Bret Easton Ellis’s first book of nonfiction wants so badly to be provocative that its title is White, as in “privileged white man.” At this goal, it has only partially succeeded. Well before its publication, two articles went viral by critiquing White, surely the goal of any provocateur — but the thesis of each was that both Ellis and his ideas are so dull and ill-informed as to be irrelevant.
“I think politics are ridiculous,” Ellis told Isaac Chotiner in a buzzy interview last week for the New Yorker. (Ellis has since disowned the interview, saying he “got punked.”)
“Maybe don’t write a book about it,” Chotiner responded. “Would that be the solution?”
“For years now, Bret Easton Ellis has been accused of being a racist and a misogynist, and I think these things are true,” wrote Andrea Long Chu in a Bookforum review at the beginning of the month; “but like most things that are true of Bret Easton Ellis, they are also very boring.”
Reader, I am here to tell you that both Chotiner and Chu were correct. White is a poorly thought-out mess of a book written by someone who does not take seriously the topics he’s writing about. It is also, more damningly, not interesting at all.
White is ostensibly a memoir-polemic hybrid. It includes Ellis’s stories of writing Less Than Zero and American Psycho — pausing to note appreciatively his own “gleaming nihilism” — and then watching each novel get adapted into a movie (successfully in American Psycho’s case, and not in Less Than Zero’s). He spends a little while wallowing in the glamour of his life of fame (Less Than Zero came out when Ellis was a college junior and was a massive hit), name-dropping celebrities and drug types with equal fervor.
But at the heart of White is political discourse, and specifically political discourse as it manifests itself in the venues closest to Ellis’s heart: Twitter and dinner parties with his rich friends. Why, Ellis demands to know, are his liberal friends so angry about Donald Trump? (The word “hysteric” comes up a lot.) And why do people keep reacting to his “cheeky, offensive” tweets about “Generation Wuss” with such outrage?
Ostensibly, Ellis is arguing that liberal outrage is stifling discourse, and that people are afraid to speak their minds when faced with the near-fascist censorship of the left, which can’t handle any opposing dialogue. (Ellis throws out the word “comrade” a lot in this section, mixing up his communist and fascist signifiers with gleeful abandon.) But the opposite is true. It is Ellis who responds with panicked admonitions whenever anyone disagrees with his “bad boy” provocations.
Ellis devotes page after page to defending his right to use his Twitter account to compare watching Glee to “stepping into a puddle of HIV” and to compare Grindr to AIDS. GLAAD’s subsequent decision to, because of his tweets, disinvite him from the media awards gala he was planning to attend as a plus-one, however, is “corporate fascism” that “ought to be seriously reconsidered.”
The protests that emerged after the 2016 election, like the Women’s March (“women walking around dressed as giant vaginas”), are “embarrassing” and “childlike.” And yet Ellis, who unironically refers to himself multiple times as a “bad boy,” noting with all the pride of a teenage boy in a Nietzsche phase that he is part of “a generation as pessimistic and ironic as any other that ever roamed the earth,” is the mature adult who can see what others cannot.
Those who react with outrage to Trump and, for instance, the children who are being kept in cages as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, need to take a deep breath and listen to Ellis. “You need to be sedated, you need to see a shrink, you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimizing your whole life,” he advises, mere pages after patting himself on the back for his love of art and discourse that “challenge” him and make him “more empathetic.”
What is ostensibly animating Ellis’s rage here is his love for aesthetics over ideology, which he feels have become embattled in the current cultural discourse. But leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing as non-political art — that Ellis’s position as a white, gay, wealthy cis man has as much influence on his perspective as Barry Jenkins’s perspective as a black straight man has on Moonlight (“dour and downbeat,” Ellis opines) — Ellis’s ostensible love for style is not evident in the clogged and uninteresting White.
Again and again, Ellis earnestly relies on the wildly unspecific non-word “problematic” as his catchall criticism. (Suggesting that gay jokes are passé is “problematic,” as is writing off Ellis as a dick.) He glories in dad-like insults, like calling millennials “snowflakes” and “Generation Wuss.” He falls back time and again on the cliché rather than the original, the generality rather than the specific. To put things into Ellis’s binary, White is both ideologically uninteresting and aesthetically weak.
All of White is, in fact, a massive and unoriginal exercise in projection, a defensive bray of “I’m not mad, I actually think it’s funny,” repeated for 260 pages.
“Shit happens, deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up,” says Ellis, who has written an entire book about how much he dislikes it when people unfollow him on Twitter.
By the end of White, I wished he’d taken his own advice.