How Much Violence Is Too Much Violence in Literature?

"There's an argument to be made, sure, that the violence in 'American Psycho' was gratuitous," says the author. But he also sees how the book is "a kind of performance art piece and the violence needs to be there."
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Your characters often have a numbness or indifference.  How much of this reflects pessimism in your own worldview?

Bret Easton Ellis:  I'm completely numb and I live in a luxurious world and that's what I write about.  That's all I know.  All I know is my own numbness and my own luxury.  And the novels are a reflection of that. 

It's fiction.  You know it's... fiction in a way is... I don't know.  I guess it's a reflection of... I don't know, your fantasies in a way.  I mean, I look at the books as, sure, on a certain level they're autobiographical but  they're also, you know, they're not real.  Patrick Bateman doesn't exist.  And Victor Ward in "Glamorama." They don't exist.  They're like made-up people and made-up situations, and that gives you the freedom to explore your obsessions and your fantasies.  You know, and actually I'm not a pessimistic person.  I'm really not.

If I was a truly pessimistic person I don't think I'd be writing novels and I don't think I'd be excited by the idea of writing novels.  I mean, sure, if you're living in this world you have a certain amount of pessimistic because that's just how life is, you know, there's things that hit you and "oh that's not fair" or "oh that sucks."  But in general I'm not a pessimistic person.  I'm not an optimistic person by any means, but I'm not a super pessimistic person and I'm not, you know, that numb.  I think I have a bit of a sense of humor about things.

Question:
At what point does graphic violence in fiction become gratuitous?

Bret Easton Ellis:  Oh it's all gratuitous.  I write very gratuitous violence and it's very... it's all over the place.  I don't know.  I mean, I don't, you know, yeah there's two books where there's a lot violence in it.  There's "American Psycho" and there's "Glamorama" which are pretty violent books.  And maybe they are gratuitous.  I don't know.  I mean, of course they didn't feel gratuitous to me because I was writing them and I felt that the violence needs to be there. 

But there's an argument to be made, sure, that the violence in "American Psycho" is gratuitous and I can understand that argument.  I can totally get it.  I can get both sides.  I can get the side that "Okay look the book is in it's own way a kind of performance art piece and the violence needs to be there so it comments on everything and it's all part of a puzzle."  And I can also see the other side where it just seems gross.  You've really just stepped over a line here and it's just gross and needless.  You know what?  I think both arguments are right.  I think they're both correct. It is gratuitous violence and yet it can also be seen as being something that's meaningful within the context of that book.  So, no, I mean, I can see both sides to it. 

Look, I think if you're writing a book about a serial killer or someone who fantasizes about being a serial killer, and you have that kind of obsessive attention to detail within that narrator... I mean, I didn't realize how violent "American Psycho" was going to be until I realized what the narrators voice was going to be like.  And that he was going to be someone completely obsessed by consumerism.  Everything in the book was going to be minutely detailed... and then I realized, well look I made an aesthetic choice.  I said, "Well that's going to spill into the killings." And that's how that happened.

If you're writing a book about terrorists, you know, and it's being narrated from a terrified narrator, well why he's terrified?  Well because of the things he's seen and so, you know, it makes sense to me.  It doesn't seem that... and I know you didn't mean gratuitous in a challenging way but no, I don't feel that the book is sort of grotesquely violent... Or yes I do, I don't know.  Maybe they are not... I don't know.  It's for the audience to decide.  Let's take a vote. Gratuitous? Not gratuitous?

Recorded June 23, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman