That's not a pretty picture now playing on Publishers' Row: Richard E. Snyder, chairman of Simon and Schuster, trying to pass himself off as innocent victim in "The Case of the Vile Manuscript." Snyder, who for years has basked in his reputation as a take-no-prisoners managerial terrorist with intimate knowledge of his firm's every affair, would have us believe that in the matter of Bret Easton Ellis's novel "American Psycho" he was entirely in the dark until he learned "through the press" about the slimy business in which S&S was about to engage.
Sorry about that, but it doesn't play. Simon and Schuster may be the biggest American publishing firm, but of this you can be certain: S&S doesn't put out $300,000 contracts on works of fiction without Dick Snyder's approval, and S&S doesn't give them prominent play in its catalogue without his cognizance not merely of their existence but of their essential character. Snyder may not have read every word of "American Psycho" in the year since the manuscript was delivered to S&S, but surely he had more than passing knowledge of its contents.
But now that, in Snyder's minced words, "it has been decided not to go forward with the publishing" of "American Psycho," the line out of his office is that "there was an incorrect decision" by the editors who accepted the novel for publication. This is leadership? Not exactly. It's the equivalent of John F. Kennedy blaming the Bay of Pigs on Dean Rusk and Allen Dulles instead of taking it all -- as in fact Kennedy did -- on himself: Why take the rap when there are subordinates around to do it for you?
If we're to believe Snyder, he was living in his own private vacuum when Amanda Urban, Ellis's agent, delivered "American Psycho" to S&S last year, and he stayed in it while the manuscript not merely went through the standard editing and pre-publication processes but also survived an intense internal debate about the propriety and/or desirability of publishing it at all. Ellis's gratuitously lurid, blood-choked descriptions of rape and murder may have scandalized many at S&S and -- after a vivid account in Time magazine of "the most appalling acts of torture, murder and dismemberment ever described in a book headed for the best-seller lists" -- may have aroused perfervid gossip on the outside, but Snyder, we are to believe, knew not a word of it; like that noted S&S author of current vintage, Ronald Reagan, Snyder was Above It All.
But then last week something happened, something weird and troubling. The door to the vacuum chamber suddenly burst open and the foul odor of Ellis's manuscript suffused the air. Like Clark Kent stripping off his workaday duds in the privacy of his telephone booth, Snyder cast aside the garb of detachment and emerged from his office in the uniform of Superpublisher. This is what he said: "Through the press, I became aware of the book, and then aware of its contents, and it was I who decided we should not put our name on this book. It's a matter of taste."
No: If taste had had anything to do with it, Simon and Schuster never would have accepted the book in the first place. Instead it's a matter of damage control. Not merely was Simon and Schuster getting fried in the press and in publishing gossip for going ahead with "American Psycho," but news of the book apparently had found its way into the office of Martin Davis, chairman of Paramount Communications, the entertainment conglomerate of which S&S is now a division. An article about S&S and "Psycho" on Page 43 of the December issue of Spy was followed, on Page 44, by one about a "purge" at Paramount. In reading the latter, as surely he did, Davis cannot have missed the former. Did he thereupon get on the wire to Snyder and tell him to can the book? Don't bet against it.
This, people in rumor-happy Publishingland are certain, is how it went. But Simon and Schuster is having none of that. It wants us to believe that Snyder, who for a year acted not at all on "American Psycho" except presumably to give it some form of assent, now acted entirely on his own in removing it from the S&S list. If you can figure how that came to pass without factoring Martin Davis into the equation, you're a more clever mathematician -- or a more credulous reader of the tea leaves being distributed by S&S -- than I.
The truth of the matter is that as with other publishing causes ce'le`bres of recent memory -- the departure of Robert Bernstein from Random House, the sacking of Andres Schiffrin at Pantheon, the decline and near-fall of Weidenfeld & Nicolson -- we'll never really know the truth of the matter. Yet you don't have to be the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins or Bennett Cerf to figure out what probably happened: S&S planned to ride the notoriety of "American Psycho" onto the bestseller lists and wasn't going to let "taste" get in its way, but didn't account for the revulsion the book was bound to arouse.
There's nothing new about this, and certainly nothing unique to Simon and Schuster, which is a venerable house with a distinguished past and a solid record of commercial success. If anything it's the good old American way: Count the money first, worry about intangibles like "taste" and "quality" later, if ever. Surely the thinking at S&S went this way: Bret Easton Ellis's second novel, "The Rules of Attraction," may have laid an egg, but his first, "Less Than Zero," did well enough so that S&S was justified in the hope that a new novel with his name on it, especially one positively reeking with scandal, would fly out of the bookstores faster than the speed of sound.
It was a publishing decision, pure and simple -- a cynical one, to be sure, but a business decision all the same. That S&S was confident it was a wise one is evident from its Spring 1991 catalogue, in which "American Psycho" is given a full page, book publishing's equivalent of ruffles and flourishes. The promotional copy reads in part: "From the best-selling author of 'Less Than Zero,' a shocking novel of manners and madness, money and murder, in the glamorous netherworld of New York. ... In this unsettling descent into the mind of a madman, Bret Easton Ellis shatters the complacent surface of a greedy decade. 'American Psycho' is a black comedy, a disturbing portrait of a psychopath, a subtle send-up of the blatant behavior of the 80s -- and a grotesque nightmare of lust and insanity."
You don't need to be a $100,000-a-year professor of English at Duke to deconstruct that one: S&S planned to market "American Psycho" for its shock value, and it constructed an elaborate thematic rationale -- "black comedy," "disturbing portrait," "subtle send-up" -- by which to put a gloss of literary respectability on it. S&S knew exactly what "American Psycho" was -- a piece of exploitive, sensationalistic junk -- and was planning to cash it in for all it was worth. Then it got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, and had to escape and save face at the same time; that's no easy trick, and S&S didn't pull it off.
So now we have S&S looking foolish, Richard Snyder most particularly, and Bret Easton Ellis howling about being "completely shocked" by its eleventh-hour rejection of his book. Poor little author: traduced and abandoned. But save your tears for someone else, because Ellis in fact is crying all the way to the bank: He gets to keep his $300,000 from S&S free and clear, and hauls in even more than that from Vintage Contemporaries, a stepchild of Knopf, which can't wait to cash in on the notoriety "American Psycho" has earned. Simon and Schuster's trash turns out to be Knopf's treasure; what this says about Knopf, under the new regime of Sonny Mehta, needs no elaboration.