Michel Houellebecq wins the Prix Goncourt

The enfant terrible of French literature is awarded his country's most prestigious literary prize.

Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of contemporary French letters, was awarded the Prix Goncourt on Monday evening for his latest novel La Carte et Le Territoire. At the awards ceremony, held at the Drouant restaurant in Paris as it has been since 1914, Houellebecq, when asked whether he thought that the award of the Goncourt meant that La Carte et Le Territoire should now be considered as his best novel, replied: "I don't know. It might be the easiest to read, it's certainly the most complicated in its construction". Houellebecq now joins an illustrious list of other previous winners of the Prix Goncourt, amongst whose number are Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

La Carte et Le Territoire is typically Houellebecq-esque in its plot: a biography of a French artist called Jed Martin, who goes to seek out a semi-fictionalised Houellebecq at his home in Ireland to persuade him to write an exhibition catalogue. Houellebecq has split critics since his debut novel, Whatever (1994), which traced the terrifyingly quotidian lives of two computer programmers, filled only by sexual frustration, junk food and a latent appetite for violence, and provoked huge controversy on publication, with some reviewers demanding that it be awarded the Prix Goncourt immediately and others decrying it as demonstrative of a new literary style that was as prosaic as the fictional events it described.

Curiously though, and despite Houellebecq's reputation for divisiveness amongst critics, 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".

Claire Devarrieux in a profile of Houellebecq in Libération lauded "the simple and supple style of the author of Atomised, his ability to bring to life the most trivial aspects of daily life in a phrase, to celebrate the banal whilst remaining original", whilst Le Point suggested that the fact that Houellebecq had finally been awarded the Goncourt, after more than a decade as an eternal also-ran, was due to a development in his prose style: "the tone of the new book is less obviously depressing and sordid than in those which preceded it, and the structure more classical."

La Carte et Le Territoire's publication was, however, not devoid of controversy. Houellebecq was criticised for using whole passages of factual content lifted directly from Wikipedia in La Carte et Le Territoire, though this didn't damage sales, which had reached 200,000 before the Goncourt was even announced.

In Susannah Hunnewell's excellent recent interview with Houellebecq in The Paris Review, when asked what he thought about the literary critics who had damned him previously, Houellebecq responded by saying, "they hate me more than I hate them". This time, it looks as if he might have just been proved wrong.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.