No Thanks

Review: 'White' by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis / Getty Images

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The negative reviews of Bret Easton Ellis's new book are almost enough to make one want to defend it. Perversity may be underrated as a motive for human behavior: Nothing makes me want to cut my lawn less than a prissy neighbor's complaint that the grass is growing long; nothing makes me want to defend a book more than a chorus of the self-righteous decrying it.

So, with White, the hip young novelist of the 1980s has produced an aging man's 2019 tirade against political correctness, and the denunciations of his nonfiction collection of essays have been relentless. Ellis baits readers into calling him "a sexist, a misogynist, a racist," the Washington Post casually opens its notice of the book. Ellis is "a resentful, bitter man still caught up in the heat of arguments, years after everyone else has left the restaurant," adds the Guardian. "For years now, Bret Easton Ellis has been accused of being a racist and a misogynist," and his latest book proves that "these things are true," Bookforum chimes in.

With reviews like that—so uniform, so sanctimonious: a choir of Pecksniffs, telling us how carefully they held their noses while they read the book—who wouldn't want to praise Ellis's White? At last we have an author who doesn't run scared of the Twitter mob. At last we have a book brave enough to mock the humorless drabs of professional outrage. At last we can read a courageous battle cry against political correctness.

Alas, even perversity won't carry a reader this far. Try as you can, Ellis's new book remains just plain bad. In the face of the denunciations, you might find yourself wanting to approve the idea of the book, but you won't get much help from the book itself. Political correctness and the economy of competitive victimhood are vile things that ought to be scourged from the public square. But Bret Easton Ellis isn't the man to do it, and White proves more an overcooked spaghetti noodle than the cat-o'-nine-tails we need.

Ellis was an undergraduate at Bennington when he published his first novel, Less Than Zero, in 1985, and by the time he produced American Psycho in 1991, he was firmly established as the hippest and hottest of young brat writers. And maybe that's part of the problem with White. The now 55-year-old author might have spent too long as the brash hotshot, the youngest person at the table. Through the decades of drug-fueled parties in a celebrity life, he was growing old without growing up.

And White is a sadly adolescent book—adolescent in the sense that it makes its author seem morbidly self-involved, wildly over-sensitive, and hyperbolically obsessed with the trivial. Yes, the book contains some of the more culturally useful bits of the playful young: a willingness to tilt at windmills, for example—attack sacred cows, play the gadfly, and all the other clichés for the purity of action available to those untainted by experience. But mostly White is Ellis as sullen, surly teenager, and the act just hasn't aged well.

Through its disjointed set of essays, White takes up tweeting, Ellis's famous acquaintances, more tweeting, the death of humor in political correctness, tweeting again, the failure of movie versions of Ellis's books, how tweeting works, and corporations' stranglehold on American culture. And all that's before the chapter actually titled "Tweeting."

Ellis has a relationship to Twitter akin to a 15-year-old girl's love-affair with the boy she met at camp—the one who doesn't write her back anywhere near as often as she writes him. White opens with an image of its author at the computer, fixated on what's happening online, as an "overwhelming and irrational annoyance" continually overcomes him. Meanwhile, his response to what he dismisses as triggered snowflakes is to ask how "anyone could really, deeply, care about a tweet." He complains about how he was disinvited from a gay-activist dinner because of a tweeted joke about gays and tells his detractors, "Hey, it's a Twitter account, guys, move on."

Is Ellis right that too many people today have made themselves "vulnerable to micro-aggressions while living in their half of a black-and-white world"? Sure. Are millennials nothing more than "Generation Wuss," when compared with his own Generation X? Well, maybe, but Ellis—the author who insisted that American Psycho presented the truest picture of Generation X—isn't really in a position to tout the moral acuity of his demographical cohort.

Just as Ellis is obsessed with Twitter while denying the seriousness of Twitter, so he's obsessed with politics—especially the socio-politics of celebrity—while announcing that one of the main problems with the world is that we are obsessed with politics.

In its review of White, Vox takes out after Ellis for this notion, reminding him that "there is no such thing as non-political art." And maybe we can discern here at least the skeleton of the book Bret Easton Ellis could have written, should have written, if he had set aside his pose of angsty teenaged provocateur and thought his way through our cultural problems as an adult.

Ellis is an artist, after all. And what he seeks, underneath all the dreary contradictions and humble-brags and rants in White, is cultural space in which to be an artist—an artist mostly of the social-satire ilk, maybe, but with an emphasis on the word artist. An astonishing amount of our current public problem is revealed by the ability of Vox to note so casually, in the of-course-we-all-know-this voice, that art by its nature is only political. So much for ars gratia artis. So much for the existence of a piece of art apart from the socio-political standing of the artist who created it. It’s all politics all the time—and why is anyone surprised that the mood of the day is anger?

In truth, what Ellis wants most of all is to be an aesthete, in the strict sense of someone who believes that art is both distinct from politics and more important than politics in the great chain of being. We have seen this before—aesthetes trying to look back down at politics from the aspect of aesthetics. That's what Oscar Wilde, for example, attempted in his 1891 essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism." Wilde mostly failed in the project, but in an age as unrelentingly political as our own—an age determined to bring everything under the shadow of its grim we-alone-are-moral politics—there is certainly room for a great aesthetic defense of art and rejection of the dominant politics of the cultural elite.

Unfortunately, Bret Easton Ellis's White just isn’t it.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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