investigative journalist either. That privileged sphere is “of a piece with my novels, where I’m kind of moving through a world of entitled people and their reactions to things”, he says simply.
He has valid comments to make about what he calls “cancel culture”. “This is what I don’t understand,” he says. “I have friends who are left-leaning, I have friends who are right-leaning, I’m somewhere in the middle, and everyone, whether you hate Trump or you don’t mind Trump or you like Trump, everyone is sick of this cancel culture; everyone is sick of not being able to say certain things, of this puritanism that seems to be engulfing everything.” He describes himself as apolitical: he does not vote, which puts him “in the majority of the country”. Since he doesn’t vote, he has no right, he says, to complain about the president. But he is no apologist for Trump, either: “We got subsumed by him instead of ignoring him,” he says, “and we need to find a candidate; we need to stop worrying about Trump and start worrying about getting someone in who can beat Trump! And I just feel three years have been lost where everything’s just been reactive to Trump.”
Ellis is relaxed in our conversation; occasionally I think he’s speaking lines he’s prepared, or which have been spouted before: but that’s bound to happen on a publicity tour. (After our talk, he’s informed briskly by his publicist that he’s got a whole six minutes before the next journalist arrives.) But he listens; and when I argue with him over the book, he engages with me happily. Is Black Lives Matter really a problem of “aesthetics”? It’s clear – sweatpants aside – that style still matters to Ellis. “The message itself was powerful and needed to be said,” he says. “But the way Black Lives Matter was expressing itself” – which he describes as screaming at people while wearing T-shirts – “was turning off a wide array of people who otherwise believed in the message. I did compare it to the Black Panthers of the 1960s, who had an aesthetic that turned on black people, white people – everyone got behind this, and maybe that’s bad, maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but aesthetics ultimately do matter to a degree.” Did “everyone” get behind the Black Panthers? I don’t believe they did.
As to whether there are few women directors in Hollywood because the medium doesn’t suit them – what’s that about? He looks a little abashed. “I understand how you could read it that way. I know there is that paragraph where during a drunken talk at Soho House, we, me and the other guy [a Movieline reporter], were going back and forth. I did not need to put this paragraph into the book.” But, nevertheless, he did. “I did put it in the book because it has haunted me,” he says, “and I guess it is true: there is an education that I’ve been having. So I don’t feel that way any more. I felt that way then.” He understands better now, he says, “the boys’ club of Hollywood and how women aren’t given those opportunities. So yeah, that was an education by fire, and I own it.” He also notes that three of his favourite directors – Mia Hansen-Løve, Claire Denis, Karyn Kusama – are women.
This retraction won’t be good enough for some. Whatever you think, Bret Easton Ellis will get on with his life. He sees himself as “an individual who is interested in a lot of different things”, wondering aloud if that’s too vague. He was interested in podcasting, so he’s got a podcast. He’s directed ads for the Paris Opera and most recently for Yves Saint Laurent. He works on “TV scripts and whatnot” and says that his life in his mid-fifties “is pretty happy, kind of solitary, pretty much involved with my partner, and pretty OK”. The partner in question, musician Todd Michael Schultz, is two decades younger than Ellis: one of the millennials who come in for so much scorn (“Generation Wuss”) in the book. But the life they have together seems content, ordinary: I’m somehow startled to learn they go shopping together every Saturday.
“I have my fears and I have my worries,” Ellis says, “but I’m old enough to take care of stuff.”
“White” is published by Picador