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Worries About a Book : 'American Psycho' outrages many; what to do?

December 16, 1990

The line between free expression and censorship is a clear one. The social and political terrain that surrounds it, however, is extraordinarily treacherous--marked not only by the well-known slippery slopes, but also by the quicksand of unintended consequence.

These are thoughts worth holding in mind when one considers the controversy that has arisen over publication of "American Psycho," a new novel by the young writer Bret Easton Ellis, who enjoyed a brief flurry of celebrity following release of his first book, "Less Than Zero." That novel sketchily--indeed, artlessly--described the lives of a nihilistic circle of college-age hedonists. "American Psycho" is the story of a New York yuppie, who moves from Wall Street to serial murder. Among his victims are a number of women whose torture, mutilation and sexual abuse are recounted in chillingly brutish and prurient detail.

Last November, when those passages were brought to the attention of officials at Simon & Schuster, then-Ellis' publisher, they declined to bring the book out, though the author was allowed to keep his $300,000 advance. Shortly afterward, rights to the manuscript were acquired by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, which plans to publish in the spring. The decision to acquire "American Psycho" was made by Sonny Mehta, who is president not only of Vintage, but also of Alfred A. Knopf, one of America's most distinguished literary imprints.

That fact has further incensed feminist groups, which already were outraged by a depiction of violence against women, which they believe constitutes an insensitive and dangerous affront.

Led by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), they are mounting a boycott not simply of "American Psycho," but also of all Random House books. NOW intends to press its boycott as a punitive measure, even if Vintage withdraws or alters the book, which currently is undergoing what is described by Ellis' agent as the "normal editing process at Knopf."

The issue thus drawn is at a long step's remove from the question of official censorship. Rather, it involves the delicate and far more difficult question of how to maintain that tolerance indispensable to a free and civilized society without slipping into indifference, which is, after all, the enemy of every liberty worth exercising. This critical distinction--between essential tolerance and coarse indifference--is not an easy one.

Making it begins with the candid admission that words and other forms of expression do matter. If they did not, the constitutional protection extended to them in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights would be folly--and the Founding Fathers were not fools. But that which has the power to edify, enlighten and ennoble also has the power to do harm.

Mid-19th-Century America, for example, had two towering best sellers of its own. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which helped rouse the conscience of a recalcitrant nation to the fundamental evils of chattel slavery. By 1857, it had sold 500,000 copies, a staggering number for the time.

Its companion in commercial success was a different sort of book, Maria Monk's "Awful Disclosures." It purported to be the memoirs of a young woman who, after converting to Roman Catholicism, entered a convent where she was forced into clerical concubinage, orgies and the ritual murder of children.

"Awful Disclosures" went through 20 printings, sold more than 300,000 copies and, as the bible of the Nativist movement, helped foment deadly anti-Catholic violence in Boston and Philadelphia. To this day, it enjoys a minor vogue among certain fundamentalist bigots, much as another notorious forgery, "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," continues to do among primitive anti-Semites.

Yet turbulent, violent, deeply divided 19th-Century America survived "Awful Disclosures" as it benefited from "Uncle Tom's Cabin." If the former had been suppressed as a provocative calumny, what of the latter?

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