Houellebecq essay

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ELH Assignment: Essay about two reviews of Houellebecq's
Submission
Both reviews of Michel Houellebecq’s novel ‘Submission’, one by Rob Doyle published in the
Irish Times and one by Lydia Kiesling published in Slate magazine, critically analyse
Houellebecq’s controversial writing, considering the context in which it was published and the
message the author is trying to convey. Although Kiesling takes a much more gender-orientated
stance than Doyle, he, too, doesn’t shy away from mentioning Houellebecq’s apparent
misogyny. Both reviews touch upon the alleged Islamophobia Houellebecq has been accused
of, taking a similar stance on the issue. That the book itself is not necessarily Islamophobic the
reviewers agree upon, noting that Islam is mainly used only to hold a mirror up to current
European society.
The context that the reviewers place the novel in is very similar within the two reviews, namely
the fact that the novel was published the same day as the infamous and horrific Charlie Hebdo
shootings. Doyle takes a cynical view on this, which he refers to as an ‘apparent coincidence’
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before highlighting Houellebecq’s ‘knack for writing himself into the eye of the storm’2,
insinuating that Houellebecq presents himself as controversial purposefully to remain relevant to
the public. In this aspect Doyle calls Houellebecq ‘peerless’3. Kiesling, however, analyses the
coincidence in regard to the critical reviews over the book, crediting it for beginning the debate
on whether the book is Islamophobic or not, and thereby pushing aside any mention of the
book’s misogyny, which Kiesling calls ‘breathtaking’4. Doyle also touches upon Houellebecq’s
past; the constant, potentially Islamophobic controversies that seem to follow him. Specifically,
Doyle mentions his fourth book ‘Platform’, released days before the 11th of September 2001
attacks on the World Trade Center, which ended with a ‘horrific jihadi attack on a beach resort’5.
Doyle highlights Platform’s Islamophobia and contrasts it with the ‘surprising’6 stance
Houellebecq takes on Islam in ‘Submission’. Kiesling, on the other hand, disregards
Houellebecq’s past in favour of writing about the current climate of Europe, and by natural
extension, France. She remarks that the book represents a type of ‘cultural mourning’7 for those
who, like Houellebecq, idealised Europe’s democratic and Christian cultural past and believe the
continent is on its decline and, therefore, will naturally have to submit to some power - that
power being Islam in the case of the novel. Kiesling also mentions the air of ‘cultural
contamination’8 that is present in Europe, the fear of the Other and desperate need for the
preservation of the ‘hegemony of European culture’9. This refers to the immigration crisis
happening in Europe and the rampant discrimination that came along with it, creating an
atmosphere of fear, of which this book fans the flames of that fire.
1
Doyle, Rob. "Review: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq." The Irish Times. September 12, 2015. Accessed
November 23, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/review-submission-by-michel-houellebecq1.2348632.
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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Kiesling, Lydia. "The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq's Submission." Slate Magazine. October 06, 2015.
Accessed November 23, 2018. https://slate.com/culture/2015/10/submission-by-michel-houellebecqreviewed.html.
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
As for which genre the reviewers classify the book as, Kiesling does not have much to say on
the topic. Although she does not specify a genre, she criticises his style of writing as ‘ostensibly
monotone and unornamented’10, insinuating a sense of boredom when reading the novel. Doyle,
however, refers the novel as a ‘political thriller’11, yet as a further criticism, says that it reads like
a ‘fictionalised essay’12. Both reviewers agree on the monotony and uninteresting essay-like
style of the novel. Officially, the book is classified as fiction.
Kiesling’s review focuses mainly on the rampant misogyny prominent throughout the novel.
Claiming this is an aspect ignored by other reviewers in favour of the controversy of
Islamophobia and due to the Houellebecq’s consistent record of being sexist, Kiesling focuses
on the protagonist’s constant negative judgements of his female peers, his draw to Islam being
based mainly around the promise of multiple young wives and most importantly, the lack of
condemnation by the author of this character’s opinions. Kiesling touches upon the difficult
question of where one must draw the line between character and author, mentioning that it
could be true that it is simply Houellebecq’s characters who hold these misogynistic views and
not him, yet the ‘correlation of women’s worth with their sexual viability’, 13Kiesling says, is
prominent throughout the entire novel. Kiesling condemns Houellebecq for not ‘hammering
Islam for its treatment of women’. Kiesling also touches upon France’s colonial past and its
relevance within the novel, criticising how the narrator still calls Tunisia and Benin French Africa.
She believes Houellebecq ‘often winks’14 at the narrator’s enjoyment and appreciation of the
past French empire.
Doyle, however, almost brushes over the misogyny, as Kiesling predicted, only mentioning it
briefly and indirectly. ‘But Francois wants more than a “little whore”; he wants a little whore who
can cook.’15 At first glance this is simply a fact from the book, yet the tone conveys a mocking,
sarcastic and critical view of the protagonist. Sexism aside, Doyle focuses more on the sense of
cultural and personal decline experienced by the protagonist in the novel, a familiar theme in
Houellebecq’s work. Doyle repeats the concept of ‘Planet Houellebecq’16 and refers to certain
themes as classically ‘Houellebecqian’17, conveying a sense of dull repetition in Houellebecq’s
work as well as the insinuation that the reviewer is bored of it, exposing the author as constantly
sticking to one narration, one type of character. This type of narration could be seen as stated
near the end of the review: ‘calm and amicable’18 - nothing that astounds or surprises. Doyle
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
Doyle, Rob. "Review: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq." The Irish Times. September 12, 2015. Accessed
November 23, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/review-submission-by-michel-houellebecq1.2348632.
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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Kiesling, Lydia. "The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq's Submission." Slate Magazine. October 06, 2015.
Accessed November 23, 2018. https://slate.com/culture/2015/10/submission-by-michel-houellebecqreviewed.html.
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Kiesling “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.”
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Doyle, Rob. "Review: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq." The Irish Times. September 12, 2015. Accessed
November 23, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/review-submission-by-michel-houellebecq1.2348632.
16
Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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also criticises Houellebecq’s ‘sloppy writing’19, exposing plot holes within the novel and
comparing the style to ‘long, boozy after-dinner dialogues’20.
Moreover, Kiesling takes an interesting stance on whether the novel represents an
Islamophobic point of view or not. Arguing that it is not necessarily the book itself that shames
the Islamic religion but rather the reviewers and critics who, in the current fearful climate of
terrorism, describe the conversion of the main character to Islam as bone-chilling, Kiesling
describes a fear of ‘cultural contamination’21 that is rampant in our society. Kiesling asserts that
the danger is not the novel, rather people misconstruing it to fan the flames of prejudice and
discrimination against Islam which are already so present in our society. Kiesling maintains that
Islam is barely analysed in the novel, except as a tool to hold a mirror up to French or European
society and expose its flaws. Similarly, Doyle never explicitly states that he finds the novel
Islamophobic, he perceives the religion to be manifested as the ‘ultimate male fantasy’22 in the
book, due to the appeal of polygamy. He even calls the conclusion of the novel a happy ending
on ‘Planet Houellebecq’23; Doyle is criticising Houellebecq’s values and morals, not the novels.
Doyle even believes the book is suggesting that Islam may be the best option for Europe as the
narrator is so discontented with the current state of affairs.
In conclusion, neither review reflects positively on Houellebecq. Kiesling castigates Houellebecq
for his misogyny and speculates where the character’s views end and the authors begins. Doyle
insinuates Houellebecq’s novels are repetitive in tone and criticises his writing directly. Although
both target Houellebecq, they target him personally, rather than, especially in regard to
Islamophobia, his novel. Both convincingly argue that it is not the novel that is Islamophobic,
competently stating that the issue lies with Houellebecq and, according to Kiesling, the critics
and readers of the novel.
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
21
Kiesling, Lydia. "The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq's Submission." Slate Magazine. October 06, 2015.
Accessed November 23, 2018. https://slate.com/culture/2015/10/submission-by-michel-houellebecqreviewed.html.
22
Doyle, Rob. "Review: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq." The Irish Times. September 12, 2015. Accessed
November 23, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/review-submission-by-michel-houellebecq1.2348632.
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Doyle “Review: Submission, By Michel Houellebecq”
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