Michel Houellebecq, Provocative Novelist, Wins the Prix Goncourt

Unflinching autopsies of contemporary French society are really hot this year

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This week, it was announced that Michel Houellebecq had won the Prix Goncourt, arguably the most prestigious literary prize awarded in France, for his novel La carte et le territoire, published in English as The Map and the Territory. Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy; he's been called "profoundly misogynist," his novels have been described (by a defender) as "degrading, antireligious, and cold-hearted," and in 2002 he created an uproar for calling Islam "by far the most stupid, false and obfuscating of all religions." The Map and the Territory, while reportedly less searing than his earlier novels, features plenty of the kind of deadpan social critique for which Houellebecq is known. Here's what the literary world is saying about his triumph.

  • Though Houellebecq Polarizes, French Critics Go Wild  Lucian Robinson at New Statesman reports that "the French press were almost uniform in their praise for his victory this week. Raphaëlle Rérolle, writing in Le Monde, commented that 'they (the jury) ended by accepting the inevitable result ... they were forced to admit that it was no longer possible to avoid the obstacle of Houellebecq. That it was no longer feasible ... to ignore one of the most exciting writers on the contemporary French literary landscape.'"

  • A Signature Style  "Much French writing suffers from an aesthetic and intellectual preciousness, which turns off ordinary readers and certainly makes books difficult to sell abroad. It also evokes a France that exists purely in the literary mind," writes Hugh Schofield in a profile of Houellebecq for BBC News. "Houellebecq on the other hand writes about a France that is as instantly recognisable as it is depressing: a France of supermarkets and shopping malls, soulless provincial towns, brands, television, budget airlines, second-rate celebrities. His language is also conversational and direct."

  • Is Houellebecq Getting Soft? wonders Issandr el Amrani at The National. Amrani writes that Houellebecq's past novels had been characterized by "an almost comically bleak, lucid, and unforgiving attitude to life and its indignities," but adds that "now he seems merely grouchy," and calls The Map and the Territory "a gentler, less overtly nihilistic novel than usual."

  • This Victory Belongs to Everyone!  Nelly Kaprielian at The Paris Review describes a night out with Houellebecq and his admirers, including the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder. "'Between Michel getting the Goncourt and Virginie Despentes winning le Renaudot,' Beigbeder exclaims, 'a whole generation—our generation—has finally won!' There's a brief silence, and we must all think the same thing without saying it: If we've won and there's nothing to fight for, it's probably downhill from here."

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