Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

The Horrible Attacking the Humble: Bret Easton Ellis on Alice Munro

Oct 16, 2013

by Derek Askey, Colorado Review associate fiction editor

 

“Alice Munro was always an overrated writer,” claimed author Bret Easton Ellis via Twitter last week, “and now that she’s won the Nobel, she always will be.”

This photo manages to capture only 1/16th of Ellis’ smugness.

One has to hand it to Ellis, in the sad way one hands consolations to children who consistently fail to rise above their peers, for so openly inviting accusations of sour grapes. Ellis, the author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero, has garnered respectable sales, but the type of critical acclaim Munro is known for has eluded him. He has his fans (stuff like Details magazine), and many of his books have been adapted into movies, and there is certainly an audience out there for his hyper-violent, nihilistic, thoroughly disposable fictions.

But having an audience, of course, isn’t the same as being worthwhile.

It’s telling that Ellis’s most engaging writing of late has been his Twitter account, which boasts over four hundred thousand followers. He seems custom-built for the form: snarky, throwaway idiocy that attracts attention for about five minutes and is just as quickly forgotten. Munro’s work—towering, thoroughgoing, whole-lives-on-the-page type stuff—is nearly its ideological opposite.

And little wonder, too, that Ellis would find Munro to be overrated. What worth in Munro’s sublime work might Ellis be able to find, the guy who claimed once, in an interview, that the negative feminist response to American Psycho was “retarded” because “women are crazy”?

With the exception of Ellis’s predictable, inflammatory remarks, the objection to her winning the Nobel has essentially been nil. She’s worked diligently for decades, honing her craft; I resist the temptation to say that she’s gotten better with her years, given the quality of work that she’s exhibited since her earliest work.

In 2004, Corrections author Jonathan Franzen claimed, “Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.” To what higher calling might an author aspire, but to elicit empathy and reflection from her readers, especially readers so astute and critical as Jonathan Franzen?

All of Munro’s fans probably have similar experiences, similar stories, similar reasons for being so solidly on the Munro bandwagon. My own, briefly: her Selected Stories had been assigned when I was an undergraduate, taking an intermediate course in fiction writing. She’s a difficult writer to teach (“Alice Munro is the bane of every creative writing teacher’s existence,” author Joseph Boyden said, given that her stories break so many rules of the short form). And yet the seriousness with which she approached her stories was hugely influential to me then, a call to arms. “The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless,” she famously claimed once in an interview, and demonstrates in nearly every one of her stories. “I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”

Munro, whose work towers over so many others, but Ellis’s most of all.

If you’ve a better mantra for fiction writing, I’d be happy to hear it. To encounter work that embodied that complexity at such an early stage in my writing was extraordinarily important, and continues to be important to me today.

If nothing else, it severely lowered my tolerance for authors whose aims were much less: authors like Bret Easton Ellis, who content themselves to hide behind snark and exaggeration instead of aiming to capture things as they really are. Munro has made my patience for writing like Ellis’s awfully slim, and I’m thankful to her for that, too.

Not to mention the not-unimportant feature of Munro that so many have highlighted: she isn’t a jerk. This oughtn’t matter so much—I should to be able to take a book on its own terms, and not fuss over the fact that Roth/Bukowski/Hemingway/you-name-it is such a terrible person—but with Munro, it does seem to matter. Or, as Colorado Review fiction editor Steven Schwartz said of her humility: “It’s in every part of her work, from the rhythms of her sentences to the deference shown to her rural settings, without sacrificing one bit the overall force of her writing. Hard to imagine anyone better at observing the world with such power and yet standing before it with so much humility at the same time.”

Which brings us back, of course, to Bret Easton Ellis: the spoiled white kid from California who seems pathologically devoid of humility, nearly immune to it. And whose work shows it.

Though the subject is well below her, I’d love to read a Munro story in which she tackled someone like Ellis, and lent him the humanity she manages for each of her characters. He doesn’t deserve it, of course, but if anyone is capable of handling the task, it’s Munro. Because it surely isn’t Ellis. He’s too busy trolling away at Twitter, lauding Kardashians, bashing authors almost unanimously regarded as better than himself, mattering less and less and less and less.

24 Comments

  1. Caleb Powell says:

    Pretty good points raised, and Alice Munro deserves the respect that comes with the award. However, to call Ellis “the spoiled white kid from California” really juvenile-izes this piece. What does “white” have to do with it? It’s not relevant.

  2. Richard M Kennedy says:

    Easton Ellis(EE) is a pathetic little weasel and a third rate scrawler to be sure. The reason he has not nor ever will reach the appeal of Munro’s work is simply that he’s an unfortunate, untalented and unpopular cad. He struts around in a valley of literary giants and goes totally unnoticed. It’s ever so unimpressive that a writer whose work basically qualify for fodder on the stall floor should attack a ‘Nobel Laureate.’ You have to be gobsmacked as to what the drug du jour is for a guy like EE to even imagine he qualifies to comment. Obviously left to readers, EE is a forgotten pedestrian hack that would do well to retreat to his cave. Humanity is unfortunately a missing attribute in Ellis character.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Bah. Leave Ellis alone. He’s funny. Can’t a guy just be funny on Twitter? His books are good, his Twitter account is good. Ellis may actually believe Munro is overrated, but I think a lot of his Twitter account is him just entertaining himself. The thing is, I like that. It’s funny. And harmless. And, again, he’s the first author that got me into serious fiction. Not is only is the above writer almost as smug as he thinks Ellis is (while missing the humor entirely) he’s also revising Ellis’ reputation. A lot of great writers loved Ellis’ early work. And with good reason.

  4. Paul says:

    Please explain the purpose of including the word “white” in your penultimate paragraph. Also, I don’t think the loftiness of one’s aims are necessarily so important, especially as lofty artistic aims tend to go hand in hand with self-seriousness. I’d rather read one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories than a story by any number of serious writers, including, sorry to say, Alice Munro. If she’s better than Ellis (and she is), it’s because she’s good and he sucks, not because she aimed high and he aimed low. In fact, I don’t think he DOES aim low – he just IS low, and so what you see in his work is his best attempt at serious fiction. That’s precisely why he’s so bitter and jealous. He’s not a hack – he’s a vulgar mediocrity who aspired to artistic achievements entirely beyond him, and who’s equipped with just enough intelligence to know they’re beyond him and to resent it.

    • Julian Mostachetti says:

      I don’t agree with this analysis, but it’s hilarious. Such a hard burn. But in all seriousness, I think BEE is one of the most underrated literary figures alive. His works deserve much more credit than they have, mainly because his affectless minimalism gives the impression (to the careless reader) that he endorses what he depicts, and that it’s simple (same reason people detract from Hemingway). Even among his fans, no one remembers The Informers, which has some of the best short stories I’ve read and is definitely the most carefully put together collection I’ve ever read. And although there are plenty of writers who his talent doesn’t measure up to (Tartt, McCarthy, Franzen) his style and stories are a vital contribution to literature with a perspective no one else can replace.

  5. What a well written editorial! Bravo! I think Bret Easton Ellis DOES snow what a shallow, angry, jealous and superficial person he is. Hence the rage at truly talented writers. He’s a joke and most skilled writers are aware of this obvious fact.

    What Ellis fails to understand, and that which is most glaring is how much of ourselves we put into our writing. That reality is simply unavoidable. Women are “crazy” to him, who may find fault with his writing,their criticisms are “retarded” well, that estimation on his part is probably also a clear reflection on his inability to trust women, or engage in a mature and intimate relationship with women.

    When writers like BEE attack writers of Alice Munro’s reputation, skill and character, they show, for all the world to see, exactly what they think of themselves. Its not Alice Munro who is a “over rated writer” but Bret Easton Ellis. Hopefully one day, he will learn that the more he works his mouth, the more he exposes how supremely untalented and unhappy he really is.

    • Julian Mostachetti says:

      Um, his inability to achieve an intimate relationship with a woman might be because he’s gay.

      BEE is often falsely portrayed as a misogynist, and ever since American Psycho his statements have been taken out of context or deliberately misinterpreted to prove that thesis. Actually, his female characters are often the heroines of his works capable of insight and moral analysis beyond the purview of the male protagonist (Blair in Less Than Zero, Lauren in Rules of Attraction, Mauna Kea in The Informers (Chapter 4), Lauren (again) in Glamorama, Jayne in Lunar Park). The charge of misogyny, like most other criticisms of BEE, stem from sloppy literary analysis or (much more common) people who simply will not read his work.

      You’re right about a couple of things though. He is a jerk. His twitter is intentionally hyperbolic and comedic (‘watching glee is like stepping in a puddle of AIDS’ for example, ‘the only good part about breaking bad is that I wanna fuck the kid with cerebral palsy’ for another if you needed one). His twitter is funny BECAUSE it is exaggerating at best and awful at worst. You’re also right that he’s jealous. Maybe that’s the case with this Munro comment, but I doubt it. It definitely was the case with his David Foster Wallace comments (see Gerald Howard’s Salon article on the topic).

      • Julian Mostachetti says:

        Strike that, if memory serves Blair is actually just another loser, but I keep my point with the others.

  6. E. Skiles says:

    I do believe I am quite happy that I’ve no idea who this Ellis is! And now I must reacquaint myself with the deservedly honored Ms. Munro. Thank you mr. Askey.

  7. Renda says:

    Every time he opens his mouth I hate him more.

  8. Martha Spencer says:

    Who cares what Bret Easton Ellis thinks? I think Alice Munro is one of the best writers working today and deserves the Nobel Prize that he has no hope of ever winning.

  9. I think this is a work of real hypocrisy. Insulting an author’s body of work because they as a person are not to your liking then artificially extending that to their artistic reputation? Ellis is not mediocre, he is not aiming for some lofty meditation. He forces sharp, uncomfortable self-criticism of the modern self and society. That said, Munro deserves the accolade.

  10. Collin S Myers says:

    Alice Munro is completely overrated and boring. Whether or not you like Easton Ellis — and a lot of people don’t like him, I get that — he is actually spot on in his summary of her work. Her stories are droning, simplistic, and the equivalent of a literary benedryl. There are so many good books and good writers out there, some who never get the opportunity be published, and we’re constantly being forced to worship people who are ultimately part of an east coast, NY-based cult of publishers and writers who shape the industry by playing the same old favorites over and over again. I’ve worked in the publishing industry for a few years now, and I can’t even begin, in a small post, to explain the politics and so forth that lie at the heart of how the industry works. Sorry, but Munro is overrated. Plain and simple. But of course she’s widely read and respected–every short fiction anthology that comes out seems to have a prerequisite built into it that one of her stories appear. Sad that no one else here sees this.

  11. Christopher says:

    The author of this article is incredibly stupid. The author of this article could very easily ignore Bret Easton Ellis’s remark when discussing Alice Munro’s recent accomplishment, but instead places Bret’s comment at the forefront of it all. The structure of this article directly contradicts one of its main messages which is that Bret Easton Ellis is worthless. If he’s worthless, then why not ignore him?

  12. henry says:

    Regardless of what you may think of Ellis, and it doesn’t matter whether you think he is better or worse than her, the reality is Alice Munro is quite overrated. Don’t get lost in the accolades. She can write a decent short story, but there is nothing exceptional about her work. It wouldn’t be the first time a certain type of writer (in this case, a respectable restrained older writer, from a “lesser in a good enough way” country, who shifts from one idea to another in her stories under the guise of profundity, and in the process fools certain critics into believing this really is some kind of profound insight the reader has never seen before) was hailed as something special yet is actually, when taken at face value, profoundly uninteresting in both style and content. First and foremost her characters are written such that the reader finds it difficult to become engaged with them. There’s no being sucked in to caring about what happens to them, and secondly the stories they’re dropped into are, to say it bluntly, mostly a dull bore.

  13. Patrick McClure says:

    I’ve never read Alice Munro and I guess I’ve never been interested in reading her either, so I can’t really speak on her work. Bret Easton Ellis, on the other hand, has written two brilliant novels that I know of: Less Than Zero and American Psycho. I would agree that the remainder of his work is good to piss poor and that he really hasn’t released anything of note since the mid-90’s, but that doesn’t take away from the glorious work he has done. I think what Bret meant by his post is that work like Munro’s has no spark or fire to it. I can think of quite a few authors who, on the whole, write thoughtful meditative, well written work that makes us contemplate our mortality/morality/meaning of love/great sacrifice/the little things/the wonder of nature/the face of god in a petal, etc. And that kind of stuff is well meaning and nice and good but also quite often as thoroughly boring as dull day old mush. The writers I’ve always gotten the most kick out of reading are the tortured/drugged/mad/fucked/and nasty. Bret Easton Ellis, Burroughs, Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Irvine Welsh, etc. The world doesn’t end with writers like these and there is undoubtedly time and place for the boring and thoughtful writers. To be honest, the further along the path of my twenties I get, the more writer’s like Alice Munro appeal to me. It can’t all be madness and fucking and drugs and nihilism. But don’t take away what Bret Easton Ellis HAS done. Less Than Zero and American Psycho are chilling portrayals of a world gone mad. And in the case of Less Than Zero, a world that I knew more or less first hand from growing up in Southern California. True, he HASN’T produced a large body of great work. The brightest fires burn out quickly. Then again, Bret DOES come off like such a fucking smug bitch on his Twitter doesn’t he?

  14. Don Totts says:

    Have the people here who don’t like Alice Munro ever considered the possibility that they may have bad taste in literature? Please advise, Don Totts.

    • amy barnes says:

      Er, a fairly juvenile assertion–“You dislike an author I like, ergo the most likely explanation for this is that you have bad taste”.

      I love Tolstoy, Murasaki, Austen, Thackeray, Hansberry
      , LeGuin, Larkin, James, Delaney, Mishima, Doyle, Pym, Cheever, Gogol, Vidal, Zola, Flaubert, Cervantes and a galaxy of other writes of different eras, ethnicities and genres. I love literature, old and new. I don’t love Alice Munro; I find her bland, and most of her stories bordering on soap-opera level plots, which are made digestible only because they’re told in a banal and gray manner as opposed to a sensationalized one. If you think my taste in literature is ‘bad’ because it doesn’t accommodate a love of dull writing that’s been enshrined by a publishing clique that’s fine, but such an opinion tends to suggest your own silliness rather more than it does my, or others, taste in reading matter.

      • Ryan Barneslayer says:

        Commenting four years later on some article, name-dropping a a list that would even make Ernest Cline blush, then defending a really shitty author and person seems to show way more than enough of your silliness, Amy.

  15. Brad says:

    ‘authors like Bret Easton Ellis, who content themselves to hide behind snark and exaggeration instead of aiming to capture things as they really are.’

    Uhh if you honestly think this is true, then you really don’t understand his work. Ellis truly captures the way things are and addresses issues in society that most authors will not touch. He encourages self-criticism and forces us to face a reality which we know of but refuse to recognise.

  16. Johnny says:

    Henry,

    You summed it up perfectly. There’s something amiss when people talk about reasons for being on the Munro “bandwagon”. Ellis should probably have used alot more tact, but his critique is valid. Nobel prize or not time will show that Munro is not as exceptional as she is made out to be.

    • amy barnes says:

      Best guess is, time will show Munro to be the Updike of the present era–a writer who has facility at her craft, but has been over-praised in her own time beyond all reason, and whose currently critically glorified ouvre won’t withstand the scrutiny of future generations (unlike, say, Anton Chekov, to whose work Munro’s is often compared favorably–and ludicrously).

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