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Home News by Category General Updates Bret Easton Ellis on DFW

Bret Easton Ellis on DFW

A question answered by Bret Easton Ellis during his appearance at the Southbank Centre:
Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well i don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching…


Jan-Erik over at wallace-l reminded me about Larry McCaffery's 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace:

LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?

DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s "American Psycho": it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of "American Psycho" I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 14:28  


#1 ralonghorn 2010-07-14 13:06
Well, Less Than Zero was a bad minimalist knockoff. And the rest of Ellis's fiction never climbed above sub-par. But, his early rise to fame and the quick, agonizing realization that he was nothing more than mediocre and living in DFW's shadow is a compelling story. Is it too soon? It's too soon.
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#2 The Howling Fantods 2010-07-14 14:09
I wouldn't go that far. I'll openly admit I really enjoyed some of his stuff. Particularly Lunar Park. If anything, the response just seemed to be what people/I would expect Bret Easton Ellis to answer. I guess I'm a little stunned he said the journalism is pedestrian.
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#3 ATM 2010-07-14 21:50
It's a long saga, the BEE v. DFW rivalry. American Psycho comes in for mockery in IJ, as the book Mme Psychosis is reading on her show... which is highly significant (and kinda remarkable) considering almost no other literature is mentioned in the 1,079 pages (Wm James gets an oblique mention for his early work of "pop psychology" avant la lettre).

In the UK (I don't know about the US), Ellis is quoted on the cover of House of Leaves (2000 edition), saying "One can imagine Pynchon, Ballard, Stephen King, and DFW bowing down before Danielewski". (This, incidentally, is how I discovered DFW - i.e. reviewing MZD - before writing an MA thesis on him, DFW, and others.) Very sly of BEE...!

Recently, I've been reading Tom Wolfe's 1960s journalism and spotting remarkable parallels between his & DFW's topics, emphasis on language & cultural signifiers in flux, and fondness for baroque sentences, threaded with technical language & street argot. Arguably, DFW is more conservative than Wolfe (!), but still a great imitator / fellow-traveller, which has made me wonder whether this might be bugging BEE, who simply isn't as smart as Wolfe or Wallace, but desperately wants to be the former (or one of the people he would write about).

Oh yeah... one last one: in the Lipsky book, DFW snipes about Donna Tartt. She and BEE are mates. Maybe BEE knew DFW said something about her...?
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