Not since the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced author Salman Rushdie to death for The Satanic Verses has a work of fiction excited as much controversy as Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Described variously as ''the most loathsome offering of the season'' (Roger Rosenblatt in The New York Times) and ''a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women'' (Tammy Bruce of NOW), Ellis' novel has made even some die-hard advocates of free speech wish the book off the face of the earth.
After months of rage and recrimination, 60,000 copies of Psycho were finally shipped to bookstores late last month. The book, virtually unchanged from the versions leaked to the press last fall, arrives with such a heavy burden of notoriety that the complaints if not the sales are sure to be furious.
The first shock waves hit last August when female employees at Simon & Schuster, the book's original publisher, caught wind of its content and began to protest its publication. Soon afterward, both TIME and Spy magazines obtained copies of the manuscript, described the controversy at Simon & Schuster, and detailed the book's gruesome scenes of women being tortured and killed by a Wall Street yuppie named Patrick Bateman.
Within days, Simon & Schuster canceled the novel, prompting cries of corporate censorship. Ellis was allowed to keep his $300,000 advance, and 48 hours later his agent, Amanda ''Binky'' Urban of ICM, sold the book to Vintage Random House's highly esteemed trade paperback division for an undisclosed figure (estimates range from $35,000 to $350,000). Sonny Mehta, the president and editor-in-chief of Knopf (another division of Random House), who purchased the book, consulted neither Vintage staffers nor the imprint's publisher, Jane Friedman, defending his acquisition by referring to the book as ''serious.''
Mehta's decision made headlines anew. New York magazine did a cover story on Ellis; CNN ran excerpts from the book on its show business segment. And Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, called for a nationwide boycott of all Vintage and Knopf books, with the exception of those by feminist authors.
The boycott went into effect on Nov. 19 with a 15-minute recorded message featuring an excerpt from American Psycho on the Los Angeles NOW chapter's telephone hot line. Bruce's initiative, which, according to booksellers, has been unsuccessful, was not sanctioned by NOW's national board of directors. The directors chose a different course of action: They requested a meeting with Mehta to ask that he cancel the novel. Mehta refused to see them.
From L.A., Bruce plans to expand her NOW chapter's boycott to all-out Psycho warfare. ''The boycott is just one element of the protest,'' she says. ''You won't see books being burned or fireworks when the novel is published. What you will see is our attempt...to show the gatekeepers of this culture...that the women of this country will no longer tolerate gratuitous violence for the sake of profit and entertainment.''
Plenty of people, including many in the publishing industry, agree with Bruce. While most of the nation's estimated 20,000 bookstores have agreed to sell the book if only out of a sense of responsibility to the First Amendment scores of booksellers and at least one distributor, Bookpeople in Berkeley, Calif., have refused to carry it. Bookpeople issued a statement saying, ''We don't wish to represent that part of our culture: the exploitation of sadomasochism.'' Hilary Sio, manager of New York City's Three Lives & Co. bookstore, says, ''We'll probably special order it for someone who really wants it. But we will not be carrying it.'' Other retailers have decided not to offer the book because of its perceived lack of literary merit. Says Judith Walker of The Corner Bookstore in Albuquerque, N.M.: ''My job is to provide my customers with the best cross section of literature I can find, and Mr. Ellis is a terrible writer, always has been. As a bookseller, good writing is my agenda, not violence against women.''
Some publishers feel the same way, among them Phyllis Grann, president and chief executive of G.P. Putnam's Sons. ''I've read the book,'' she says, ''and as a woman I certainly wouldn't publish it. I found the extreme graphic-ness of the descriptions of the mutilation of the women highly disturbing and very distasteful. But just as I have the right to reject something, other people should have the right to publish it.''
Roger Straus Jr., president and chief executive of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is less flexible. One of publishing's most respected and outspoken figures, Straus says American Psycho is ''the most revolting book I have ever read. To say that it has any redeeming social value, or that mainstream film and television contain equally offensive material, is bullshit. The horrors perpetrated on women in that book go far beyond anything that has either been written or depicted. I'm sorry. I just don't see the thing as being defendable.''