Sonny Mehta, the president of Alfred A. Knopf and its affiliated trade paperback line, Vintage Books, said yesterday that he will publish Bret Easton Ellis's controversial and bloody "American Psycho" early in the spring.
On Wednesday, longtime Knopf rival Simon and Schuster abruptly dropped the book -- which has extensive passages devoted to dismemberment and torture of women -- as "a matter of taste." The $300,000 Ellis received from S&S is his to keep; one source said the 26-year-old writer had gotten "somewhat more than that" from Mehta. Ellis's agent, Amanda Urban, refused to comment.
"American Psycho" will be in the Vintage Contemporaries series, whose other writers have included Jay McInerney, Richard Ford and Thomas McGuane. "It seems to me appropriate, given the immense coverage and curiosity about Mr. Ellis's new book, that we bring out 'American Psycho' now in original trade paperback edition, to swiftly reach the widest possible readership," Mehta said in a press release.
When the tale of a serial killer was in production at S&S, it generated news stories that ridiculed its literary qualities ("zombie prose," said Time), reported that the artist who designed Ellis's previous covers refused to do this one and said that women at the publishing house were incensed by the extreme depictions of atrocities against females.
Yesterday, at least some employees of Knopf seemed to feel the same sort of dismay. "People here are upset, and think that publishing it is taking advantage of a sales opportunity at the expense of taste and quality," said one source.
By phone from Florida, where he was attending the Miami Book Fair, Mehta said: "I personally don't think Bret has written this book in a particularly exploitative way. Otherwise, I would have felt differently about taking it on."
He added that he hadn't heard of any complaints from employees. "Bret has written a novel depicting aspects of a society that he and the rest of us are living in. It's not a pretty picture."
The best-seller potential of "American Psycho" is likely to dominate New York publishing conversations into the new year. Bootlegged copies of the manuscript are already a hot commodity. Simon and Schuster had not yet printed the book when it canceled publication, nor had it distributed advance galleys.
"If some of the passages in question are indeed so sickening that it becomes the literary equivalent of a snuff film, I seriously question whether it would appear on most best-seller lists," said Donald Lamm, chairman of W.W. Norton. "There isn't anyone I've talked to who has seen the manuscript who hasn't come away sickened and convinced it was exhibitionist."
Roger Straus, president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agreed. "I wonder whether controversy will enhance the sale of a book that is so -- I suppose 'strong' is the word I want to use," he said diplomatically.
"I think there's a good deal of greed and avarice going on here on both sides. Presumably S&S bought the book originally because it had a lot of sensational possibilities, and so, I assume, did Knopf. I doubt if either of them would say they bought it because it's great literature," Straus said.
("I think that's an offensive remark," Mehta said in response.)
Howard Kaminsky, chief executive officer of the Hearst Trade Book Group, believes "American Psycho" has a good deal of potential. Calling it a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" variation on Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," Kaminsky said: "I would think it would be a big success. This kind of pre-launch guarantees a book is going to sell."
He added that he hadn't thought it was possible for something in book form to still shock people. "The last time something like this happened was when Philip Roth discovered liver," he said, a reference to one of the more attention-grabbing aspects of "Portnoy's Complaint."
Mehta tooks pains to distance the purchase of "American Psycho" from Knopf, a publisher that is very conscious of its classy image as a standard-bearer of literature in our time. "I bought it in my capacity as president of Vintage," he said. Yet the question still arises: What would the eponymous founder of the distinguished house of Knopf, which celebrated last month its 75th anniversary, have thought of "American Psycho"?
"I have no idea," Mehta said. "You'll have to commune with him."
Extremely violent fiction, often with the mutilation of women as its subject, is a large enough slice of the horror market to have been given its own name: splatterpunks. With the headlines and money garnered by "American Psycho," the movement is likely to spread even further into the mainstream.
"Remember the piece in Vanity Fair about those four serial killers at San Quentin who play bridge together?" asked Kaminsky. "I'm sure they're working on something right now."