There are few things the literary community relishes more than the appearance of a polarizing high-profile book. Sure, any author about to release their baby into the wild will be hoping for unqualified praise from all corners, but what the lovers of literary criticism and book twitter aficionados amongst us are generally more interested in is seeing a title (intelligently) savaged and exalted in equal measure. It’s just more fun, dammit, and, ahem, furthermore, it tends to generate a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion around the title in question. With that in mind, welcome to a new series we’re calling Point/Counterpoint, in which we pit two wildly different reviews of the same book—one positive, one negative—against one another and let you decide which makes the stronger case.
Today we’re taking a closer look at Bret Easton Ellis’ dog-whistlingly titled essay collection, White. In recent weeks, both White and its author have garnered plenty of fiery media attention (see: his self-immolating interview in The New Yorker), but Ellis is no stranger to controversy; he has reveled in making waves since his precocious emergence in the mid-1980s. A member of the so-called “Literary Brat Pack,” Ellis published his first novel, Less Than Zero, when he was still a student at Bennington College. Since that early success, he’s been famous for writing cult classics about terrible rich white people (see: American Psycho, Rules of Attraction), scripting a critically-savaged erotic thriller starring Lindsey Lohan, and regularly tweeting controversial and/or offensive things to his half a million followers.
Now, Ellis returns to the literary spotlight with his first foray into nonfiction, a collection of essays on everything from technology to Trump. While Kevin Gildea in The Irish Times deems this book “a refreshing and hugely interesting intervention in a debate about the nature of our times,” Bookforum‘s Andrea Long Chu eviscerates it, stating “one cannot read White as anything but a book about being rich and bored.”
I never succumbed to the temptation to give an audience what I thought they might have wanted: I was the audience, and I was writing to satisfy myself, and to relieve myself from pain.
“Here are two key themes of this book of essays: firstly, a middle-aged white male criticising millennials…and secondly, the notion of people as actors who are not behaving with authenticity. Ellis weaves his themes throughout the essay to produce a cohesive whole. That Ellis engages with his themes in a forthright, abrasive and unapologetic, intelligent manner is no surprise … This book is also an enjoyable potted autobiography plotted through his own books and movies, and those that influenced him … he ultimately wants art that is assessed by aesthetics, not an ideological message … This book is a refreshing and hugely interesting intervention in a debate about the nature of our times – is it the cry of a dinosaur or a timely injection of corrective truth? I recommend it.”
–Kevin Gildea (The Irish Times)
“… [a] deeply needless book … a rambling mess of cultural commentary and self-aggrandizement … Even the title White is a provocation, designed to simultaneously anticipate, incur, and mock accusations of white privilege … The thesis of White is that American culture has entered a period of steep, perhaps irreversible decline, and social media and millennials are to blame. This is ridiculous, not because social media hasn’t changed things tremendously, but because such claims are invariably rooted in a childish nostalgia … It is perfectly acceptable to bitch and moan about how the mean people didn’t like your good tweets, but there is a time and a place for such behavior, and it is not the offices of Alfred A. Knopf, publisher … Ellis refers to millennials as Generation Wuss, which sounds like something your dad made up. Lots of White is given to this kind of feeble bullying … The prose in White is shapeless, roving, and aggressively unedited. One waits in vain for an arresting image … one cannot read White as anything but a book about being rich and bored … [Ellis is] an angry, uninteresting man who has just written a very needy book.”
–Andrea Long Chu (Bookforum)