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American Psycho is a novel written by the American author Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis, as
an author, has written and published seven literary works. American Psycho was written already in the 1980s, but it was
published only in 1991. The novel had drawn a great deal of criticism even
prior to its official release. When the novel was published in 1991 it was
received with heavy criticism. Because of the novel’s dark nature Ellis had
received death threats which suggested that Ellis should be dismembered as the
victims of the novel’s fictional killer Patrick Bateman. The opinion on the novel among
literary critics has changed ever since the novel had achieved cult status
among readers. However, American Psycho
still remains known primarily for the notoriety it has gained because of its
controversial content.

The story is set in Manhattan in the late 1980s. The story tracks the
life of the protagonist Patrick Bateman – a young, wealthy investment banker. The
story is told through a first-person narrative. The protagonist is portrayed as
a self-centred, self-absorbed narcissist because Bateman spends most of his
time and money keeping himself in shape, grooming himself, making reservations
at the most expensive restaurants, buying the newest and trendiest designer
clothes, keeping up and purchasing the latest technology, following and
purchasing all albums of pop artists like Genesis, Madonna, and never missing
an episode of his favourite TV talk show “The Patty Winters Show”. Patrick
Bateman is trapped in a world where everything is for sale and is meant to be
consumed.

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However, there is another side to the protagonist Patrick Bateman. This
rather troubling side of the protagonist is what sparked all of the controversy
regarding this novel. Apart from his narcissistic self the protagonist is also
a serial killer whose murders, mutilations and torture of his victims is
depicted in detail in this book.

 When reading this novel, it is
important to decide how will you be looking and interpreting the text as a
whole, because if you take this novel literally you will get an interesting
thriller about a man with homicidal tendencies whose life spirals out of
control as the story goes on. However, if the novel is taken not literally but
as an allegory you will get a satire on consumer society filled with dark
humour. One of the reasons why American
Psycho received such criticism after its release is because people did not
interpret the whole text in one way or the other and therefore took many things
completely out of context. (Murphet, 65-72)

In The New York Times article Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of
“American Psycho” published in March 6 in 1991 by Roger Cohen, Bret Easton
Ellis expressed his thoughts about critics: “I had no idea the novel would
provoke the reception it’s gotten, and I still don’t quite get it. But then I
was not trying to add members to my fan club. You do not write a novel for
praise, or thinking of your audience. You write for yourself; you work out
between you and your pen the things that intrigue you.” For Ellis those
intriguing things were the group of young executives that were obsessed with the
Wall Street greed to use the easily acquired money to fulfil their every
fantasy. (Cohen, 1991)

In another article published in March 1991 in Entertainment Weekly reviewer Maureen O’Brien provides an overview
of the controversy that surrounded the publication of American Psycho (O’Brien, 1991). The Simon & Schuster
publishing house had leaked several parts of the novel that depicted the murder
and torture of Patrick Bateman’s women victims. After that the magazines Spy and TIME thoroughly analysed these leaked violent scenes from the
unpublished book which caused such an uproar that the Simon & Schuster
publishing house announced that they will not be publishing this book on the
grounds of the novel’s brutality and violence. Two days later Ellis’s agent sold
the manuscript of American Psycho to
the publishing house Vintage Books which printed and published the novel. The
president of Vintage Books Sonny Mehta claimed that American Psycho was a book
of serious intent, naming authors Pasolini and Genet as examples of such
writing. He also stated that the book had literary quality and it should reach
readers since it “is a serious book by a serious writer. It paints a not very
pretty picture of some not very pretty people, and it deserves to be read” Sonny
Mehta had to defend Vintage Books on several occasions from those who believed
that Vintage Books were publishing a gore filled pornographic book, previously
rejected by Simon & Schuster, in order to earn money and notoriety. (Baelo-Allue,
80-82)

However, during this time Ellis’ and the novels reputation was tainted. Many
American literary critics had launched attacks against both the novel and Ellis
himself. One was written by The New York Times columnist Roger Rosenblatt in
December 16, 1990 called Snuff This Book!
Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder? In this article the columnist
Rosenblatt heavily criticised the book even calling it “moronic”, “junk” and
invited everyone to not buy the book. 
(Rosenblatt, 1990)

Literary critics were not the only ones that attacked Ellis. The
National Organization for Women also attacked Ellis because of the leaked pages
of the novel that did not have any context to them. Because of this Ellis was
seen as a misogynistic, sick man by many women.

However, there were some people that defended Ellis and his work. One of
them was Fay Weldon. Weldon is a British author who defended and also explained
in The Guardian’s article An honest American psycho, published in
April 25, 1991, that the book is not misogynistic because the book’s
protagonist Patrick Bateman did not only murder women, he also murdered a dog,
a child, several beggars and several men. Fay Weldon even praised Ellis by
saying: “This man Bret Easton Ellis is a very, very good writer. American Psycho is a beautifully
controlled, careful, important novel which revolves about its own nasty bits.
Brilliant.” (Weldon, 1991)

The several attacks from critics were not the only problems that American Psycho had to face before its
publication. American Psycho contains
references to many brand names, companies and famous people. Companies such as
American Express considered the possibility to take legal action against the
book because the book’s protagonist Patrick Bateman in several cases uses his
American Express platinum card to scoop cocaine and in a couple of cases orders
prostitutes, with his American Express platinum card, that he will later kill. Before
publishing the book, Vintage Books made some changes and one of them was the
name of the company that Bateman works for. In the Simon & Schuster version
he was working in the American Express’s Shearson unit, but in the Vintage
Books version he was working for a fictional firm Pierce & Pierce. (Baelo-Allue,
84)

Despite all the controversy that surrounded American Psycho, the negative
publication reviews it received, the lack of advertising and promotion, it
turned into a bestseller after its publication. The
controversy created free publicity for the book and made it into a topic of
discussion months before its publication. American
Psycho sold 100,000 copies for $14 in only two months in the United States.
The sales have continued and the paperback has been reprinted several times.
There was even a hardback edition, which is very uncommon when the book had
already been released in the paperback format. (Baelo-Allue 81, 90)

Cultural critics,
magazine writers and reviewers across the political spectrum took issue with
the publication of the book. Big names such as The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Publishers
Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Republic and The Nation wrote and printed
articles on the publication process and the controversy the book was
generating. Because of all the critics and the articles American Psycho turned into an excuse to discuss more general
issues like censorship, the limits of serious fiction and the role of
corporations. Many reviews were written, but very few of them were explained
and most of them did not seriously analyse the book’s stylistic features or
literary choices. The critics and reviewers feared that Ellis was changing the
boundary between what was acceptable and what was not acceptable in serious
literature. The fact that Ellis was bringing the lowest type of writing, namely
gore and pornography, into a higher type of writing was too much for the book
to be given serious consideration. Bret Easton Ellis redraws the limits with
his novel American Psycho and he
deserves a more serious consideration than the one he received after the
initial reviews.

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