Well Beckoned

by wjw on September 23, 2010

Saw an interesting Paris Review interview with French slipstream author (and Lovecraft scholar) Michel Houellebecq.  I was interested in part because the guy’s process is so different from mine.

I wake up during the night around one a.m. I write half-awake in a semi-conscious state. Progressively, as I drink coffee, I become more conscious. And I write until I’m sick of it.


Do you have other requirements for writing?


Flaubert said you had to have a permanent erection. I haven’t found that to be the case. I need to take a walk now and then. Otherwise, in terms of dietary requirements, coffee works, it’s true. It takes you through all the different stages of consciousness. You start out semicomatose. You write. You drink more coffee and your lucidity increases, and it’s in that in-between period, which can last for hours, that something interesting happens.


Do you plot the novels?



Which explains a certain quality to the novels, I think.  Written in a half-dreaming state, and not plotted ahead of time.

Houellebecq is a literary author who writes about science fictional ideas, and who is well-known for saying perfectly outrageous things that may actually be true.


So what made you write your first novel, Whatever, about a computer
programmer and his sexually frustrated friend?


I hadn’t seen any novel make the statement that entering the workforce was like entering the grave. That from then on, nothing happens and you have to pretend to be interested in your work. And, furthermore, that some people have a sex life and others don’t just because some are more attractive than others. I wanted to acknowledge that if people don’t have a sex life, it’s not for some moral reason, it’s just because they’re ugly. Once you’ve said it,
it sounds obvious, but I wanted to say it.

(While I had always thought that entering the workforce was like entering the grave, it never occurred to me to actually say it.  And as for the thought that some people don’t get sex because they’re physically unattractive . . . hey, it never occurred to me to say that, either.    That’s why I’m not a world-famous literary provocateur.)


According to the narrator in Whatever, “one hates the young.”


That’s the other part of the trap. The first is professional life, the fact that nothing else is going to happen to you. The second is that now there’s this person who will replace you and who will have experiences. This leads to the natural hatred of the father for his son.


The father and not the mother?


Yes. There is some kind of physiological and psychological change in a woman when she gets pregnant. It’s animal biology. But fathers don’t give a shit about their offspring. Hormonal things occur, things that no culture can do anything about, that generally make women like children and men basically not give a damn.


What about marriage?


I think that there is a sharp contrast for most people between life at university, where they meet lots of people, and the moment when they enter the workforce, when they basically no longer meet anyone. Life becomes dull. So as a result people get married to have a personal life. I could elaborate but I think everyone understands . . .


Of course, it was the numerous sex scenes that got you a lot of attention in the media.


I’m not sure that there are such an unusual number of sex scenes in my novel.
I don’t think that’s what was shocking. What shocked people was that I
depicted sexual failure. I wrote about sexuality in a nonglorifying way. Most of all I described a basic reality: a person filled with sexual desire who can’t satisfy it. That’s what people don’t like to hear about. Sex is supposed to be positive. Showing frustrated sexual desire is obscene. But it’s also the truth The real question is, Who is allowed to have sex?

He just says this shit, y’know?  And I don’t think he’s trying to be outrageous, I think he’s just saying what always seemed obvious to him.

You know what else you can’t say?  You can’t say that people are stupid.  When someone comes up with some total claptrap about Obama being a secret Muslim terrorist or the Moon landings being fakes, for some reason you’re supposed to engage with this idiocy instead of just saying, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard.  You must be a moron!  You haven’t got the brains that God gave a turnip!  Your parents must be deeply ashamed of having produced someone like you.  I bet your children won’t be seen in public with you for fear you’re going to say some nonsensical shit like this!”

Nor can you say that people are crazy.  “What, you think that your religion is being persecuted because the State won’t teach that the world is six thousand years old?  You’d have to be crazy to believe something like that!   Have you ever had a psychiatric evaluation?   You should check into an asylum and not come out until your kids are grown and you can’t do them any more damage!”

Maybe I’ll just write a book calling stupid people stupid and crazy people crazy.  Maybe I’ll get an international reputation or something.

Oz September 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Maybe. And then maybe it’s appropriate to shrug one’s shoulders in that gallic way and write off his comments as being, well, French. A pretty singular view of the world that shows he’s maybe a wee bit parochial. And outrageous. One mustn’t forget the outrageous part. That’s his charm. That and the blue smoke curling up around his head from the inevitable cigarette. Face it. Americans just don’t have a cultural level of disdain to equal the sentiments he expresses. We can (and do) say just about anything in our culture. So the shock value of his commentary would be wasted on us.


Dave Bishop September 23, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Go for it, Walter!

kat September 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm


Um. It’s certainly a very interesting viewpoint. I suppose it’s valid to some. And if it’s truly his I applaud him writing about it, because honest writing is always good.

Don’t think I’ll be reading it, though. We do not share much in the way of worldview.

(Also, this?

There is some kind of physiological and psychological change in a woman when she gets pregnant. It’s animal biology. But fathers don’t give a shit about their offspring. Hormonal things occur, things that no culture can do anything about, that generally make women like children and men basically not give a damn.

Is basically crap. I’m willing to accept that there’s a small biological bias towards women liking kids and men tolerating them, but, to be honest most of the difference I’ve seen is cultural. That is, persons from more affluent cultures where children, being inconvenient, are kept separate from adults, are quite likely (male and female alike) to be uncomfortable around children, to not want any themselves, to even sometimes be actively hostile towards those who have or want children. Persons from cultures where kids are around all the time are more likely to, well, like them. The number of macho Hispanic men or tough rednecks I’ve seen drop everything to play with a three-year-old suggests Houellebecq may just not get out of his cultural circle much.)

(Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with not wanting kids, or inherently right with wanting them… I’m just saying I think the author is drawing from a very narrow well. Or, alternatively, on crack.)

wjw September 24, 2010 at 2:43 am

Well, no, I don’t share much of his worldview, either. Though if I came from as dysfunctional a home environment as Houellebecq, I might well believe that men don’t give a damn about children. (In fact, given his personal history, I’m surprised that he credits women with loving their children at all.)

He got in a certain amount of trouble for depicting the negative consequences of the sexual revolution in Elementary Particles, and particularly for the portrait of the selfish, child-abandoning mother . . . until his actual mother got offended and wrote her autobiography, 300 pages of wall-to-wall narcissism, which had the critics saying, “Umm, wow, Houellebecq really underplayed her, didn’t he?”

He also seems not to have considered that there are people who really like their jobs. But again, his only job seems to have consisted of being a code monkey in some windowless French government bureaucracy, so there you go . . . As I see it, his problem is in taking his own experience and universalizing it.

Ralf the Dog September 24, 2010 at 9:04 am

I have always thought that Roger Zelazny’s state of mind might have been pharmaceutically altered when he wrote parts of his books. It worked for him. (I know Philip K. Dick was reality challenged when he wrote much of his work.)

As to some people not getting as much action, for some, it is because they are ugly. For others of us, it is because we have standards (I am rather attached to my private parts and would like to keep it that way). There is also the question, “Does she like me, or the size of my wallet?”

One problem with my dating life is my uncontrollable urge to do stand up comedy. I don’t know if any of you have ever needed to drive your date to the emergency room because they can’t stop laughing and they can’t get their breaths. It is not as much fun as it sounds (and yes, this was clothes on.)

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