Bret Easton Ellis Is Less Than Impressed
Literature's Eternal Enfant Terrible Talks Politics
- Text: Robert Grunenberg
- Photography: Christian Werner
“I saw your Instagram with David Hockney,” says Bret Easton Ellis, when we meet at his apartment in West Hollywood during a sunny spring afternoon. “What was he like?” Ellis asks me while we walk over to his office space, talking about Hockney and other artists living in Los Angeles. The 53-year-old bestselling novelist and screenwriter wears casual cloth, is barefoot, and prefers to have all his meetings in a familiar, easygoing setting.
We drink iced coffee and chit-chat smoothly into the interview, talking about palm trees and the Eagles song “Hotel California,” a recurring topic in Ellis’ monthly podcast. “The Eagles have these epic songs about the history of Los Angeles that dovetailed nicely into what I was thinking about Los Angeles when I was becoming a writer—Los Angeles as this dark, haunted wasteland, a juxtaposition of the movie industry,” says the California-born Ellis, who became known as the enfant terrible of American literature in the 1980s with his debut novel Less Than Zero, a coming-of-age story about the fears and desires of Generation X. As he became well known in his early twenties, I wonder and ask:
Bret Easton Ellis
Looking back at your career, do you feel success and fame at a young age is a burden?
When you become well known, you’re kind of trapped in an image in a lot of ways. You stay frozen at that time, whether you’re a beautiful actress, a famous football player, a writer — I often think that I was stuck at 21 as this bad boy writer, and that people still look at me that way. They look at my work as all about youth, it defines me, it’s my brand in a way. I compare myself to a lot of my contemporaries who came of age in the 80s, and they’re kind of just all gone.
How was your coming out as a gay writer?
I never identified as a gay man. I happen to be a man of many interests, one of them was men. I was 6'1, I had this hair color, I liked this movie, I liked this kind of guy, I liked this kind of car — that was how I saw gayness for myself. It never defined me. It was just one in a series of things I had to deal with. I never had the torture of coming out. I didn’t care enough to tell my parents. I just lived my life. Certainly, it was easier where I was to live that life: Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. It was much more accommodating than say Arkansas. Certainly exploring my sexuality at Bennington College in Vermont in the early 80s, pre-AIDS, was nothing. Becoming famous, it became a little tricky. I didn’t want to be a gay writer. Because then you weren’t just a writer, you were a gay writer. That’s how it worked from the 80s, into the 90s. So, I played coy about it. I lived in the glass closet. People kind of knew, I didn’t admit it, but it wasn’t the closet. I didn’t pretend to have girlfriends.
I never identified as a gay man. I happen to be a man of many interests, one of them was men.
Right. It wasn’t a big part of your identity.
I was never politicized by being gay. I missed the whole AIDS thing because I was too young, so that didn’t politicize me either. I was lost in writing for many decades, the 80s, the 90s, and a little bit into the 2000s. It wasn’t really until 2005 when I gave an interview to The New York Times that I officially came out. I didn’t think it was a big thing, it was part of a conversation where I said I dedicated Lunar Parkto my dead boyfriend, Michael Kaplan. So, I always felt gay culture was a ghetto growing up. I didn’t want what gay men were kind of forced into — into a neighborhood, into a gay club — it was never attractive to me.
How do you feel about gay culture today?
Terrible. The writer Tennessee Williams once said, the worst thing that could have happened to gay men was Stonewall, because pre-Stonewall, pre-politicization of gay life, it was kind of a glorious free-for-all that was a secret, a vast secret society of men always managing to find ways to fuck and meet each other. Once it became this kind of miserable, political thing, being a gay person meant that you were automatically ten things. For a generation of men, that’s when the fun went out of the room. There was also a danger, a taboo element, a mystique thing about it that I miss. I miss the idea of the gay artist as a radical trailblazer, that has been flattened out in our culture. We won’t have a Tennessee Williams, or Robert Mapplethorpe — there was a kind of intensity from a gay artist that was forced upon him by society, by these circumstances.
The movement begins invisibly and suddenly something is radical—but is anyone’s Instagram radical? Is anyone’s Twitter radical? Even porn is kind of this corporate thing.
The German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim says the gay community missed a chance to implement an alternative lifestyle regarding sexuality and relationships, apart from the guidelines of society. He argues that gays adapted to what was already in place — monogamy, marriage, family — and didn’t emancipate, but just fit in.
I mean, is it so great that Neil Patrick Harris is our spokesperson? That the kind, good, asexual gay is the person who we are promoting to be our voice? In the last ten years, I look to gay pornstars as being the most radical element of gay life, especially those who are very easy with it and have their own production companies. I’m much more interested in them than in that mini-series When We Rise by Dustin Lance Black about gay rights and the struggle for freedom for gays. I have zero tolerance for that kind of art and that kind of thinking. So with everything else, political correctness has ruined it for everybody. There is still a gay underground of men with sex parties, it’s not as if that completely evaporated, it’s just that it melded into the rest of the world, it became like Las Vegas, like globalization. It’s been commodified.
What is your opinion on the journalist Milo Yiannopoulos?
Milo Yiannopoulos is a perfect example, the gay provocateur from Breitbart. Fantastic, I thought he was great. The gay world needs all kinds of voices, I don’t just want the nice gay boys at the GLAAD Awards defining me. I know a solid majority of gay men who are slobs, who are fat, who are not into this idealized masculinity, or little fey gay boy stuff that’s being promoted in the culture. I know a solid majority of gay dudes who are not politically correct, they think gay life is terrible, and they have a way of expressing themselves that would not be allowable in so many ways in the culture. That is why I thought Milo Yiannopoulos was great — it was a different kind of viewpoint. He was proudly gay, talked about sex a lot, kind of filthily, and was very smart, and yet the straight world destroyed him. I think he’ll find a way to come back.
What do you think about the increase of radical groups on both sides of the political spectrum in the US, movements like the alt-left and the alt-right?
I tend to think that there is, on both sides, the alt-right and the alt-left, a passion that is missing from the middle, from the mainstream. There does seem to be a fire and an anarchic attitude, a playfulness, a mischief. The mischief stems from both sides wanting to tear down the status quo. They believe the establishment is a lie, the media is a lie, Hollywood is a lie, Clinton is a lie, Obama is a lie, Trump is a lie. They hate the rules by which they are being fed information. There was a fascinating piece in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago about how young alt-right journalists, I’m talking about in college — 20, 21-year-old guys — have now been invited into the White House press corps. Never would that have happened under someone like Obama, who was very by the book, there were rules to how you were presidential, there were rules to how you dealt with a press conference. That’s gone with Trump, that is just not part of the game anymore. I think it frightens a lot of people, it horrifies my boyfriend who believes in logic, that there is a truth in the logic of things. Then there are people who think that truth is manufactured, fake, built by fake people. But, truth makes my boyfriend feel safe, and he doesn’t feel safe with the way Trump won the election—Trump, who destroyed the rules. He lit them on fire and they burned down. That terrified people.
There seems to be the desire to break with the liberal elite discourse in media and with political correctness among young people. Why?
I mean that seems to me to be the misguided censoring young person who has been radicalized by the new moral superiority that you see in millennials and social justice warrior thinking. A kind of royal authority, they think they’re absolutely right about everything. They believe in definite truth in everything, and I think that’s a problem for your generation and it’s certainly destroying the left to a degree. This moral authority is one reason the election here went the way it did, the deplorable, “when they go low, we go high,” those things the Democrats were saying absolutely blew open the disparity between the voters. Democrats had become neoliberal elitists in a way that they were not a couple generations ago. Certainly, with Obama, it exploded in academia, it exploded in identity politics. And it’s always, always, always the economy. It’s money. Bill Clinton knew this very well when he tried to tell his wife’s advisors, stop talking about Donald Trump, stop talking about transgender people’s problems, that is not going to win you the election, and yet, they went ahead and did it. I think now when people see Obama with his 65-million-dollar book deal having lunch with Bono at a restaurant where it probably costs $4000 to eat, that’s where the Democratic party ended up, and it’s what ultimately decided the election. When Bono, for example, says what’s happened to this country is disgusting, it’s the biggest moral disaster ever — he’s wiping away 64 million people, he’s just dismissing them with that statement. The Trump camp never went after the voters, it went after the Western establishment, and yet the moral superiority left was only after the voters.
Certainly, in Germany and in other European countries, intellectuals who are usually considered to be on the left side of politics, criticized the liberal elite media discourse with its strong focus on identity politics. Why? Because they believe that the working class, who usually would vote for the left side, voted right as a protest against a political agenda that made them feel excluded.
It’s common sense. You are not defined by the fact that you suck dick, have a vagina or a skin color. And therefore are privy to all of this self-victimization and pain. Identity politics stress that instead of stressing your humanity. When you talk about gender neutral toilets, for the majority of people who just care about making enough money for food and living — it’s off-putting. When Caitlin Jenner said on her show “Ladies, we have a 20 trillion dollar deficit in this country, I don’t care where we pee, we’ll figure it out,” it offended other academic, liberal transgender people. Donald Trump was one of the people who said, “yeah, pee in my building, I really don’t care.” His values have flip-flopped all over the place, he goes wherever opportunity strikes, but at heart I think he’s a showbiz liberal on a lot of issues. Common sense went out the window and everything became so inflated that it became a protest vote, whether they are liking Trump or not, it’s a protest to stop what’s going on. Let’s get back to the fact that we’re just people, you’re just a person, you’re not a black girl, you’re not a gay boy, you’re not trans — you’re a person, and we live in one country and we’ve got to figure out what’s going on. I think that this elitist, neoliberal wave of the last decade, the coastal left and identity politics, is becoming a rapid thing of the past.
To quote an old 70s song, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” and don’t care what anybody thinks.
What is your opinion on our globalized consumer culture, on a world that is flooded with corporate fast products like fast food, fast fashion, fast music, fast imagery, things that are very likeable and everyone consumes because it’s easy—there is less complexity, quality, and sophistication. Do you think that all these likeable products flatten our culture?
It is difficult in a world that is going to soon be maybe three corporations owning everything, with a list of rules as to what they want to put out as product and how they want all of us to behave. Let’s take Facebook, which is the first corporation many young people joined in their life. What Facebook as a corporation asked you to do was to not post anything sexual, to be very kind to other people, and to like everything, like it, like it, like it. That turned people into these kind of neutered Clockwork Oranges — the only way to get your voice heard was to conform to the company, and the kind of person that Facebook is putting out there is exactly what you described. That’s what happens in a corporate world.
Where are the spaces for freaks, for experiment, for dreaming in our consumer culture? Where can we find something that doesn’t make sense, ideas that are difficult to commodify?
You know, on a level it’s very hard to be that person you’re describing. I don’t know where the psychos and the dreamers are, where their world is going to be allowed to bloom, to flower, when everything has become so corporatized. There are so many rules about expression and how you express yourself. Every now and then when I see something that is kind of a radical work, which is so rarely, it’s usually redefined or co-opted by the mainstream and then made safe. Unless it’s done in ways that are very subtle.
Yeah, it has to be subtle.
The movement begins invisibly and suddenly something is radical — but is anyone’s Instagram radical? Is anyone’s Twitter radical? Even porn is kind of this corporate thing. You would think that in a DIY culture there would be more feeling for expressing yourself in such a way, but then our culture is also so censorious — what does that do to the mind of the creator? When you’re thinking about how you want to express yourself, it has to follow the guidelines. Well, the guidelines of society really suck. They’re mostly very middle class, very general, very don’t rock the boat.
What ethos about life has made you a better writer?
To quote an old 70s song, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” and don’t care what anybody thinks. That’s not only for now, it’s something that I used to say when I was a young writer. What are your parents going to think, what are your friends in L.A. going to think, oh my god. I realized if I am told that by a couple of people, I even more so have to write it and make sure it’s published. What you have to do as an artist is ignore and not listen to the jingle jangle of the gatekeepers of societal guidelines, the people who decide what should be allowable and what should not be allowable.
- Text: Robert Grunenberg
- Photography: Christian Werner