Bret Easton Ellis is the author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero. He’s also the author of the following statement, prior to which he was discussing female directors:
“There’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze. […] We’re watching, and we’re aroused by looking, whereas I don’t think women respond that way to films, just because of how they’re built. […] Regardless of the business aspect of things, is there a reason that there isn’t a female Hitchcock or a female Scorsese or a female Spielberg? I don’t know. I think it’s a medium that really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility. I mean, the best art is made under not an indifference to, but a neutrality [toward] the kind of emotionalism that I think can be a trap for women directors. But I have to get over it, you’re right, because so far this year, two of my favorite movies were made by women, Fish Tank and The Runaways. I’ve got to start rethinking that, although I have to say that a lot of the big studio movies I saw last year that were directed by women were far worse than the sh***y big-budget studio movies that were directed by men.”
Which translates to: women are crappy directors because, being women, they have emotions that get in the way, except in these two movies that I, a white dude, choose to bestow my praise upon. In other words, this is gender essentialism at its finest. But what would I know? I am overcome with emotion! The emotion of rage.
Digression time: Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero, was published when he was 21. The book focusses on Clay, who mostly focusses on cocaine, going to parties, having flings and/or hookups with women and/or men, and hanging out addicts. He witnesses the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl, and walks away (this is somehow supposed to be “character development”). The narrative arc is purposively flat. The writing style is similar to 80s music videos: short, abrupt scenes that give the impression that neither the writer nor the subjects have long attention spans.
Critics have often thought of Less Than Zero as part of what was perceived as Ellis’ flawed generation, and not as a view on it. And despite the lack of self-reflection, despite the lack of narrative arc, despite the bored and somewhat empty feeling it leaves you with, Less Than Zero is still a valued part of the American literary cannon.
Another book floating around lately that also lacks self-reflection, a narrative arc, and a sense of fulfilling closure is Emily Gould’s And The Heart Says Whatever, but the very things that make Less Than Zero acclaimed are the exact same things that have critics trying to tear Gould a new one.
In Less Than Zero, the lack of reflection is in part a result of the use of first-person present tense, with the only opportunity for reflection coming in the form of italicized passages that fall outside the main narrative. And The Heart Says Whatever is told in past tense, but it is breathless enough that while there is the possibility for reflection, it is seldom taken. Both function more as documentaries of their subjects than as analysis. Both leave you with a distinctly detached and slightly unsettled feeling. But it’s Gould, not Ellis, who is criticized. Possibly because her target audience is not disenchanted pseudo-greasers with sunglasses.
Similarly, Less Than Zero is a book that dudes like, or, in our current discourse, a good book.
Dudes do not like And The Heart Says Whatever (I am making this assumption based on a sneer I received while reading it in public, and based on the fact it has flowers on the cover). It is about a girl, and she talks a lot about relationships and the Internet and sex, so who cares? Less Than Zero is about a boy, and mostly he talks about relationships and drugs and sex, so obviously it is worthy of the ages.
What this comes down to is an unfair standard — both in literature and in film.
NY Times film critic Manohla Dargis says:
“Do you think that a woman would have been able to get forty million dollars to make a puppet movie the way that Wes Anderson has been able to make, bringing to bear all the publicity and advertising budget of Fox? After two movies that didn’t make a lot of money? I think this is true for a lot of black filmmakers too — they’re held to a higher standard. And an unfair standard. You can be a male filmmaker and if you’re perceived as a genius — a boy genius or a fully-formed adult genius — that you are allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail.”