Friday, November 6, 2015

Kakutani on Houellebecq

Though I no longer make a habit of reading book reviews of popular fiction after years of finding them unsatisfactory, I looked at Michiko Kakutani's review of Submission out of curiosity to see what she thought. She has a reputation for being an honest, if quirky, reviewer who doesn't shy away from going into attack mode when she dislikes a well-received work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, she hates Michel Houellebecq and Submission, and I thought I would comment on the strengths and weaknesses of her review and on the whole reviewing system that readers have to put up with.

In the first paragraph of her review she links Houellebecq to "hate-mongering." In the second paragraph she refers to the novel as "ugly." In the third paragraph she says that for Houellebecq "controversy has proved to be a very rewarding career move," and remarks that one of his earlier novels is "filled with misogynistic put-downs, putrid sex scenes and nihilistic pronouncements on the depravity of the human species." In the fifth paragraph she says that "Mr. Houellebecq's writing tends to be highly derivative of earlier writers," and that "his protagonists are simply variations of one odious type–self-pitying, self-absorbed and misanthropic men who have a hard time feeling any emotion other than lust." Referring to the book in the eleventh paragraph, she says that Houellebecq's "mockery of French academics...and an arthritic political system" is "all done with an extremely heavy hand." In the twelfth and final paragraph she concludes that the protagonist, François, "gets a new start in life by remaining true to his egocentric, opportunistic self." While her summary of the plot and her description of some of Houellebecq's techniques are reasonably accurate, she seems to me to intensely dislike the book for reasons that cannot be considered objective.

Where I think Kakutani goes astray is in her understanding of what constitutes art. Certainly it is easy to see that Submission does not fit the model of conventional popular American fiction, but she makes no effort to identify how anyone who is not a deranged pervert or something of the sort might find it worthwhile. I agree with her that it is written in a specific French tradition, but think she is being lazy about examining how that tradition works and the ways in which Houellebecq falls short in that regard. She negatively compares him to Camus, whom I now think is rather overrated myself, but doesn't try to determine what Houellebecq might be trying to say or how he might have said it better.

My view is that Houellebecq is not first and foremost a good writer in the sense of producing beautiful writing or the clear exposition of ideas, but that those are not really the essence of the novel as a form of art. Kakutani's position is not unlike that of art critics in the late nineteenth century who might have said that van Gogh's crude brushstrokes are proof of an imbecilic lack of talent. It is a little difficult for me to evaluate just how badly Houellebecq reads in French, but it isn't hard to see that his sentences generally lack elegance. I also believe that the ideas underlying his novels could be expressed better even in novelistic form, but to a serious reader that is not a sufficient reason to dismiss an entire work. Houellebecq appeals to me in Submission and some of his other novels because I believe that there are aspects of his worldview that are legitimate and stand in contrast to conventional optimistic views of mankind, and he offers a needed corrective. Reviewers like Kakutani seem blind to the fact that a negative or pessimistic outlook on mankind may be just as plausible as their optimistic view, and that their critiques of Houellebecq are based more on dislike of a competing worldview than on substantive reasoning.

I concede that there is a somewhat cartoonish element to the way that Houellebecq writes, but must point out that even comic books are now accepted as a legitimate form of art. If you have read my previous posts you will have seen that I prefer to view the limitations of mankind more calmly, in a somewhat detached manner. I think Houellebecq is just a little more hysterical and uninformed than he might be. From my point of view it would be preferable to express Houellebecq's ideas in a clear and accurate essay, but the fact is that no one reads that kind of thing, and most people respond more to a Houellebecqian tirade. When you take objectivity seriously it becomes apparent that Americans are far more optimistic than they ought to be–delusionally so–and Houellebecq, though excessive in the opposite direction, is constantly drowned out by a majority that is optimistic to the point of obtuseness. Regarding the accusation that Houellebecq is a misanthrope, misogynist, nihilist, narcissist, bigot, etc., I think that these are primarily name-calling labels that people use without bothering to understand his work; he must take some blame for being less articulate than he might have been, but I think that being completely articulate is not necessarily the responsibility of an artist, because incomprehensible complexity is something that art, particularly the novel, seeks to address. For me it is more appropriate to see Houellebecq as an enfant terrible who presents a particular worldview in a forceful and expressive manner.

Kakutani's review looks like a barely civil hatchet job. Beneath the "Mr." this and so on of the stilted New York Times writing style that she employs, one gets the sense that there may lie a simmering rage against all things French. This could place her in same camp as Jeb Bush, who, during a recent Republican debate, said that Marco Rubio's poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate looked like "a French work week." Of course, that was a continuation of the long-running hate affair that the Republicans have held with France since they changed the name of french fries to "freedom fries" because France, showing great prescience, refused to support George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this case I would only point out to Kakutani that French literary and intellectual history, whether one likes them or not, were once and perhaps still are the apex of Western civilization, and that beyond the fact that French writers and thinkers produced many of the ideas that made the very existence of the U.S. possible, throughout most of its history America has looked like a long-running episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" compared to life in France. Whether you like Houellebecq or not, he descends from a literary tradition that dwarfs American literature.

For me, reviews like Kakutani's are but another symptom of the cultural oligarchy that is headquartered in New York City. To figure out what's going on here you need only know that New York City is a center for publishing, and that major newspapers hire columnists who, in the course of producing columns, inevitably become hacks, regardless of their level of talent. The New York Times is in the business of making money, and to do that they need a constant flow of new content. One proven method for generating it is maintaining a fixed group of columnists with whom their readers come to identify. A few years ago it dawned on me that even the best columnists fail eventually if you hold them up to any real standards. If you look at what Michiko Kakutani has to do, there is no mystery to this. She speed-reads fifty-plus books each year that have been identified as being of potential interest to her readers, and then she quickly writes a short essay on each one. If she happens to come across a complex, puzzling or highly specialized book, she may not have the time or knowledge to do it justice, and usually no one will know the difference, because her columns are not combed religiously by scholars from all fields. To use Submission as an example, whether or not it is as lofty a work as I may have made it seem, it may simply be a matter of expedience for her to trash it. Her readers won't be any the wiser, her reputation won't be affected, and her company doesn't care whether the novel sells well or not. My point here is that the constraints under which reviewers like Kakutani work place an upper limit on the quality of their reviews. Besides the fact that it would be nearly impossible for one reviewer to produce fifty high-quality reviews per year, she would have no incentive to do so, because that would entail writing over the heads of her readers, contradicting the purpose of her employment.

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