Michel Houellebecq, a French author, is getting renewed attention in recent days because his novel, Submission, predicts a France of 2022 that has subjugated its culture to a Muslim president. Perhaps more interesting, however, is Houellebecq’s provocative statement on French television dismissing the role of the novel in changing history.
As quoted by the New York Times, Houellebecq said, “I don’t have other examples of a novel changing the course of history. Other things change the course of history. Essays, ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ things like that, but not novels. That has never happened.”
Is it possible Houellebecq has never heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental indictment of slavery? President Lincoln supposedly called Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Although that quote may be apocryphal, the influence of the novel cannot be denied. It sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year of publication – 1852 – and even more overseas. What Stowe accomplished was not just to expose the brutality of the slave holder but to humanize the enslaved. Simon Legree became synonymous with the violent oppressor, and, stereotyped though they were, Uncle Tom and Topsy put a face and a heart to African Americans held in bondage. Although she did not invent the abolition movement, Stowe certainly gave it ammunition.
In fact, Uncle Tom’s Cabin started a tradition of great American novels that exposed social ills and inspired change. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, led to regulation of the meat-packing industry. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939, and the film adaptation that followed woke up Americans to the plight of Oklahomans fleeing the Dust Bowl and helped solidify support for FDR’s social programs (which we forget many conservatives bitterly opposed). In the 1970s, novelists like Erica Jong and Rita Mae Brown emboldened women struggling to find new roles in the midst of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution.
Lest we be accused of being too America-focused, consider that Houellebecq has dismissed the influence of great novelists like Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, Camus, Erich Maria Remarque and Dostoyevsky.
As a novelist and a lover of the novel in all its permutations, I find it hard to take Houellebecq’s dismissal of the form seriously. His statement presumes that the novel has no ideas – that it is perhaps a reflection of culture but not a determiner of it. It’s difficult to believe he wrote Submission without at least the tiniest ambition that he might, somehow, change the course of history.