The world is, alas, full of rich, middle aged white men who are convinced that the fact that someone, somewhere, once criticized them or implied that they don’t possess an absolutely objective perspective on every topic under the sun constitutes the worst possible form of oppression. These are the folks who act as if the revelation that young people are incomprehensible to them and the world has changed is an epochal, unprecedented calamity, not the sort of thing that happens to everyone eventually. And for some completely inexplicable reason, they tend to get really worked up whenever writing or art by women or POC (or, god forbid, both) is praised, even when when that praise has absolutely nothing to do with them, insisting that it can only come from a place of “political correctness” or slate-voting.
Unfortunately, some of these guys get platforms and book deals (which, among other things, is proof of how off-base their hysterical shrieking about the subjugation and displacement of privileged white men actually is). Which leaves the rest of us in a bit of a quandary. How do you rebut these sorts of trolls without giving them a dignity they clearly don’t deserve? Ignoring them is one option, but when you’re talking about a famous person—such as the author of a renowned work of dudely self-regard—that can end up meaning ceding them the stage.
Over at Bookforum, Andrea Long Chu offers an alternative—and one of the most delightful, invigorating pieces of writing I’ve encountered in ages—as she reviews Bret Eason Ellis’s essay collection White (yes, that’s the title; I know, right?). Ellis has apparently spent the last few years getting increasingly ornery on twitter, and now someone has paid him money to put the groundbreaking assertion that white men have it harder than anyone in book form. Chu’s review—which is basically the essay equivalent of the “I have nothing to prove to you” scene from Captain Marvel with better jokes—not only acknowledges the pitfall of giving him oxygen, but demonstrates how to do so in a way that makes it clear just how narrow Ellis’s worldview is, and how little he has to say.
This presents a problem for the reviewer in my position: namely, whether to take the bait. I could write an incensed review that fiercely rebuts White’s many inflammatory claims, thus giving the impression that they should be taken seriously; if my review were to go viral, it would likely trigger more bad coverage on pop-culture websites like Vulture and Vice; Bret Easton Ellis might trend for a bit on Twitter, where we would all take our best shots at dunking on this dude; and at the end of it all, the author would get to feel relevant again, and maybe finally write a movie that people actually liked. But why bother? For years now, Bret Easton Ellis has been accused of being a racist and a misogynist, and I think these things are true; but like most things that are true of Bret Easton Ellis, they are also very boring.
“Somewhere in the last few years—and I can’t pinpoint exactly when—a vague yet almost overwhelming and irrational annoyance started tearing through me maybe up to a dozen times a day,” Ellis writes on the first page of White. By this, he just means Twitter, which he believes to be governed by an authoritarian conformism out to suppress true free speech. He has gotten this impression, it seems, from some mean things that people said to him online in response to a few harmless tweets. “That a gay man can’t tell a joke equating AIDS with Grindr (something my boyfriend and I had used a number of times) without being scorned as self-loathing is indicative of a new fascism,” Ellis announces. Readers may wonder what kids in cages are indicative of.
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. Surely someone will let Bret Easton Ellis into their group chat. “Twitter encouraged the bad boy in me,” he admits, the first man to whom this has ever happened. Yet if you feel you must spend pages clarifying what you meant when you tweeted, in 2012, that Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow was overrated because she was “a very hot woman,” then not only are you a bland sexist, but also, and much more importantly, you kind of suck at Twitter. In this regard, White is a simple case of illiteracy. Indeed, one begins to question if Ellis, who cannot stop bragging about his Gen-Xer negativity, has ever taken a good look at Twitter, the most inventively negative cultural institution of the twenty-first century, whose own users regularly call it “this hell site.”
This amounts to a lecture on kettles from one of our leading pots. It is, of course, Ellis who won’t stop whining; Ellis who can’t handle being trolled; Ellis who calls criticism “oppression”; Ellis who manically describes the tendency of people online to react disproportionately to things as a “vast epidemic of alarmist and catastrophic drama.” “When did people start identifying so relentlessly with victims, and when did the victim’s worldview become the lens through which we began to look at everything?” asks the true victim, a rich writer who lives in Los Angeles. It is a curious thing that makes one generation project onto the next everything it hates most about itself. It suggests that age, far from embittering the individual, awakens in him a fresh stage of naïveté. Having never grown up himself, he clings to the hope that someone else will grow up in his place. When the young fail as he did, he becomes petulant, contemptuous, and easily offended—in short, a child again.
Really, I could quote the whole thing. But you should just go read it.