BOOKS

Is Michel Houellebecq The French Jonathan Franzen?

On the lengths to which we'll go to defend our great white male novelists.

I have a small confession to make: I have never read the books of Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I’d be embarrassed to admit this, save that Knausgaard makes a similar confession in his recent review of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Submission. The piece, published in The New York Times Book Review, documents all the Houellebecq he’s failed to read.

Fortunately, we learn, Knausgaard takes it upon himself to remedy this, settling down with a cigarette to read a copy of the new Houellebecq, which has been mailed to him. He’s also unfamiliar with author J.K. Huysmans, whose writings form a thematic foundation for Submission. He reads Huysmans’ best-known novel while sipping at a cup of coffee on the sidelines of his daughter’s gymnastics practice.

Halfway through this navel-gazing review, becoming bored and irritated, I began to remember why I’d steered clear of Knausgaard. Yet, Knausgaard seems the perfect person to review Houellebecq’s Submission, a book, like his own My Struggle saga, that revolves around the details of a particular white man’s ennui. Houellebecq, like Knausgaard, has achieved international renown, despite many critics suggesting their actual writing is artless and awkward, by delving into the problem of the disaffected middle-aged man.

Several critics have drawn attention to a still more notable doppelgänger of Houellebecq: Jonathan Franzen, whose Purity was published in the U.S. just over a month before Submission, also to muffled accusations of misanthropy, misogyny and mediocrity. These international literary superstars, all white men of a similar age and literary status, seem to only solidify their prestige, even as questions are raised about their problematic themes and unexceptional prose technique.

Why is the literary establishment so determined to preserve the mythology behind these men, our great white male novelists?

In just one slim volume, Submission tells the story of the mid-life crisis of François, a Huysmans scholar at a Parisian university, set against the backdrop of a near-future in which an Islamic party rises to power during the 2022 elections. We catch glimpses of unrest -- explosions in Paris, a gas station left silent and empty save for three dead bodies -- but mostly are treated to extensive disquisitions on French politics, Islam, and how the meeting of these two might affect François.

François had been comfortable, if less than happy, for years, making a steady living as an instructor, eating Indian TV dinners, and having a long string of affairs with beautiful students starstruck by his intellectual success. With the Islamic party determined to control French education, he's offered a large pension to resign from the university decades early -- unless he's willing to convert to Islam. If he does, his potential superiors hint, there will be benefits. Arranged marriage to a small harem of desirable women? Yes, those sorts of benefits. 

Meanwhile, the Islamic party in power offers huge subsidies to women if they leave the workforce, and so they do, en masse. Women give up wearing sexy clothes (voluntarily or not, Houellebecq doesn’t much care why) and polygamy becomes the de facto family structure. Though the polygamous marriages are arranged through the Islamic bureaucracy, there's no hint of pushback from the women involved.

Published on the same day as the terrorist attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and a Charlie Hebdo cover featuring a caricature of Houellebecq himself, Submission hinted at a bigotry that juxtaposed all-too-conveniently with the Islamic motivation of the terrorists. Months before it would be published in the U.S., Submission was all over the American news. The French prime minister denounced it, declaring “France isn’t Michel Houellebecq. It isn’t intolerance, hate, fear.”

With the American publication of Houellebecq’s already-notorious novel, translated by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, the unsettling specter of the firestorm surrounding its original French release has been raised again. Now, it seems most English and American critics are happy to absolve the author -- not just of Islamophobia, but of misogyny and small-mindedness, even as close reading reveals that Houellebecq’s Muslims are ciphers in headscarves, silver-tongued politicians off-screen, or exotic, sloe-eyed teenagers on-screen. The women in the novel rank as no more than pawns to be moved into the position most productive for the society’s men.

But wait, critics insisted. He’s kidding.

Michel Houellebecq after an interview on radio station France Inter, in Paris, on Jan. 7, 2015.
Michel Houellebecq after an interview on radio station France Inter, in Paris, on Jan. 7, 2015.

“Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist,” wrote Adam Gopnik in his January review of Submission for The New Yorker. “He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do.”

Putting aside whether Gopnik has accurately defined satire here or, as it seems, invented a new connotation for it, he is far from alone in characterizing Houellebecq’s new novel as satire. Alex Preston at The Guardian did. Shane Croucher at The International Business Times did. Calum Marsh at The New Republic did. Michael Magras at The San Francisco Chronicle did. Heller McAlpin at NPR, though otherwise deeply critical of the novel, did. Karl Ove Knausgaard did.

One important person, however, would not describe Submission as a satire: Houellebecq himself.

“No,” he told Sylvain Bourmeau, in an often-combative pre-publication interview for The Paris Review, when asked whether the book is satirical. “Maybe a small part of the book satirizes political journalists -- politicians a little bit, too, to be honest. But the main characters are not satirical.”

What's more, Houellebecq insists, “You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really,” he says. “Not so badly for the men, but for the women …” rejoins Bourmeau. “Yes, that’s a whole other problem,” concedes Houellebecq.

But not, frankly, one he’s particularly interested in. “I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements,” he says of possible Islamic rule. “The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest. But I and lots of other people will.”

Submission's portrayal of Islam might not be intentionally unfriendly to the religion, but it is deeply stereotypical. Houellebecq has said in interviews that he’s read the Quran, but reading a religious text isn’t sufficient to understand the realities of how millions of Muslim people live their faith, especially European Muslims. Pressure for women to exit the workplace, cut short their educations and enter polygamous marriages at young ages will seem like a clear step backward to many -- including many Muslims, though Houellebecq doesn’t seem aware of the possibility of ideological conflict within Islam. The religion is not immune to the same human desire for equal rights that promoted feminism in Christian and secular societies. 

In France, this incuriosity about how Muslims live, their culture and their beliefs has only fostered suspicion and fear between the consistently marginalized Islamic population and the rest of the country. For evidence, just look back again at Submission’s publication date, and the horrific Charlie Hebdo shootings carried out that day by two brothers, bearing assault weapons, who claimed adherence to an Islamic terrorist group.

Long-simmering tensions between French nativists and the burgeoning Muslim population boiled over. France suffered an outbreak of anti-Muslim attacks following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, but such crimes were already on the rise. White French citizens are clearly in something of a panic: estimates suggest around 7.5 percent of the population is now Muslim, with over 10 percent projected by 2030, but surveys have suggested many French believe the Muslim population is significantly higher, closer to a third of the country.

Submission's portrayal of Islam might not be intentionally unfriendly to the religion, but it is deeply stereotypical.

 

Despite all evidence to the contrary, many mainstream critics seem uncomfortable acknowledging Submission as a sincerely reactionary novel.

“There is no doubt that Houellebecq wants us to see the collapse of modern Europe and the rise of a Muslim one as a tragedy,” says Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. A bit defensive, if not counterfactual, given that the author himself has expressed doubt as to this intention.

Pointing out the protagonist’s anti-feminist views -- François thinks women should never have been allowed into the workplace or voting booth -- Calum Marsh writes, in The New Republic, “The Muslim Brotherhood agrees. Houellebecq, one would like to think, does not.”

It’s a telling choice of words -- “would like to think” -- a tacit admission that this reading has more to do with the reviewer preferring to avoid wearisome arguments about women’s rights than with Houellebecq’s successful execution of a sharp satire. “Feminists aren't going to like Submission,” wrote Iain MacWhirter, as if the narrow-mindedness quite possibly lies with those uptight women who resent their oppression. Again and again, reviewers (mostly male) brush aside Houellebecq’s misogyny as tiresome, no more than expected, or (optimistically) a tool to puncture the archetype of the libidinous entitled male. “His thoughts on such subjects as lesbians and ‘vaginal dryness’ invite a rolled eye rather than a yawp of moral outrage,” sighs Marsh.

Ah, misogyny: how dull.

Houellebecq’s needling of female critics strikes a familiar note, one American audiences were treated to quite recently.

“There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book,” Jonathan Franzen told The Guardian in reference to a shrill feminist character in his latest novel, Purity, which he expected to infuriate women readers.

The most aggressively chauvinistic portion of the novel -- the only one narrated in first person -- tells the harrowing tale of Tom Aberant’s first marriage. An old-school journalist, stand-up guy and apparent authorial surrogate, Tom strives to be the perfect egalitarian husband but is relentlessly abused by his wife, Anabel, a controlling, judgmental feminist.

Laura Miller, a friend of Franzen’s as well as a respected literary critic, reacted as if personally offended by critiques of Purity as misogynistic, writing in her review of the novel that attacks on this section failed to account for his ironic humor and his fascination with the specifics of his characters’ psyches. “This part of the novel has, obtusely, been interpreted by some readers as a rebuke to feminism, although Anabel isn’t any more representative of feminists than she is of vegans or, for that matter, female characters in Franzen novels,” she writes.

Yet it’s Franzen who chose to suggest that Anabel is a targeted jab at feminists in his Guardian interview. “I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition,” he told Emma Brocke. “So why not just let it all rip and: have fun with that, guys.”

By daring the critics to notice this provocative gesture, Franzen seems to have inoculated himself against it. Most major reviews have ignored or explained away this aspect of Purity, seeing in it instead a “fleet-footed ... intimate novel,” a “piercingly brilliant” examination of how we live now. In his Purity-focused afterword to the literary biography Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, Philip Weinstein addresses his omission more directly: “Let us leave aside,” he writes simply, “the casually sexist language that Franzen began to draw on in Freedom and deploys more uninhibitedly here.”

Feminist critiques of hateful gendered language, it seems, are a mere distraction.

Gliding over the problematic language and characterization in Purity allows critics to elide the thrust of Franzen’s irony. “One of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male,” Franzen says. So… what does that joke actually say? The point of this vicious satire is that all of Tom’s efforts to do the right thing are doomed from go; he’s trying to pacify a woman -- a feminist -- who will always find a way to villainize him for his essential male identity. If Tom is pathetic, it’s because he tries to cater to Anabel’s irrational feminism, when he should be, as Franzen himself is, thumbing his nose at these demands.

Franzen’s wit, and his scathing pen, don’t work to undermine still-oppressive perceptions of women, but to flick ungracious feminists on the nose for daring to question his methods. In the Guardian interview, he complains, “I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior… a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.”

Constructing an elaborate subplot in order to chastise his critics: It’s not the best look for the most successful and admired literary novelist working today, nor does it make for a particularly insightful piece of work, at least outside of the context of a therapy session.

Jonathan Franzen at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 2, 2015 in Cheltenham, England.
Jonathan Franzen at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 2, 2015 in Cheltenham, England.

 

Houellebecq, at least, cares too little for the opinions of women to be troubled by his critics. The subjugation of women in Submission seems to derive less from petulance, as with Franzen, than from untroubled disdain.

In François’s eyes, and seemingly in Houellebecq’s, the institution of Islamic patriarchy, complete with polygamy and restrictions on women's behavior, actually benefits the ladies, if they only have the right attitude. “Under an Islamic regime, women -- at least the ones pretty enough to attract a husband -- were able to remain children nearly their entire lives,” ponders François -- a man who, by the way, is drawing an enormous pension to spend the rest of his life at home, feeding himself TV dinners reheated in the microwave, an appliance without which he’d likely starve.

In Houellebecq’s Islamicized society, men are deemed adults by virtue of their access to income, while women, restricted to the unpaid domestic work of keeping those men fed, clothed and sexually satisfied, are mere children. Meanwhile, the women who aren’t “pretty enough to attract a husband” vanish into a hypothetical ether --François couldn’t care less about women who aren’t his potential wives, and therefore Houellebecq doesn’t either. (Or perhaps it’s the other way around.)

The only happily married couple we’re shown in Submission is François’ colleague, Marie-Françoise Tanneur, and her husband, Alain, who works for the French intelligence agency. Marie-Françoise, far from representing the values of feminism, earns her happiness by being a demure wife. When François visits the couple, his accomplished former coworker cooks an epicurean, multi-course meal and serves it to the two men while they relax and discuss the political situation over port. “[S]he was thriving,” François observes. “To see her bustling around the kitchen in an apron … it was hard to believe that just days ago she’d been leading a doctoral seminar on the altogether unusual circumstances surrounding Balzac’s corrections to the proofs of Béatrix.”

Critics often take for granted that Houellebecq’s droll deadpan and Franzen’s sly wit imply that each questionable point in their novels is meant satirically. But even were Houellebecq, as so many critics suggest, being less than candid in his writing and to interviewers -- “Houellebecq often seems to be playing a parody of himself,” wrote The New York Times -- this ought not to remove any accountability from him as a writer.

There’s something grotesque about the kind of game some critics suggest Houellebecq is playing with women by penning such an overtly misogynistic speculative fiction. Wouldn’t it be funny, he seems to ask, if you lost all your rights and independence? If you were given to an old man as a submissive sexual plaything in your mid-teens? For me, he points out impishly, it wouldn’t be so bad if that happened! This is neither a very interesting point -- on the contrary, it’s rather obvious that entitled men would relish a return to a rigid patriarchy that would provide them multiple teenage brides -- nor is it as amusing as he apparently thinks it is.

There’s something grotesque about the kind of game critics suggest Houellebecq is playing with women. Wouldn’t it be funny, he seems to ask, if you lost all your rights and independence?

 

Despite their superficial similarities -- the pleasure taken in taunting feminists, the self-deprecating humor masking navel-gazing conservatism, the inflated critical reactions -- Houellebecq is far more dangerous than Franzen. The latter’s pet grievances with society are niche (housecats are destroying bird populations), personal (feminists aren’t grateful enough to me) or as ineffectual as an old man yelling at a cloud (the Internet is the new fascist state).

Houellebecq’s blinkered portrayal of Islam comes at a time when France actually is roiled with upheaval in part stemming from the stark divide between French nativists and French Muslims. Submission, far from providing new insight, paints a hyper-conservative model-minority portrait of the little-understood, oft-scapegoated community within the nation’s borders. The novel, despite the stream of plaudits for its satirical subtlety, accomplishes the same thing as an outright tract declaring that Islam is a pre-Enlightenment, patriarchal religion and, while he's at it, that women’s rights are disposable.

Houellebecq himself argues that novels don’t change the world, insisting to The Paris Review, “I claim utter irresponsibility.” It’s hard to argue with the influence felt by essays such as "The Communist Manifesto," but what of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Charles Dickens’ novels? Anyone who’s heard a Republican congressman wax rapturous about Ayn Rand’s fiction might suspect entire political systems would be improved had she never published Atlas Shrugged.

Many of the reviews of Submission show subtle signs of even Houellebecq’s influence, at the very least in how apologetic most critics seem in even introducing the question of feminism. I know, it’s silly to even bring this up, they seem to say, as they cautiously point out that Houellebecq is a raging misogynist. Much like Franzen’s mainstream critics, they betray a fear of seeming overly earnest, missing the joke this great novelist was making and revealing themselves to be fools in the service of militant feminists -- the sad fate of Purity’s Tom, who emasculated himself in hopes of impressing Anabel.

It’s a fear no female novelist seems to benefit from, a fear that seems to lead critics to contort reality to suit the narrative of the great white male novelist. And as Houellebecq's troubling work suggests, it can be damaging. We're tempted to silence or downplay the concerns of marginalized groups in order to protect the halo of greatness around a figure who fits our conception of an "important" writer, though the very reputation of such a writer makes their problematic ideas all the more influential, and the need to refute them all the more urgent.

These golden idols quickly grow too mystical to topple. It’s easier to set aside or explain away the misogyny endemic to Purity and Submission than to reckon with the fact that we’ve elevated profoundly flawed men to the level of literary gods. Until we’re comfortable directly confronting the unpleasant messages of such entitled, downwardly punching comedy, the joke will continue, as always, to be on the rest of us mere humans.

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