The author of Less Than Zero (1985), Ellis completed his third novel, American Psycho, for the publishing house Simon and Schuster in 1989. Its story about a wealthy young businessman whose greed for money and material possessions is matched only by his taste for sadism and murder contains detailed descriptions of acts ranging from cannibalism to necrophilia, as well as extended scenes of sexual torture and mutilation. As the book was nearing publication in 1990, reports of its extraordinarily violent content began to surface in magazines such as Time and Spy, which printed excerpts from some of its most gruesome passages. As criticism of the novel grew, Simon and Schuster canceled plans to publish the novel, despite having paid Ellis an advance of three hundred thousand dollars. The book was immediately purchased by Random House and published as a Vintage Contemporary paperback in 1991.

Feminist groups criticized the novel’s depiction of violence against women, leading to a boycott of its publishers by the National Organization for Women. The furor surrounding the book’s publication fueled public debate about corporate censorship and corporate responsibility, as well as the literary quality and moral implications of the book itself.