Michel Houellebecq borrowed from Wikipedia. Is he in trouble?

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Sept. 10 2010 12:43 PM

Houellebecq vs. Wikipedia

The French novelist borrowed from the online encyclopedia. Is he in trouble?

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French writer Michel Houellebecq has always loved to pepper his novels with long encyclopedic descriptions of personalities, locations, and scientific concepts. In his new novel, the excellent La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory), which is the toast of the French literary scene, Houellebecq launches into tedious digressions about topics as varied as the housefly and the city of Beauvais. Some of the passages seemed so much like Wikipedia entries that Slate.fr, Slate's French sister site, decided to check, and—surprise!—discovered that at least three passages from the book are borrowed from the online encyclopedia.

On Sept. 2, I published an article in Slate.fr, under the headline "Houellebecq, the Possibility of a Plagiarism," in which I revealed the author's copy-and-pastes from Wikipedia and noted that the technique was a logical extension of his literary style. (For side-by-side comparisons of three passages from La carte et le territoire andthe Wikipedia entries, see this page.)

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Writer Dominique Noguez once called Houellebecq "the supermarket Baudelaire." He has always described society using the clinical language of marketing- and advertising-speak. Wikipedia, where the cold, unemotional writing is based on the soft consensus of its contributors, is a perfect match for Houellebecq's prose.

Plagiarism also has a long literary history. In 1869, in Les Chants de Maldoror ( The Songs of Maldoror), Comte de Lautréamont's description of his character Maldoror is partly based on an entry from L'Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle (The Encyclopedia of Natural History), by Jean-Charles Chenu. Scholars didn't discover Lautréamont's borrowing until 1952. Thanks to Google, we needed five minutes rather than 83 years to track down Houellebecq's sources.

The use of the term plagiarism in the Slate.fr article set off a heated controversy in France. (The author was already a polarizing figure.) The anti-Houellebecq side found new proof of his work's vacuity, while the pro-Houellebecq camp complained of a witch hunt against him. Plagiarism has become the Godwin's law of literature, the word that shouldn't be said, that curtails all further discussion.

Houellebecq's response to the controversy was one of weary resignation. He rejects the use of the word plagiarism, but he doesn't deny copying and pasting from Wikipedia. In a video interview, he calls his style "[a] patchwork, weavings, interlacings" He went on:

Lots of people have done it. I was especially influenced by [Georges] Perec and [Jorge Luis] Borges. Perec could do it even better than me, because he doesn't rework the fragment at all, which always creates a very strong linguistic discrepancy. Me, I can't manage that kind of discrepancy, so I rework the text a bit to make it closer to my own style. … I'd like to be able to modify them a little less than I do.

In other words, Houellebecq is apologizing for not copying Wikipedia more directly. A spokesman for Flammarion, his publisher, told us, "If some passages appear to be verbatim from other work, they can only be very short quotes." But Houellebecq doesn't care if they're short or long; Wikipedia is a literary source like any other.

Indeed, Houellebecq praises the online encyclopedia in La carte et le territoire by creating a fictional version of a Wikipedia entry: He imagines the page of iconic French TV anchor Jean-Pierre Pernaut as it might appear in the near future. In his video interview, Houellebecq claimed, "I manage to write fake Wikipedia pages. I think the one about Jean-Pierre Pernaut is totally believable." In fact, though, the pastiche was not successful, completely failing to capture the essence of Wikipedia-speak by being too grandiloquent.

Beyond any literary consideration, Houellebecq and Flammarion are theoretically in breach of the law. Wikipedia may be published under a free software license, but quoting from the encyclopedia is controlled by the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence. By publishing entries under that license, Wikipedia allows commercial reproduction, but only with clear attribution: "To quote an excerpt from Wikipedia in a book, you would need to identify it as a quote (with quotation marks for example) and source it with a footnote or an endnote as 'Wikipedia, article X, version read on the XX/XX/XXX' with the URL to that precise version," Adrienne Alix, the president of Wikimedia France told me.

Houellebecq never cites Wikipedia when he copies from it, so could the encyclopedia sue him for plagiarism?

Probably not. Wikipedia is not the author. Each article is a collective work, with each contribution signed with the pseudonym or IP address of the contributor in the History tab. For Michel Houellebecq to get into legal trouble, one of the contributors would need to feel particularly wronged, which is unlikely to happen. Not to mention that Wikipedia sometimes borrows from other texts.

Ironically, a smart-ass contributor found it funny to rewrite Wikipedia's definition of the housefly with the slight alterations Houellebecq added in his book. Houellebecq is not (yet) a member of the French Academy, but he has earned a spot as a Wikipedia contributor. He must like that a lot.

This article was translated and adapted from two pieces in Slate.fr by Cécile Dehesdin.

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Vincent Glad is a writer at Slate.fr.