American Psycho: A History of Controversy

In the spirit of Banned Books Week, we've pulled together some of the responses to one of the most controversial books of the twentieth century: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

American Psycho was originally due to be published by Simon & Schuster in the US. But, following a media storm about its supposedly ‘sadistic contents’ just three months before its release, they dropped it. ‘It was an error of judgement to put our name on a book of such questionable taste,’ said Richard E. Snyder, CEO of Simon & Schuster.

Sonny Mehta at Vintage Books picked it up and both he and Ellis received death threats when it was published. Even a year later, Ellis was banned from attending the opening ceremony of Euro Disney.

In a letter to the New York Times in 1991, Otto Friedrich wrote: ‘I think that this repulsive novel will contribute to the violence that afflicts our society, and that it will disgrace everyone who tries to profit from it.’

He was not alone in his repulsion. Australian national censorship legislation still classifies American Psycho as ‘R18’, meaning it can be sold only to over-18s, and must be shrink-wrapped.

The controversy crossed the pond with the book when Picador published it in 1991. But, as in the US, some reviewers looked upon it very favourably: ‘Bret Easton Ellis is a very, very good writer. He gets us to a T. And we can’t stand it. It’s our problem, not his. American Psycho is a beautifully controlled, careful, important novel which revolves about its own nasty bits.’ Fay Weldon, Guardian, 25 April 1991

Not long after publication, Bret Easton Ellis wrote a response to all the criticism of the book in the New York Times:

I had no idea the novel would provoke the reception it’s gotten, and I still don’t quite get it . . . But then I was not trying to add members to my fan club. You do not write a novel for praise, or thinking of your audience. You write for yourself; you work out between you and your pen the things that intrigue you.

During the years I worked on the book, I did not know how violent it would become. But it seemed clear to me that Bateman would describe these acts of brutality in the same numbing, excessive detail and flat tone that he recounts everything else—his clothing, his meals, his workouts at the gym. It seemed to me that he would not avoid telling the reader what he does when he murders people. For me, it was an aesthetic choice that made sense. “Surface Became the Only Thing”.

I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface—food, clothes—that is what defined people.

- From ‘Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of American Psycho’, New York Times, 6 March 1991

The Picador Classic edition of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, with an introduction by Irvine Welsh is out now.

American Psycho

Book cover for American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis’ violent black comedy about a wealthy New Yorker leading a double life as a serial killer turns twenty-five this year. 

One of the most controversial and talked-about novels of all time, this cult classic about the darkest side of human nature feels no less shocking and relevant a quarter of a century later.

For more about Bret Easton Ellis and his own response to American Psycho, check out our interview with him to celebrate 25 years of cult fiction.