This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my annus horribilis. During the
course of the year—if we survive—we will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet. T.G.
|A Critic Responds
to Bret Easton Ellis's
Essay by Ted Gioia
"In the procedures I would urge," critic Stanley Fish writes, "the reader's
activities are at the center of attention, where they are regarded not as leading to
meaning but as having meaning."
Fish, of course, doesn't have much style sense. A photo I’ve found online shows
him in a cheesy tan blazer with wide-notched lapels, poorly fitting around the
shoulders, over a flimsy dirt-colored cotton T-shirt. I would recommend an
Ermenegildo Zegna two-buttoned jacket, light gray in a textured basketweave,
and a Luigi Borrelli iceberg white cotton shirt—close spread collar preferred,
although Professor Fish might want to substitute a button-down on lecture
Yes, he’s a Fish out of water when it comes to clothing. But when our eminent
professor situates meaning in the response of the reader, I say Damn straight!
And as I read through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, I contemplated my
own inimitable response to this sanguinary text.
I took time to gather the tools necessary for my "reader’s response." These
included a DeWalt 14 ounce framing hammer, an assortment of mid-size nails,
a Bernzomatic propane-fueled soldering torch lighter, a bottle of sulfuric acid at
88% strength, a pair of Fiskar orange-handled scissors, and a 20 ml bottle of
"People write or speak sentences in order to produce an effect," Stanley Fish
reminds us, "and the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which
the desired effect has been achieved." I note that Professor Fish's father was a
plumber, an immigrant from Poland, and no doubt had great facility with the full
array of heavy-duty tools.
I take inspiration from this precedent, and try to apply it to my reading of
American Psycho. In this instance, I would like to begin with the nails, but once
they are hammered into place, I won’t be able to open the book—and thus
cannot "respond" to the text at the granular level it deserves. So instead, I
take up the torch lighter and apply a light burn to the title page and author's bio.
I now shake the White Out bottle to stir up the contents, and begin applying
the chemical whitener to references to various fashion designers in Ellis’s book.
This is a meticulous, time-consuming process. I find that Armani is mentioned
forty times in this novel, Ralph Lauren thirty-one times, Rolex twenty-five
times, Bill Blass twelve times, etc. etc. But after I've finished, I still have
enthusiasm for more "reader’s response."
The time has come to provide my "response" to the photo of the author on the
back cover. This begins with the orange-handled scissors, which allow me to
gently scrape and then, eventually, poke out the author's eyes. Now I apply a
thin sheen of the acid, and watch the gradual discoloration and dissolution of both
photo and back cover. Only now do I turn to the front cover, where I use my
remaining White Out to provide an inspiring "reader’s response" to the Robert
Now I return to the torch lighter, seeking out the most atrocious passages—but
where to begin with such lightweight prose? Yet I pick and choose, and
gradually burn the worst offenders out of the text.
"The shaping power of language cannot be avoided," Professor Fish proclaims.
"We cannot choose to distance ourselves from it. We can only choose to employ
it in one way rather than another.” I find employing Ellis’s language as tinder
to light my next barbecue resonates with postmodern significance. I only hope
it doesn't ruin the taste of the blood sausage I plan on grilling tonight.
But the dead husk of the book still remains, and I realize I still have one more
responsibility as a reader. I grasp my DeWalt hammer in one hand and several
nails in the other, and proceed to close this novel permanently. This is my gift
to posterity, my attempt to prevent anyone else from opening this abattoir
in the guise of a novel, the pages hardly worth recycling in the bottom of a
bird cage or around the remains of a slowly rotting fish. (The latter should
not be confused with a Fish—note the capital F; those come wrapped, not in
paper, but in unappealing dirt-colored cotton T-shirts.)
Ah, after I finish all this, I am surprisingly empty, drained of emotion. I
expected something more from this experience, a kind of liberation and
transcendence. But I don’t despair. There is always next time. I hear the Bret
Easton Ellis has written other books, and I intend to seek these out and see what
kind of response they engender. But first I need to go back to Home Depot and
restock my reading tools.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.
Publication date: March 27, 2016.
| BEFORE CRITIC'S RESPONSE AFTER CRITIC'S RESPONSE
|A CRITIC RESPONDS TO BRET EASTON ELLIS'S AMERICAN PSYCHO