At the beginning of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, Houellebecq, perhaps unwittingly, analyzes himself. “The beauty of an author’s style,” he writes, “the music of his sentences, have their importance in literature … but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.”
Few would call Houellebecq, who holds the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, a “bad writer,” but in France he is known for his narrative inventiveness while his style is generally accepted as second-rate: something readers put up with in order to get to his ideas. And yet in Submission, his latest novel, his style is so distracting that the Parisian weekly L’Express called him out as “a poor writer but a good sociologist,” adding, “a good writer would not use ‘based on’ in lieu of ‘founded on,’ ‘however’ in place of ‘on the other hand,’ and ‘wine vintage’ when he wants to mean ‘vintage.’ ”
Houellebecq is a classically French intellectual in that the Idea comes above all. By systematically draping ideas over characters, he has created a text that is essentially a political treatise disguised as a novel. For instance, near the end, François gets into a dialogue with a former academic colleague, whereupon they proceed to discuss everything from the social instability caused by mass secularism to the supposed evolutionary benefits of polygamy—all this for multiple chapters, unrelieved by an explanation of feelings or a description of the setting or any of the other details that a reader of fiction might reasonably expect.
Characters, too, are created and erased at will. Myriam, François’ romantic interest, comes onto the scene near the middle of the novel, then disappears when she moves to Israel, never to be mentioned again except for three sentences in the final act. It’s clear that Houellebecq invented Myriam predominately as a comparison to the sexually submissive wives that François’ male friends are gifted after Mohammed Ben Abbes, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, wins the 2022 French presidential election. Nabokov famously said his characters are his “galley slaves.” Houellebecq’s characters are his way to claim his stories as novels and not academic texts.
But for a novel about the Islamization of France, what other choice does Houellebecq have than to write paragraphs of dense theory shrouded by disposable fictional characters? To write a text probing how culture clashes function, how they are born, and how religions provide a structure for a morally bankrupt post-war Europe in any genre other than fiction would be to assure a miserably low readership. How many people would read a nonfiction text called something like Michel Houellebecq’s Thoughts on Women, Islam, and the Future of the European Union? Dress it up with some sex, a few discardable characters, and a smart narrator with a few flaws and suddenly you have a robust readership.
This anti-style is “le style Houellebecq.” In France, it works: Submission is a best-seller, having sold more than 120,000 copies in its first week alone. It has now sold more than 650,000 copies since its January release. But Houellebecq admits his novels come at the cost of style, going so far as to imply many of his books are not even literature at all. In a letter to Bernard Henri-Lévy collected in a book of correspondence called Public Enemies, Houellebecq writes, “In this transaction, literature is surely the loser. The sort of novelist inclined to exploit freedom of speech or to test its limits in a society where virtually anything can be said without reprisal is less likely to be some descendant of James Joyce … than a provocateur.” Houellebecq understands that he’s all content and no gloss—a theoretician who aims to analyze and provoke—and the French accept it as all very well. Yet the new American translation of Submission shows that other countries aren’t so sure: a little style and a little clarity might be implicit requirements of the American reading public.