French literary bad boy in Wikipedia 'plagiarism' row

6th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Sexist, obscene, racist were the accusations thrown at Michel Houellebecq over his previous novels. Now it's plagiarism, after France's best-known living writer allegedly cut and pasted chunks of Wikipedia into his new book.

"La carte et le territoire" (The Map and the Territory) has just hit the bookshops in time for France's frenzied autumn publishing season and is a favourite to win the prestigious Goncourt literary prize in November.

The eagerly awaited book gleefully satirises the Paris art world, and even takes a swipe at a drunken, stinking, badly-dressed writer who goes by the name of Michel Houellebecq.

But it largely dispenses with the misanthropic provocation his four previous novels displayed.

It has garnered mostly positive reviews -- Liberation newspaper called it a "masterpiece" -- and some critics deduced from its lack of weird sex, misogyny or anti-Islamic rants that Houellebecq might finally be showing a softer side.

Such praise is in stark contrast to 2001 when "Platform", a sex-tourism romp with an Islamist terrorism theme, landed him in court on charges of provoking racial hatred for his depiction of Islam.

Houellebecq (pronounced "wellbeck") was later cleared of all charges.

But on Monday the writer, who now lives in Spain after several years in Ireland, found himself plunged yet again into controversy after the website said he had copied text from Wikipedia.

The article titled "The Possibility of Plagiarism" noted at least three passages apparently lifted from the French-language edition of the user-generated online encyclopedia.

"Plagiarism or stylistic device?" asked the website, before letting its readers judge for themselves by publishing excerpts from the novel and the Wikipedia entries they were allegedly copied from.

The entries are on a French hunting activist, the town of Beauvais and the housefly. also said Houellebecq appeared to have copied the description of the role of senior police officers from the French interior ministry website, and that he had cut and pasted the description of a hotel in southern France from the hotel's website.

Houellebecq, in a video interview posted Monday on Le Nouvel Observateur magazine's website, said the plagiarism accusation was "ridiculous" and simply the latest in a long list of insults he has been subjected to.

"When you use a big word like 'plagiarism', even if the accusation is ridiculous, something (of the accusation) will always remain... It's like racism," he said.

"And if people really think that, then they haven't the first notion of what literature is. That is part of my method," he said.

Mixing "real" texts into fiction was a technique countless writers have used, notably Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges and France's Georges Perec, he argued.

While most French critics have taken warmly to "La carte et le territoire," Houellebecq's first novel since his 2005 "The Possibility of an Island," one writer who is on the Goncourt prize jury has attacked it.

The French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun laid into it in a lengthy article in an Italian newspaper, saying he wasted three days reading the tale of an artist who gains global fame by photographing old Michelin maps.

Houellebecq rose to prominence in the 1990s with "Les Particules Elementaires", which was translated into English as "Atomised" and won wide acclaim.

© 2010 AFP

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