Monday November 29th, 2010

“After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read.”

houellebecqI’ve always assumed I would dislike the work of Michel Houellebecq, not just because negative reviews of it include lines like, “What is surprising about the book is not its pessimism but the fantastically boring way it has been couched,” but because positive reviews include lines like, “His vision of a post-existentialist, rationalist world, in which any attempts at human happiness are not only doomed but risibly beside the point, is completely without mitigation.”

Yet, I found the interview with Houellebecq in the most recent issue of The Paris Review entertaining, even charming in a way. If the nihilism of his novels comes off like the nihilism of his interview, I might be OK with it. Here he is on his critics. His point about readers’ relationships with characters is one I agree with completely:

Interviewer: You’ve said book reviewers don’t focus enough on the characters.

Houellebecq: One precious thing about ordinary readers is that sometimes they develop feelings for the characters. This is something critics never discuss. Which is a shame. The Anglo-Saxon critics do good plot summaries but they don’t talk about the characters either. Readers, however, do it uninhibitedly.

Interviewer: What about your critics? Can you just sum up briefly what you hold against the French press?

Houellebecq: First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books — my mother or my tax exile — and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things — cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.