Bad day for publishing

Anna Quindlen

November 20, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

THERE WERE so many opportunities to reject Bret Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho."

There was the moment when the manuscript first landed on the editor's desk at Simon & Schuster, its pages filled with Armani ties, silk pumps, severed heads, nail guns, Bottega Veneta briefcases, mutilated corpses, microwave cannibalism and fabulous stereo equipment. There was the day when its editor gave excerpts from the most violent chapters to the editorial board, or the weeks when women at Simon & Schuster first read the novel and were appalled by its graphic descriptions of sexual torture-murders.

But over the last year one of America's great publishing houses had accepted, edited, and paid a reported $300,000 for the book about a fictional Wall Street serial killer, Harvard grad Pat Bateman, Ted Bundy by way of mergers and acquisitions. "American Psycho" survived the revulsion of many of the people involved in its publication.

Last week Richard E. Snyder, the chairman of Simon & Schuster, announced he was canceling "American Psycho."

After slash-and-burn stories appeared in Time and Spy magazines, Snyder finally read the book that everyone was talking about, and decided it was in poor taste. Or maybe the decision was made by Martin Davis, the chairman of Paramount Communications, Simon & Schuster's parent company. Davis makes movies, including the "Friday the 13th" films, since we're talking taste here.

He denied reports that he ordered the cancellation, but said he "endorsed it wholeheartedly."

Ellis' agent found another prestigious publisher in a nanosecond, and there's betting that the book will sell on controversy alone.

This isn't Faulkner, folks. Much of "American Psycho" is of the tiresome enfant terrible school of fiction, heavy with name brands. All the clothes are expensive, all the fish is prepared rare and no one asks for vodka when they can ask for Absolut.

But there's more than that here, and that's why two groups of respected editors, the ones who had it and the ones who have it now, wanted this book.

Pat Bateman lives in a world so full of artifice and surface, so empty of any emotion, that one moment he's dismembering a woman and the next he's complaining about a bad table in this week's hot restaurant.

He keeps warning people he wants to kill them, but the noise level in the clubs is so high and the discourse at meals so vapid that no one hears. He doesn't need morals; he has money instead.

As an epitaph for the 80s, this has a repellent reality. The people are hateful, the violence nauseating, the sex graphic and impersonal.

Is it heartening to read novels in which men and women treat one another with affection and respect, and kindness is the overweening emotion? Yes. Does that reflect the world? Hardly.

The eternal question about violence in art is whether it simply reflects our worst behavior, or inspires it. We are so terrified of inspiration that sometimes we are moved to suppression.

But reflection is essential because it often leads to thought, and occasionally to understanding.

That is why we publish troubling books. A publisher who makes safe decisions has abdicated. He is, according to a quip repeated often this week, not a publisher, but a printer.

Writers feared the conglomerization of publishing. They believed the day would come when men who know little about books -- "but I know what I like!" -- would make publishing decisions guided by profits and press coverage.

Robert K. Massie, president of the Authors Guild, called the cancellation "a black day," adding, "It's a day the guild has been predicting would come since giant corporations started buying distinguished American publishing houses."

Book publishing has always been a balance between commerce and art. Sometimes a publisher publishes a book because it is wildly commercial, sometimes because it promises to be a masterwork, mostly because it falls somewhere in between.

These decisions are subjective. When an editor reads a manuscript, finds it revolting and without artistic redemption, and rejects it, that is an exercise in taste.

Some might have rejected "American Psycho" on those grounds when it was first submitted.

There was only one reason to reject it now, this late in the game.

That reason is cowardice.

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