Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

The two books I am trying to finish this week are big name books – Michel Houellebecq’s Goncourt-winning La Carte et le Territoire and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. This is my first experience with both authors, actually, and I definitely dragged my feet getting started on either book.

Until now, Houellebecq has intimidated me as a reader, mainly because I’m aware that the labels used to describe his work set me up to disapprove of his project before turning that first page. I hear from certain Francophone friends that he’s doing something very profound, from others that he’s a phony, or that he’s overrated. Interestingly, Swiss Francophone readers tend to be wary of what they consider French literary snobbism, where writers get away with being inconsistent or opaque and if you don’t get them you’re just not philosophical (or smart) enough; this perspective is useful for me because it annihilates the awe factor I might have as an unabashed Francophile and helps me evaluate a book with the same critical mind I use on Anglophone fiction. Also, I admit that I don’t usually enjoy literature which even hints at vulgarity and this is one of the most common labels applied to Houellebecq. Nevertheless, I have remained interested in his work since first hearing about him and I opened his latest novel with more curiousity than pre-conceived notion.

Interestingly, La Carte et le Territoire has done nothing but surprise me with its ordinariness. He is clearly an accomplished writer, but so far his prose is conventional and I’ve found nothing shocking about his descriptions or even the story. The book is about a painter named Jed Martin, but even he strikes me as a very dull creature for the moment and I’m 100 pages into this 400 page book. Houellebecq has written in a character named Michel Houellebecq, and included his real-life buddy Frédéric Beigbeder among other high-profile literati, a “trick” which, admittedly, doesn’t impress me much as I can’t yet see the point. Although apparently Houellebecq in the novel gets murdered – so we’ll see. I’m prepared to reserve final judgment until I’ve finished the book…

Now, for Franzen. I have some vague memory of trying to read The Corrections about seven, eight years ago. But I gave up on the book. This is unusual for me, because really Franzen should be exactly the kind of writer I would enjoy. His writing tends to be detailed, careful and subtly sarcastic, and he holds a magnifying lens over parts of the American psyche. I’ve read several of his New Yorker non-fiction essays and enjoyed them. So I’m not sure why I put off reading The Corrections and why I’ve resisted reading Freedom. In any case, I’ve got both books in hand now.

Like La Carte et le Territoire, I was expecting fireworks or something flashy or showoff-y from the first page of Freedom and this isn’t there. That isn’t to say it’s bad. Again, this is just a novel. So far a well-written novel, with a nice percentage of quotable moments and insightful narrative. But it isn’t mind-boggling, nor will, I’m pretty sure, it alter my perception of America in some profound way. The real question for me is not whether the book deserved all the hype it received, but why do we feel the need to generate such hype for a single book in the first place. There are dozens of books published every year that are just as good and even better than Freedom, so I take issue with the publishing and marketing model more than with the book. Franzen is a good writer and he should be esteemed and criticized appropriately.

Now, hopefully, I won’t be back to contradict all this first-reaction downplaying when I’ve finished both books…

16 Responses to “mid-read thoughts on Franzen and Houellebecq”

  1. Annie

    I’m interested in what you say about the hype surrounding Franzen Book and the way in which the publishing machine latches onto a work and pushes it at the public conscious. If this doesn’t work out an established writer like Franzen can probably survive it. There is a body of work there which will keep the reader coming back even if they have been disappointed by the over-hyped novel. The problem is more acute, it seems to me, when the text so over inflated is a first novel and the author then sinks without trace. Had they been allowed to find their place in the reading world more slowly they would have had the opportunity to build a reputation. As it is they are remembered simply as the author of that book that flopped – if they are remembered at all. I’m not certain whose best interests the publishers think they are serving, but it certainly isn’t the writer’s.

    • Michelle

      A very good point about how this works on an already-established writer like Franzen. He can definitely surf the wave. I feel for the newish author who gets thrown into the spotlight like this. On the one hand, their chances of getting to write and publish further is guaranteed, which is not the case for writers whose books receive zero attention, but on the other, the pressure must be incredible. That must be hard to manage as well.

  2. litlove

    I completely agree that I don’t understand why Franzen received quite so much coverage for his novel. I mean, I enjoyed it, and it was very good, but set the world alight with it? I don’t think so. Houellebecq is a tricky one – I’ve really only read his first novel, which was good and had clever twists and managed to be profoundly shocking. But it’s hard to sustain shocking behaviour in print and I fear he may just be reprising old strategies. But surely you’d think if it won the Goncourt it would have some merit?

    • Michelle

      Litlove, I would love to have your opinion on this newest Houellebecq, so far NOTHING about it is shocking at all. It is nearly boring and the introduction of Houellebecq as a character grates on me as a reader now that it’s become a real element of the book. I will have to read his other work now, to see how this one compares.

  3. Lilian Nattel

    I wish publishers and media didn’t have to make a shout out of every situation: best novel ever! tour de force! one and only author to read in your life! Come and see, come and see! Geez. But your piece is lovely, I was just over there and read it.

    • Michelle

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Lilian. I don’t talk about my fiction writing much here, so it is with a little trepidation that I am linking to my stories and translations this month. I appreciate your word of kindness!

  4. Steph

    I have read both The Corrections and Freedom, and even though Freedom arguably got far more publicity (though The Corrections did generate a lot of buzz in its day), I definitely preferred the former to the later. As you say, Freedom is a good novel, maybe even a great one, but it didn’t change my world or the way I approach reading in any substantial way. Moreover, as a part of Franzen’s oeuvre, I’m not sure he does anything more or more successfully than he did in The Corrections.

    • Michelle

      I need to read The Corrections, and his other, quieter novels for that matter, just to see what he’s getting at.

  5. nicole

    Very interesting what you say about Swiss Francophone readers. It seems like it would be an especially good milieu for someone who isn’t actually French and is thus probably even more vulnerable to that kind of snobbism than average.

    Steph points out that Freedom was way more hyped than The Corrections, which also got a lot of publicity. I think the publicity around Freedom was ultimately really about The Corrections too, though—that’s why anyone cared to begin with. This was Franzen’s First Novel in a Billion Years. I mean, we had to wait through a book of essays and a memoir, on the edge of our seats, for the real follow-up to the Oprah Episode. So silly.

    • Michelle

      So silly is right.

      And you are definitely spot on about the Swiss atmosphere being helpful. I am the first to admit that I might be ridiculously susceptible to French snobbism, in the literary sense, so it’s nice to be reminded to be more critical. The Swiss aren’t always right, but at least it keeps me a little more objective.

  6. Biblibio

    My impression of a lot of hyped/award-winning books is that they are, at their core, good books but not extraordinary. A lot of times I’ll read an award-winner and I’ll have to wonder… why did this win? Sure, it’s a good book and is well-written, but what about this sets it apart from the rest of the pack? It seems like there’s no real distinction or reason for that extra praise. Like you say: it’s just a novel.

    • Michelle

      I think that truly exceptional books are rare, but publishers and readers alike would of course love to have more of these, it makes everyone happy. Hence the drive to “create” a truly exceptional book even when it might not actually be so exceptional.

  7. Stefanie

    I am curious about Houellebecq but haven’t read anything by him for the same reasons as you so I will be especially interested in what you make of him. I have the Franzen book on my shelf and had meant to get to it months ago but it just didn’t work out. I’ve not read him before and I want to read Freedom to see if he is worth the hype or not.

    • Michelle

      I’ll write more about Houellebecq when I’ve finished, but this book must be quite different from his other work. It isn’t vulgar really at all, not shocking in the least (so far). So we’ll see!

  8. Dorothy W.

    I have a writer friend who said much the same thing about Freedom — that it’s good but not THAT good, not shake up the literary world good, and also disappointing after he spent so many years on it. I will probably read it at some point, but my expectations are a little lowered now.

  9. Michelle

    Yeah, it’s interesting, I can’t really see what all the fuss is about. It’s a good book, but it isn’t extraodinary. Franzen should be pleased in the sense that it holds together, its well-written and all that, but it certainly won’t change my world.

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