'Psycho' Analysis

"She says nothing, just looks at me like I'm the opposite of civilization or something." -- from American Psycho THE BRET EASTON ELLIS affair continues to cause reverberations for both his former publisher and his new one. Indeed, this has become the biggest publishing story since The Satanic Verses. In both cases, it seems, the actual literary quality of the book in question has quickly become irrelevant.

Salman Rushdie's novel was criticized in some quarters for being unreadable, even if no one doubted the energy and intellect behind it. Photocopied manuscripts of Ellis's American Psycho, meanwhile, are a hot item in the New York publishing world, and many of those who have read the extremely graphic tale of a serial killer have blasted it for having no literary qualities whatsoever.

Apparently that doesn't matter much. When a media phenomenon reaches a certain mass, criticism responds more to images and allegations than to the work itself. I got a call from an advocacy group for the mentally ill that was considering protesting American Psycho. From the group's point of view, Ellis, by describing his protagonist as "crazy" in an interview, was implying that the mentally ill are frequently sicko murderers who cut their victims into bite-size pieces. Furthermore, the group thought the very title of the book was a slur on its constituency.

A more rational protest is being planned by the Los Angeles and New York City chapters of the National Organization for Women. L.A. NOW President Tammy Bruce is putting together a boycott against not only the Ellis novel but all fiction from Knopf (under whose paperback line, Vintage, Psycho is being published) and the sister Random House imprint as well.

"What we're doing is much broader than just one book," says Bruce. "We need to show these gatekeepers of American culture that there's no more a market for fiction about the torturing and skinning of women that there is for, say, fiction about the torturing and the gassing of Jews."

Bruce is an effective spokeswoman for her views, and the thought of 300,000-plus NOW members refusing to buy Knopf or Random House books must be enough to give any of their fiction editors the shudders. After all, it's women resembling the average NOW member -- urban, highly educated, culturally aware -- who buy much of this fiction in the first place.

Bookstores may end up caught in the middle. "We'll have to make a decision about carrying something that may be distasteful to a sizable part of our customers, yet also is in demand from others," says Jeff Rogart, merchandising vice president for Waldenbooks.

"We're not going to hide behind ignorance on this one," he adds. "We'll get hold of an advance reading copy, try to expose it to some people here and determine to what extent we feel the book has a market in our stores."

Any boycott against American Psycho will have to take into consideration the fact that such protests often simply increase a book's audience. Not for nothing did publishers once advertise books as "Banned in Boston."

Case in point: Uta Ranke-Heinemann's Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, a treatise by a German theologian that "proves" the Catholic Church has for 20 centuries "denigrated sex, degraded women, and championed a perverse ideal of celibacy." When it was published earlier in Britain, a reviewer for the Yorkshire Post described it as "richly irreverent stuff of the kind that, until a couple of decades ago, would have insured {sic} the work a place on the Index of Forbidden Books and, consequently, soaring sales."

Lo! That's more or less what happened last month when Doubleday sent out advance copies of the book to a variety of feminists, theologians and church people. The cover letter by Thomas Cahill, the director of religious publishing at Doubleday, said that "while we would delight in your approbation, we would willingly receive your admonition if you feel that's what in order."

One of the recipients was the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O'Connor. He responded by lashing out in a column in Catholic New York, saying "it is time we stopped buying the line of purveyors of hatred and scandal and malice and libel and calumny." He did not, however, go as far as to call for a boycott.

The New York Times picked up the story. Other media followed suit. Doubleday, which had started with a modest 6,500 copies, went back to press for 25,000 more.

"There is a kind of ontological symbiosis between people like Cardinal O'Connor, who feel they must renounce things, and people like us, who feel we must publish them," Cahill says. "We need one another, each in order to do his job properly."

He adds, however, that "it never occurred to me in a million years that he would do what he did and say what he said . . . You can be calculating, but there's no way to be sure your calculations are going to come out."

The same is true for both the boycotters and the publisher of American Psycho. At the moment, the book is being slightly reworked by Ellis under the guidance of Knopf and Vintage President Sonny Mehta. Publication is being rushed through, with 40,000 copies available as early as February. For all concerned, this is a matter of pride and reputation.

Simon and Schuster has suffered pretty grievously on both fronts recently, ever since -- well, at least since the New York Times ran a corporate profile Oct. 29 that concluded S&S "has been a model of relative publishing stability." A cover story on the Ellis affair in New York magazine last week detailed the whole misadventure, quoting an S&S source as saying, "No one here is very happy about the book's being canceled, and everyone is furious at the way it was handled."

The firing of Senior Editor Allen Peacock in the midst of this didn't help. A group of his writers protested by sending an open letter to S&S chairman Richard Snyder that expressed dismay at the "abrupt and baseless dismissal" and noted that Peacock was "a literary editor of great committment {sic} and integrity." In an age when editors are often accused of not knowing how to edit anymore, the letter prompted a vision of these 13 authors suddenly adrift on hostile seas, lacking not only a publisher's commitment but an ability to spell the word.

One of those authors, John Calvin Batchelor, went a good deal further. He sent off a letter to Martin Davis, the chairman of S&S's parent firm, Paramount Communications, congratulating him for dumping the Ellis novel while expressing concern about the fate of his editor.

Now, Davis is head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and while Batchelor is a known quantity in certain literary circles he doesn't contribute to the S&S bottom line the way, say, Jackie Collins does. So he didn't expect a response.

Yet Davis contacted Batchelor, talked to him on the phone, and agreed to have breakfast with him. Chairman Snyder joined them.

"I said that you don't make money on literature immediately, that it's a long-term investment and if you don't stick with it you're doing someone else's R&D," recalls Batchelor. "And I said each generation has three or four dozen good writers, but there's only a handful of editors who can handle them."

The session lasted 90 minutes, with Batchelor saying that both Peacock and his writers were owed an apology and an explanation. Davis was sympathetic, Snyder much less so. When Snyder said, "You're such a friend of Allen's, you're free to go," Davis responded with "We hope you'll remain an integral part of our company."

Davis didn't get his wish. The next day, the S&S editorial board met and rejected Batchelor's new novel, The True Story of the Russian Moon Landing. An S&S spokeswoman says the two events had nothing to do with each other. Davis did not return a call for comment.

Says Batchelor philosophically: "As an insult, it fell short. It was a bit like being told the Titanic was overbooked."And Then She Typed . . . SOMETIMES writers can look back to a particular point and say, "Aha! That's when it all began." It's not necessarily the moment they first put pen to paper, but it's the one where their destiny became fixed. For Ellen Gilchrist, it came as she was heading to the West Indies in 1975 for some scuba-diving. "My 95th or 90-millionth trip," she says, but this one was special.

"I was going out the door to go get on the plane," Gilchrist remembers, "and I turned around and got my Royal portable typewriter out of the front hall closet. I took it with me and started writing. I don't have any idea why. The first poem that I wrote was a sonnet to my oldest friend."

Since then, there have been two small press books of poetry, a volume of journal extracts, and seven books of fiction (the latest, I Cannot Get You Close Enough, is reviewed on page 7). She's published so much in the last decade that you wonder how she has any time left for scuba-diving, let alone real life in her adopted hometown of Fayetteville, Ark.

"If you praise somebody for something, they keep on doing it," she explains. "Ever notice that? Everyone kept saying, 'Oh, this is wonderful.' And I thought, 'You mean you can get this stuff published? And unlike poetry, people actually read it?' "

A teacher helped her make the switch to prose. "He said, 'Ellen, you can write this damn poetry all your life, but nobody's going to read it. Learn to write fiction. If you can write the libretto, you can hide the aria inside.' "

Before her decisive moment with the typewriter, Gilchrist did some other things. For instance, she's been married four times.

"All my marriages were in a pretty short period -- about 20 years. That seems like a very small part of my life. I'm 56 years old, so I've had 20 years of not being married . . . If I ever did it again I would do it forever. For better, for worse, for the whole thing. But when I got married in the past, I was too young to have any idea what I was doing. Besides, it was the only way you could have a sexual relationship in the world where I lived," which was the Deep South.

Two of the marriages were to the same man. "It's a very strange thing when you marry somebody twice," Gilchrist says. "You probably know you shouldn't be married to each other, but you're attracted enough to do something that mad again."

Not to mention that he's the father of your three sons, right?

"No, that's not why I did it. I did it because I liked him." She laughs.

The title of her collection Drunk With Love comes from the first poem she wrote on that 1975 trip, but could stand for the collected works. Her characters fall in, fall out, wrestle the subject to the ground until it screams for mercy.

"In the second grade I had my first real boyfriend," she remembers. "I used to walk him home from school carrying his books. The great love affairs are in grade school, probably. You just like somebody and he's your boyfriend. But nothing has to happen about it, nothing at all. Months can go by when the activity is just in abeyance. Maybe he comes and pushes you on the swing one time for two seconds."

Her love stories, she's reminded, don't usually have happy endings. She wonders if anyone's do. "How about {Hemingway's} The Old Man and the Sea?" she asks finally. "The relationship between the old man and the boy -- there's a love story."

Of course, she concedes, that was not exactly a full-fledged adult relationship. "You can't get it from another person. But you can learn how to love somebody else. If you can finally grow up, you can find someone that deserves to be loved and just love 'em. That's my latest hope. I'm going to give up trying to get people to love me, and I'm going to love them. At least I'm in charge, right?"