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The Political Reception of Michel Houellebecq's Submission

Journal article
Authors Karl Ågerup
Published in European Review
Volume 27
Issue 4
Pages 615-635
ISSN 1062-7987
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion
Pages 615-635
Language en
Keywords Area Studies
Subject categories General Literature Studies


In 2015, French writer Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission, which depicts a future France with a Muslim president, was repeatedly cited in political discourse about Islam, French identity, and terrorism. In the year of the novel's publication, several Islamist terrorist attacks targeted France, and Houellebecq was often named in the debate on multiculturalism, immigration and the French secularist principle of laicite. The reception of the novel is analysed in this article, focusing on ideological argumentation and political debate. Two opposite camps can be identified in this reception structure. Interestingly, the arguments of these camps are analogous to the arguments of the prosecutor and defence lawyer in the 1857 trial of Gustave Flaubert concerning his novel Madame Bovary. One and a half centuries after that trial, questions about the reader's moral capacity and the author's responsibility remain at the heart of the debate. While some liberal critics praise the ambiguities of the novel, trusting the reader's ethical faculties, other critics condemn the novel and accuse the writer of expressing dubious values. As for the ideological homes of these critics, the liberal group represents left-wing, right-wing, and uncertain ideologies, whereas the gatekeeping group largely consists of left-leaning agents. The division into two reception groups and their respective discursive patterns and practices are analysed using the Bovary trial as a basis for comparison. It is concluded that in the anxious political climate of 2015 when terror, migration, and Islam were attracting considerable attention and when the populist right was on the rise, Houellebecq's novel functioned as a political vehicle in government-sympathetic opinion making and as a practical tool for critics who positioned themselves as safeguarding generous migration and integration policies.

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