Cries of 'censorship' and 'boycott' greet planned publication

TOO GRUESOME FOR WORDS?

December 14, 1990|By Elizabeth Venant Henry Scarupa, of The Sun's features staff, contributed to this article. | Elizabeth Venant Henry Scarupa, of The Sun's features staff, contributed to this article.,Los Angeles Times

Patrick Bateman is a Wall Street yuppie gone mad in the '80s who tortures, mutilates, rapes, murders, dismembers and even tries to make a meat loaf from the remains of one of his female victims.

Bateman is the anti-hero of "American Psycho," the new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, who rose to national prominence five years ago with "Less Than Zero" and sank from sight with his second novel, "The Rules of Attraction." "American Psycho" has sparked torrid controversy in publishing circles and is now escalating into a national cause celebre, full of the sound and fury of moral outrage.

The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, abruptly canceled the book in mid-November, just a month before its scheduled release. The novel was then picked up by Vintage Books, a paperback division of Knopf with Random House as the parent company, which plans to publish the novel by early spring.

These back-to-back bombshells have jarred the industry. Simon & Schuster's highly unusual move has raised questions of censorship from some quarters, and Random House's decision has drawn the ire of women's groups.

Leading the outcry is Tammy Bruce, 28, coordinator of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women. She is proposing a boycott of Random House publications and has started a local telephone hot line that allows callers to hear the "Psycho" excerpt describing Bateman's nail-gun attack.

" 'American Psycho' " is the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across," Ms. Bruce tells listeners on the hot-line tape. "The book is . . . in effect, a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women . . ."

The following passage comes from a purloined copy of the "Psycho" manuscript, as edited by Simon & Schuster:

"Perhaps on instinct, perhaps from memory, she makes a futile -- for the front door, crying out . . . [E]ffortlessly, I'm leaping in front of her, blocking her escape, knocking her unconscious with four blows to the head from the nail gun . . . I stretch her arms out, placing her hands flat on thick wooden boards, palms up, and nail three fingers on each hand, at random, to the wood by their tips. . . . After I've sprayed Mace into her eyes, mouth, and into her nostrils, I place a camel-hair coat from Ralph Lauren over her head, which drowns out the screams, sort of . . ."

Locally, Fran Everett, coordinator of the Baltimore chapter of NOW, says she had not heard of the West Coast boycott and questions the effectiveness of any such effort.

"I think calling attention to the book is a waste of time," she says. "The less publicity the book gets, the quicker it will die a natural death. We shouldn't give it publicity."

Although NOW will not formalize the boycott until a national meeting in January, feminists are rallying behind Ms. Bruce in growing numbers. In a letter addressed to Sonny Mehta, president of Vintage; Random House owner Samuel I. Newhouse Jr. and Alberto Vitale, the company's chief executive, nine women authors, including Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett, express their outrage at the book and support for the boycott.

"Sonny Mehta would not have been so quick to buy the spoils of Simon & Schuster if the book's protagonist had dismembered and tortured a black, Jewish or Indian man," the letter reads.

Nevertheless, the specter of censorship has been raised by forces as disparate as Mr. Ellis, the Authors Guild and New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen.

But not everyone agrees that a boycott is a threat of censorship. Loren Siegel, an attorney speaking for the American Civil Liberties Union's national office, says neither pressure for cancellation nor the boycott involves an attempt at censorship. "You have a true marketplace of ideas here," she says. "This is a traditional consumer issue."

With increasing opposition to "Psycho," the author and the executives of Random House, Knopf and Vintage are not returning telephone calls. "It's too hot to talk about, even off the record," said one representative who was reached.

Meanwhile, the rumor mills have been working at full tilt and bootleg copies of the manuscript have been circulating through the literary underground and appearing in national publications.

Mr. Ellis' agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, says that violence makes up only about one-tenth of "American Psycho." "I challenge anybody who cares to read this book to come back to me and say, 'This book is about violence in America.' The book has been wildly misrepresented by dint of these excerpts that are being printed and read."

Ms. Bruce, of NOW, responds: "I have not stopped to count the bodies or the duration of torture."

Three women from Random House, she says, have called her office, talking in whispers, saying they were afraid of losing their jobs if they protested the book's publication. Says one editor, "As a woman I'm really ill at ease about [the Ellis] book. I dread reading it."

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