The Birds Who Tweet the Most
How Writers like Bret Easton Ellis are Changing the Twitter Game
140 characters can get thousands of people to either praise or despise you in an instant. There is one writer using them who displays this most effectively. Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and screenwriter of his latest independent film The Canyons, currently has almost 350,000 followers on Twitter. He's almost as prolific on the site as his friend and fellow satirist Chuck Palahniuk (who has nearly 100,000 more) and is much more so than his '80s literary “brat pack” associates Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney, the former of whom isn't even on the site, McInerney not far from that slip. While Palahniuk chooses to re-post tweets from his fans and interact with them kindly, offering new information on his newest novels and passionate writing courses he's always teaching in between, Ellis chooses to utilize his 140 characters to lambast other writers (even if two years ago in an interview in Australia he refused to attack Stephanie Meyer, stating, “I'm not about to diss another writer.”) and to give praise to music and films he loves, ultimately showing a constant distance from his followers. Even if this is the current media balloon he's inflated, he wasn't always like this on the site.
I followed Ellis from the time he joined Twitter. Having been a huge fan since reading all six of his novels from American Psycho at nineteen to his debut novel Less Than Zero, which he'd written himself at nineteen and had published two years later in '85 while he was still a student at Bennington College, I was hugely interested in peering into the mastermind behind the shallow, narcissistic yet ultimately fascinating and entrancing assholes that inhabit his universe. I can recall one of his first tweets in '09, which went something like “I don't know who these other Bret Easton Ellis imitators are, but this is the real me.”
For the first year his posts were sparse; he hardly posted more than four a month. But as the year progressed, he clearly got more comfortable, forcing his Twitter bud into full bloom by endorsing—albeit oftentimes reluctantly—modern musicians as well as the '70s and '80s classics he often referenced in his literature. His followers went from thousands to tens of thousands.
Before I knew it, by 2010, he was posting regularly, at least twice a day, everything from projects he was working on to his move to LA from his long-time home of New York City. The coastal switch could have been a result of the release of his latest novel, the sequel to his then twenty-five-year-old debut entitled Imperial Bedrooms. The novel parodied his frustrating experience of adapting his short story collection The Informers to screen for the independent circuit, and followed the ever-apathetic Clay Easton as he slept with various actresses so they could land parts in his own film as he once again pondered what happened to his generation. Like his previous six books, it earned a place at the bottom of bestseller lists on and off and many mixed reviews.
In regard to American Psycho, Norman Mailer said of the author, “How one wishes this writer was without talent.” I can get why. Since that novel's publication in '91 Ellis has been misunderstood as a misogynistic, racist and homophobic breathing indictment of his own generation. Not viewed as the self-proclaimed satirist, he has instead been looked down on as the living sum of his characters: superficial, passionless, listless and endlessly cynical when it comes to what's going on in the world, and even musically uncool like his fictional psychopath Patrick Bateman, professing this year his love for pop and rock musicians his fans often scoff at.
By 2012, Ellis has become an entity many bloggers and members of the public in general loathe entirely. In a September Huffington Post article written by Andrew Losowski called “Why We're Unfollowing Bret Easton Ellis,” the writer talks about how Ellis' raves and rants have caused him to lose faith in him as a person. He cites his scathing attacks on late writer David Foster Wallace among other instances. But one thing Losowski nor many others who seem to despise Ellis' apparent personality want to consider is that maybe Ellis is playing a little game of his own.
In his early Twittering days, Ellis appeared like any other writer: smart, thoughtful and reserved. But something changed, got into him. His attitude displayed a growing boredom with that format, which is around the time he started posting more profusely. It really all changed when of a popular television show he posted a now infamous comment, “I like the idea of 'Glee' but why is it every time I watch an episode I feel like I've stepped into a puddle of HIV?” Famous flamboyant blogger Perez Hilton immediately leaped on and stomped it as well as a huge portion of the LGBT community.
Ellis himself has played with the labeling of his sexuality his entire career, claiming to be the holy trinity of straight, bi and gay separately in many interviews, though now he's apparently dating “the twenty-six-year-old” (as he's always referred to on Twitter) and claimed in yet another interview circa 2010 that he hadn't slept with a woman in years. He's also garnered more hatred more recently by stating that Hollywood will never cast a gay male actor as a straight romantic lead in, say, an adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, for which Ellis was oddly hoping he'd be chosen to write the screenplay. E.L. James finally went with screenwriter Kelly Marcel instead, and Ellis was more than eager to go online and let everyone know just how pissed off he was. “The writer of (gulp) 'Terra Nova'...”
Being exiled by the gay community wasn't enough even after tweeting of the It Gets Better campaign aiming to prevent the discrimination and suicide of homosexuals, "Not to bum everyone out, but can we get a reality check here? It gets worse." No, he had to poke readers everywhere by shouting the night it was revealed J.D. Salinger had died, “Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this moment for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!” I'm certain it was because of the fact he wanted to read whatever unpublished manuscripts the legend had sitting in box after box in his home, but regardless he was instantly viewed as a Salinger hater.
That could have been the end of the attacks, but lately in a long string of tweets, as Ellis has a tendency to post, he's spent much of his time bashing late fellow writer David Foster Wallace. He called him everything from “tedious” to “pretentious”—in his most recent Paris Review interview he hypocritically quoted Bob Dylan, “What's wrong with being pretentious?”—while reading his biography in what I can only construe as a form of masochistic torture on his part. He described a loathing for Wallace's “fake-earnest Midwestern sincerity” and lack of love for satire and irony. In one hilarious and self-degrading tweet he blatantly says, “No problem that David Foster Wallace was smarter than me and a better writer but he was so much colder than I ever was. He faked it. Almost.”
It almost sounds like he wants everybody to hate him altogether. Late one night, while simultaneously announcing he was on Ambien, he proceeded to tell his audience how much he despised just about every single show on television save for “Mad Men” and “Girls”, claiming they're all overrated, much like Wallace or seemingly half of everything in the world today. Immediately after complaining that modern television is basically complete shit, he posted as a note to himself that he shouldn't take Ambien and talk about TV at the same time.
Either he truly is as bitter as he sounds or he's pulling the ultimate prank on us all, fictionalizing his persona. Why he was so insistent on hiring male porn star James Deen as the lead in his latest film along with Lindsay Lohan is fascinating all its own since they're both essentially Ellis characters, and the way he continuously ignores his fans or writes them off, it almost seems as if he's testing his readers' patience and understanding.
“Can't they tell I'm fucking joking?” I can see him asking the twenty-six-year-old as he chuckles and snorts a line on his desk.
At the same time, in many interviews he's expressed that he really isn't as smart as people would like to believe. Judging by his writing alone, I'd have to disagree. I wouldn't call him the best writer of his generation, but I don't want to believe a pseudo-intellectual would spend nine years on a reasonably successful novel satirizing celebrity, beauty and terrorism that also deals with his unconcealed frustrations with his father, and then attempt to sue Ben Stiller for stealing and simplifying the basic plot line for his film Zoolander ; he'd be too interested in simply soaking up the lifestyle while maybe recycling the same formula as his previous books every other year and proclaiming his deep avant-garde aesthetic. He's a writer who's recognized both his strengths and weaknesses, defending his work while never quite pulling an M. Night Shyamalan and excusing all of it with “they just don't get it.” Ellis is a party animal who's never hid it but he's always made it clear he was indelibly unhappy with the shallowness of it all, a sheen of socially withdrawn self-loathing and humility permeating both his writing and interviews. Perhaps that's where he's acting, while Twitter's the truth.
From time to time online Ellis will name a book he's reading, and most of the time he praises and recommends it. They're some of the few moments he doesn't come across as arrogant or relentless in his hatred for America, but it's safe to say that most writers on Twitter are much more interested in quoting their influences, thanking fans for attending readings, and promoting either other writers' newest work or their own as their top priorities. Of course plenty of writers who come across as much more intellectual don't bother with Twitter at all; writers like Ellis' main influence, Joan Didion, doesn't post anything herself and only uses Twitter to showcase quotes from her or her books, and his other influence, Don DeLillo, only has a fan-created page. Not surprising considering the generational gap, but funnily enough, I think Ellis is actually the most enigmatic of these writers, despite having spoken more often his controversial opinions. Either he wants all the attention he can get or he wants to create a parody of himself, bringing to life a total opposite version of his tame family-oriented alter ego from his 2005 novel Lunar Park. I'm sadly more likely to believe he's simply taking advantage of the ability to display his feelings at a moment's notice and is more interested in just watching waves fold and crash through the use of social shock value. He likes to make those waves himself--it amuses him. He calls my generation “Generation Wuss” frequently for its prissy political correctness. At the same time, he makes himself look like the forty-eight-year-old who never outgrew his college days. An embracing member of that “brat pack” movement he even admitted was a media myth, he seems unable to move past that time, a time he clarified in a Daily Beast article as "Empire America" as opposed to today's "Post-Empire."
Twitter really is just Facebook's wall minus the rest, making it the narcissist's heaven. People can write all they want, and unless they bother expanding each tweet individually, they never even need to see people's opinions up front. It's the perfect bulletproof one-way mirror, through which everyone can watch the one staring at a reflection and shout all they want, but he or she will never have to hear them. They're safe on that other side, as long as they keep making money. We all know even bigger celebrities like Ashton Kutcher are considered the more ingenious users of Twitter, handing their posting privileges over to PR reps after getting mixed up in scandals or recognizing their own misuse and knowing they're in good hands. Guys like Ellis dismiss that concept completely and post whatever their opinion without giving a shit about any public outcry.
I was a member of Twitter when I was nineteen, which was pretty much when Ellis joined. In fact, to my recollection, the entire reason I joined was because I found Ellis on there and decided to follow him. It was cool to be able to follow in real time the lives of my two living literary heroes, the other being Palahniuk. Everybody else—Bukowski, Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, Vonnegut, Orwell and Fitzgerald—were all dead before Twitter was even an idea. I'm sure every one of those guys, with maybe the exception of Vonnegut, knowing his sense of humor and if he used the internet, would have rejected the technology while sneering at its name. I unfollowed myself a few months after joining once it was clear I had no use for the site if I didn't have an audience to listen to my ramblings. I didn't see the point in inviting my Facebook friends to my page since I didn't even have a Facebook at the time, as who would really want to hear what I have to say both there and elsewhere when I couldn't possibly post anything really different? Besides, Twitter really eliminates the social aspect of social media. Can't truly hold a conversation on there, public or private. I still have my account, but it's only so I can follow other “people who matter," and for me that still includes Ellis.
Though I'm not really a fan, Lena Dunham, who recently scored an extremely enviable $3.7 million book deal and who is somebody Bret Easton Ellis surprisingly does like to both read and watch in the show “Girls”, tweets the way anybody with 375,157 followers probably should. Judging from a quick scroll down her page, she's not out to spark reactions but instead chooses to post quirky ideas, cheerful and unique memories and pepper it all with a few benevolent website links (whereas Ellis once shared a Redtube link to a James Deen porn clip). On the other hand, you've got users like Ricky Gervais, who constantly views himself as the intellectual superior to people like his longtime friend Karl Pilkington who is often quoted and mocked on his page. He'll say things like, “I use sarcasm quite a lot. It stops me from going mental with an Uzi in a room full of morons before turning the gun on myself. Thank you.” If you've ever seen his HBO Comedy Specials or listened to his chat radio shows then you know all about his outspokenness as it relates to his genius. I still love him for his writing and acting either way.
I can't say for how long Twitter will go on, but I do know that in time all of these people who use it, just like Myspace and eventually Facebook, will grow tired of it and find something else to exploit. The writer will have to find yet another use for text, to either shape it into an adapting art form as technology grows or bring more focus to the artist, exciting the ego and not the art.