There are many contemporary online trends – particularly those that have to do with social media – that cast a problematic light on the way that consumers interact with the work that they’re consuming. Social media has brought us closer than ever before to the people from whom art emerges – musicians, authors, and other figures at the heart of cultural movement. Although often rewarding, such closeness has also brought about a phenomenon in which the public at large can effectively eradicate from popular consciousness anyone seen as problematic. This ‘cancel culture’ operates in parallel to questions around whether one can separate the art from the artist, as well a need to examine just how much power social media should have in the effective destruction of livelihoods. These are questions with no easy answers and their complexity is precisely the reason why there are entire books devoted to the topic (Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an excellent analysis on the subject). While there may not be any clear ethical boundaries dictating the decision to ‘cancel’ people who have done something shameful, anyone active on social media or as a consumer of art will, at some point, find themselves forced to confront their own position.
The reason that I’ve been reflecting on this is the incredible reaction to Bret Easton Ellis’ newest book. A work of nonfiction seemingly designed to elicit precisely the reaction that it has provoked (an attack on “generation wuss,” as Ellis has termed millennials), White “roundly dismisses the rush to offence and the cult of victimisation…” Combined with a recent interview given by Ellis, the publication of White has ensured that the author is cancel culture’s newest target. This isn’t a complete surprise. The provocation of American Psycho, as an intensely violent book and one of the few that I’ve had to abandon mid-read, has created a fairly substantial number of critics determined to “dispatch[…] the supposedly beyond-the-pale Ellis…” Discounting the reaction to White (which, I can only imagine, was in part authored to confirm what Ellis had suspected of millennials, in a kind of self-defeating circle of disapprobation), there is certainly a sense of many critics and readers waiting for Ellis to fall. The confronting themes of his fiction are certainly problematic – Ellis struggled to get American Psycho published and claims that it wouldn’t be published today. The question then becomes one of what precisely we expect fiction to do. Most of us will agree that conformity to a set of ethical or moral boundaries does not have a place in literature – it restricts portrayals of the human experience and reeks of a censorship that many would decry. It is undeniable that cancel culture risks assuming the character of censorship by default – people have lost jobs and homes for being ‘exposed’ online and it is surely the case that publishers consider the possibility of this kind of negativity coming their way. Yet, in a world where the pushback against liberal ideals has been so dramatic, the need to establish ethical boundaries and engage in sentimental education has never been greater.
As I said before, there are no easy answers to these questions. But they are questions that we, as consumers, have a duty to consider. Whether great works of fiction are potentially lost in the cross-fire between political opponents and warring generations is a matter of concern to us all.