Bret Easton Ellis is no stranger to shit-storms. At a time when most public figures communicate through the prism of PR, his take on the world feels aggressively unfiltered.
For three decades, Bret’s output as a bestselling author has been underpinned by biting humour and transgressive social commentary – the kind that never fails to cause controversy.
Even when interviewing the likes of Kanye West on his podcast or simply posting a late-night Tweet, his words will often be plundered for salacious sound bites.
But this is not someone who wants to shock just for the sake of it. What gets lost among the noise is a career path unlike any other.
In 1985, Less Than Zero – Bret’s debut novel about the alienated ennui of Californian rich kids – made him a literary star at the age of 21.
It’s been 25 years since the publication of American Psycho – a novel about a serial-killing Manhattan businessman who reveres Trump – and Bret seems bored by the amount of attention it’s still generating.
Now he’s directing an online series called The Deleted, which follows a group of former cult members in their twenties who have to survive by staying offline.
This is not some desperate bid to stay relevant. This is someone committed to exploring engaging ideas in whatever form they may take.
The following interview takes place in two parts. In the first call, which Bret fields from his L.A. apartment, a televised campaign speech by Hillary Clinton can be heard in the background.
By the second call, Donald Trump is President-elect and the world feels like a different place – a place where the echo chamber of social media has played a part in Trump’s rise to power.
But despite commenting on the result by Tweeting (and then deleting), “Somewhere in Manhattan tonight Patrick Bateman is smiling”, the 52-year-old rules the topic off-limits, simply describing the atmosphere as “hysterical, childish and borderline nauseating”.
What he is open to talking about, however, is the bigger picture: our relationship to the internet and how it can shape our existence.
It’s an idea he’s hit upon, with uncanny timing, in The Deleted: capturing a world where we recognise the destructive power of technology and yet still can’t resist its lure.
Pre-internet, digging for culture required doing some homework. An interview with Sonic Youth, for example, would lead me to Allen Ginsberg and The Stooges. I’d hear Jim Jarmusch talk about the director Yasujirō Ozu but, to access his work, I had to take two buses to the only video store that stocked art-house titles, before having 24 hours to watch the film and reckon with it. Now you can read Ginsberg’s Howl online, look up Ozu’s career on Wikipedia or just stream Sonic Youth’s entire catalogue. Has this made for a generation with surface interests and surface knowledge? Or am I being overly cynical in thinking people aren’t devouring culture the same way?
It’s not cynicism. The lack of investment equates to a lack of passion when everything comes so easily. If everything is at your fingertips in a matter of pushing a button then what does it really mean to you? What are you investing in it? How can you possibly be ardent about it? There is something to be said about going to the bookstore and buying books or going to a record store and buying an album. It’s gonna mean a lot more to you than streaming a million songs for $7.
Today you can make an album, record a podcast or edit a movie for almost nothing. Are these affordable avenues developing exciting artists or is it more a case of jack-of-all-trades and master of none?
It’s a touchy thing but I think the democratisation of the arts has fucked it up for everybody. In some ways there should be gatekeepers and there aren’t anymore, so there is just so much available to us and so much of it is bad!
Does our addiction to smartphones and social media trouble you?
I remember a couple of years ago I was making fun of the Spike Jonze movie Her. I liked the first half very much but thought it went off track in the second half, taking this idea about falling in love with your phone way too seriously. I don’t think I was ready for that message.
I think it should have ended right when they had sex that glorious night, but now it does resonate because it’s happened: my iPhone is my best friend and I take it with me everywhere. [Laughs] I kiss it before I go to sleep, I wake up with it before my boyfriend Todd. I’m always checking it and making sure it’s clean. [Laughs]
So yes, we are enthralled toward technology! I do see a sense of disconnect in contemporary society everywhere. But I wouldn’t attach any hand-wringing or morale to that. I can’t get that anguished over it; we can’t go back. And on a certain level I think, ‘Good!’… because people are hell!
Re-watching The Canyons and your short film Orphéus, I notice lots of shady texting and people hiding their phones from their partners. Is that a motif you’re drawn to for some reason?
That’s interesting because it’s all over The Deleted too. There are plot points that hinge on texts not being seen; people getting abducted because texting allows their abductors to find them off the grid. If they go online, they’re dead. I thought it was an interesting commentary on the notion of how hard it is to stay away from your phone. Is it possible for a young person to not use technology? If it’s a choice between life or death, where will it go?
On your podcast, you often discuss moments in pop culture that have rattled you, especially millennials and their staunch approach to political correctness. You’ve coined some memorable terms: ‘Generation Wuss’, ‘delicate little snowflakes’ and ‘millennial cry babies’. What exactly is it about this generation that concerns you so much?
I believe the invention of social media allowed you to control your own world. You could block people; you could like only certain people with a certain opinion – basically create a safe space for yourself. Yet that is not sustainable… The real world exists! It is not pro-you or pro-Bret. It is very much the opposite.
When millennials realise that, it paralyses them. They end up quitting their jobs because people have opinions different to all their Facebook friends. It’s created an outrage culture. There is this need to scold people, punish them and get some kind of gratification. But how deep is the outrage, really? These things tend to blow over in 24 hours and get replaced by something else.
Why is it so difficult to have a negative opinion online now?
Well, it just depends on where you are on the dial. It’s not difficult if you’re on the ‘right’ side and you have the ‘right’ opinion: the progressive ‘liberal ideological’ side. Then your opinion can be as big and as loud as it wants. So much of the clammering is from younger people who have drank the PC Kool-Aid and who really drive social media, more so than my elderly mother or even us cynical Gen Xers.
Progressive attitudes are what they want to extol. So if you are against that or if you criticise the aesthetics of it, then you just gotta wear your armour and take it. But you need to stay true to yourself. You get to a point where you go, ‘What’s more important: not offending people? Or saying what I want to say?’
I know someone who’d say that Clay, your protagonist in Less Than Zero, was a prototype for Generation Wuss: all self-absorbed and vacuous. Is he far too nihilistic to fit that mould?
To me, he’s a compendium of Generation X traits. I really do think that if a millennial experienced what Clay was experiencing, they would have a massive breakdown by page 50 and would probably have killed themselves by the end of the book. [Laughs] I see Clay as much more withdrawn, much more nihilistic, compared to what millennials can and cannot deal with.
My boyfriend cannot even handle the news being on in the house. That’s Generation Wuss! Pretending reality doesn’t exist. I don’t think Clay does that at all. He wants to see the worst and even says that to himself a number of times in the book. I do not hear millennials talk like that. They want to see the fake best.
In the documentary This Is Not An Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis, you mentioned having panic attacks after the release of Less Than Zero, not leaving your room and being scared by having all this attention placed on you. What was it like being shot into stardom?
The reviews were half bad, half good. But that had nothing to do with having a nervous breakdown. It was more realising the enormity of what had happened to me in terms of feeling like another Bret had been created and that I was kind of dead.
I will always be connected or defined by my work and that’s fine now. I just had to go through that moment to realise, ‘Okay, this is what people think of when they think of Bret Easton Ellis.’ And it got completely compounded with the release of American Psycho.
How quickly did you toughen up to criticism?
Way before Less Than Zero. In high school, in fact. I was never thick-skinned about being in love or relationships. I was very, very sensitive about stuff like that. But in terms of the work and being a writer, I became thick-skinned early on. I wrote about homosexuality and drug usage for a couple of my high-school classes.
Even though many of my classmates had experimented with drugs, having someone write about it – in fiction or nonfiction – had them asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Then in my first couple of years in college I just wrote stories that people hated, whether it was intense violence or sexuality.
I really got it from professors my first year at Bennington for using brand names and mentioning movies that my characters were watching or bands they were listening to. My professors would say, ‘This is going to be on the ash heap of literary history if you keep writing this way’ and so I just got a very thick skin early on.
How would Less Than Zero be received today?
There’s no way that level of fame could be replicated in today’s publishing world. It’s just not possible anymore. I’m not saying that grandly or bragging or complaining; it’s just the way it is. When I look at what happened, I had a number-one bestseller and it caused a lot of controversy; I was young and it sold a million copies – good for a first novel but not a blockbuster.
I got an enormous amount of press and a lot of it was critical of Simon & Schuster for publishing the diary of a young drug addict – ‘What has publishing come to?’ – but you just had to deal with it. The internet has made celebrity kind of meaningless – and I’m not attaching any positive or negative to that. The depth of celebrity and the impact it has just seems so fleeting.
It does seem like Warhol was right: like everyone is famous for 15 minutes. I tried to work with influencers on The Deleted. It was eye-opening to see how intensely famous these people had become through their Vine or Instagram or YouTube channel and yet the fleetingness of it all just seems so apparent even to them, in a way. It seems more difficult than ever to have a grounded, meaningful celebrity.
On-demand platforms like Netflix have levelled the playing field for low-budget filmmaking but, as a result, the anticipation of a big-screen movie event is dying. Are you at peace with that or is it something you still struggle with?
Movies are over. And you’ll hear this conversation with anyone out here. Cinephiles want to be contrarian about this and say, ‘Well, this indie grossed six million dollars so it’s not all over yet.’ But it is very apparent to people who are still watching and reading about movies that the business is well and truly finished.
I was having dinner with friends the other night and they were talking about friends of theirs who were working on the new Ben Affleck movie, The Batman. They were so frustrated because the script is so implausible and so filled with holes that there are so many fixes needed. They were basically told to shut up. ‘Nobody cares, we’re going to shoot this as is. Seventy per cent of our revenue is going to be coming from overseas [audiences] who don’t speak English, so you’re wasting your time.’
In 2007 cult musician Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle said that the MP3 is such a flat, empty format that vinyl – with all its size and huge artwork – will rise again. That was pretty accurate. Can you see a similar renaissance happening for the big screen? Or is that just way too romantic?
I think people respond to the content itself and not necessarily the medium, whether it’s films, vinyl or a hardcover book. I do like seeing movies as they were made to be seen on giant walls in a theatre with other people. It’s a very different experience than being in the safety of your bedroom where you’re able to control the movie. But despite all that, I still believe it’s about what it is relaying to you.
The medium is bound to change. I tend to be optimistic about it but I do not want to be a nostalgist. If stuff is really good – whether it’s music, movies, books – you’re going to be into it. I can’t let the change of venue necessarily destroy my feelings about content.
You’ve said the novel doesn’t interest you as much since publishing Imperial Bedrooms in 2010. Why?
It doesn’t feel like something I want to pursue right now. It was very shocking this last year seeing so many major male novelists all just be basically ignored: Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer. Book after book sank without a trace. There was no real discussion of them or no longform interest in the novel. I think that, again, it’s about connecting.
What do I have to say in a novel that I can’t say on my podcast? I know that sounds terrible. Novels used to be a way of conveying thought and feeling about contemporary society, letting people into a world that they’ve never been a part of or didn’t know a lot about. And now you don’t need a novel for that anymore.
That said, I still read novels all the time. I have a stack of them by my bed. I’m in the middle of reading The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, which is about 900 pages long and hugely pleasurable. Sometimes you try to pick up a novel because you’re so inundated with reality from scrolling through your screen.
But when you finally have time to sit down with a novel, it can be a bit of a chore – much more now than it ever was – to read about pretend people and pretend places with a pretend plot. I think it must seem as rarefied to some people as poetry books did 25, 30 years ago. To me, that is where fiction is.
The Deleted is available on Fullscreen.