Saturday, September 11, 2010

Michel Houellebecq: plagiarism in his new novel?

From the Irish Times

Plagiarism? Laziness? Mais non, that's 'patchwork literature'


Sat, Sep 11, 2010

PRESENT TENSE: THERE IS ANOTHER spot of bother over the French novelist, and former Cork resident, Michel Houellebecq. He is something of a literary scoundrel already, his own mother dismissing him thus in her autobiography: “This person, who unfortunately emerged from my tummy, is a liar, an impostor, a parasite and above all a little upstart who’ll do anything for fame and fortune.”

Houellebecq’s second novel, Atomised , became an instant “nihilistic classic”. The New York Times , however, described it as “a deeply repugnant read”. The novel won Houellebecq, along with his translator Frank Wynne, the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2002.

If that last paragraph was a bit flat, it’s because I pretty much cut and pasted it out of Wikipedia. Laziness? No way. Houellebecq would call it “patchwork literature”. And he’s been doing that all week since someone noticed that several parts of his latest novel, La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory), had been cut and pasted from Wikipedia.

Cue another round in the irregular series newspapers called “What Mess Is That Guy Who Writes Dirty, Possibly Racist Literary Books In Now, and How Do You Spell Houellebecq Anyway?” Already involved in a couple of rows about whether the book is any good and whether he pinched the title from someone else, Houellebecq has been characteristically brazen in his response to the Wikipedia fuss.

“I hope it adds to the beauty of my books to use such material,” he says. “I would like to be able to modify less than I do . . . It’s a type of patchwork, sewing together, dovetailing. Employing material that is rare because of its ‘extraliterarity’ is a small source of pride.”

Seeing that Houellebecq includes himself as a character in The Map and the Territory , the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun complained that Houellebecq “turns to himself because he doesn’t know how to invent any more”. (To which it is tempting to retort that the guy invented the word ‘extraliterarity’. That must be worth something.)

Houellebecq’s book hasn’t been published here yet, so I can’t make a proper judgment on the context of those passages, but, whether or not the revelation is deliberate, he has exposed some of the machinery of creativity, showing the worn scaffolding on which some novels are built. (Though it is more complex than that, because while it’s not okay to cut and paste from the web, it is fine to cut and paste from life.)

There are unspoken rules between writer and reader. If you call a book factual it had better be just that. If it is fiction you have to be careful how you incorporate fact. If it is a novel, and it happens to be based on your life, you can get away with it as long as you’re clear that it’s not to be taken entirely as fact.

Readers treat verity, and sincerity, very seriously. When something that is supposed to be true is revealed to be false, the world and its media can come crashing in on the author. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces , a tale of self-destruction that was revealed to be largely a construction, is perhaps the most famous modern example. On Wikipedia (don’t roll your eyes) it is now described as a semi-fictional memoir.

When you read a memoir, though, and the dialogue crackles with certainty, it’s hard not to wonder just how it is that the writer can be so clear. The misery-lit genre, so popular until recently, is written largely by people who suffered in their childhoods – when they were not keeping large diaries, daily jotting down each line of every conversation, which could then be used, edited and repackaged in their adulthood in a series of bestselling books.

There are occasions when you wonder if a novelist is really a novelist at all or just a creative memoirist, writing books that are so close to the author’s life that it is a distraction. (Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland comes to mind.)

Sometimes the mixture of fact and fiction can tease – on the Man Booker shortlist is Emma Donoghue’s Room , inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room , whose chief character is one Damon. And occasionally something utterly daft comes along and ignores everything, such as the “autobiography” of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, which was categorised in some Irish shops and libraries as non-fiction.

Houellebecq’s approach – calculated or not – may have ruined the magic trick being performed by the writer to an audience that wants to believe. Writing is a complicated business, fiction more so. The blurring of fact and fiction can be perilous, even when it’s only lobbing in a few facts, and the reader doesn’t always want to see the man behind the curtain.

© 2010 The Irish Times

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