The Devil and Gustave Flaubert

Tom Piazza responds to our fall roundtable on the influence of Gordon Lish 


I read the discussion of Gordon Lish’s work and influence in the previous issue of The Literarian, among David Winters, Greg Gerke, and Jason Lucarelli, with interest. Three smart and articulate gents, and they sure have thought a lot about Lish.


I was never a student of Gordon’s, but he published my first fiction in The Quarterly. And I once saw him conduct a workshop as a guest in an undergraduate classroom in New Orleans, during which he did one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen a teacher do. He examined the first sentence of a student’s story—it was a bad, bad first sentence, pretentious and incoherent—and with utter clarity, generosity, humor, and supreme intelligence, dismantled it, talking about exactly why it was fraudulent, and at the end of this the student author thanked Lish, saying, essentially, that she had been waiting years for a teacher to tell her that she was a fraud.


I think Gordon Lish is something of a genius in his way of addressing texts, and his style of thought and his presence are undeniably charismatic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is right in every instance. And, as with Jung, his ideas often suffer at the hands of his acolytes. As I read the discussion, the emphasis on the experience of the writer, as opposed to that of the reader, on writing as an act of scouring the “surface self” in order to bore down to some putative “source self,” in Greg Gerke’s phrase—or the “secret loathsome self,” in Jason Lucarelli’s paraphrase of Lish—of stripping away the writer’s supposedly endless, onion-skin layers of fraudulence, the understanding of writing as an amalgam of narcissism and self-loathing…it all began to feel misplaced.


So, ultimately, did the constant fetishizing of the sentence, and the assertion of style versus content as the sendero luminoso along the mobius strip back to the self. Lucarelli states that “Lish would argue that the story itself does not matter, but the way the story is told.” Gerke, comparing sentences written by Shakespeare, Henry James, and Gary Lutz to one by Jonathan Franzen, concludes that Franzen’s emphasis on “plot” rather than “sensation” places him outside the great stream of literature that stretches “from Shakespeare to Gary Lutz.” Lutz, who is a favorite among the men of the Roundtable, has clearly expressed his own lack of interest in the world outside of the sentences he emits. “I never was much of a looker,” he says in one online interview. “I want one one-liner after another.” I wonder what Henry James would have thought.


With no disrespect to the Gentlemen of the Roundtable, this counterposing of “style” to “content,” or of “sensation” to “plot,” or of Lutz’s “page-huggers” to “page-turners”—this reflexive Either/Or ideation—is misleading and, finally, just corny. Isn’t it more accurate to say that what is at issue in these sets of supposed conceptual antagonisms is not the choice between them but the nature of the tension between them?


Anyway, I hereby roll the following essay into the middle of the Roundtable, in the hopes that it may be pertinent to the discussion. It appeared originally in my collection Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. The writer, mentioned near the beginning of the piece, with whom I had the disagreement about Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral,” was a protégé of Lish’s once upon a time. “Cathedral” was, of course, written right around the time that Carver began to break away from Lish’s influence. And Flaubert? Man, he really started something.



The Devil and Gustave Flaubert


A long time ago, when I was getting started as a writer, I got a note from an editor at one of the big magazines—a rejection note, naturally—bestowing some faint ritual praise on the story under rejection, in the course of which the editor wrote that my story was “about evil—the best subject, really.”


Aside from the dissonance involved in hearing work praised as it is being rejected—most writers get used to that—the remark confused me. I didn’t think the story was about evil, for one thing, and his claim that evil was the “best” subject raised its own questions. What were the other contenders for best subject? Were they ranked in any particular order? Does a story always have a “subject”? And, anyway, what did he mean by “evil,” and why was it the best of all possible subjects? The editor in question was a clean-cut, affable fellow with lovely manners, a family man, and a skilled operator in the switchy waters of the New York lit biz. I wondered how much evil he had had in his life, and why he had such need of it in the fiction he read.


Years later, in the spring of 2010, during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I was sitting around before dinner with a couple of writers, talking about favorite short stories. Some usual suspects were mentioned—Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Isaac Babel—and along the way I expressed my admiration for Carver’s story “Cathedral,” with its extraordinary moment of unlikely communion between two characters at the story’s end. One of the other writers winced and said that he found the story sentimental and had never liked it.


I think the story is Carver’s finest, so I pressed him on this. Why didn’t he like it?


“I don’t like stories that tell me what I want to hear,” he said. If a story ended well, he went on, he felt that it was playing to his wish fulfillment. He wanted to hear things, in other words, that he didn’t want to hear.


This writer is a nice guy in middle age, with several books of fiction to his credit, a comfortable teaching position, a marriage of several decades and a grown son with whom he has what appears to be an excellent relationship. We’re not close, but I assume he has had his share of love and human connection, along with bad luck and loss. Why would he want to disqualify a significant part of his experience from a place in fiction?


He went on to say that all human experience was essentially fraudulent, and that love itself was an elaborate form of fraudulence. At that point I decided that I knew him well enough to tell him that I thought this was ridiculous, and that his own experience proved it. “Talk about fraudulence,” I said. “You don’t even believe what you’re saying right now.” To his credit, his face turned bright red and he laughed guiltily, conceding the point. He didn’t believe it. So why was he saying it?




Literary modernism, beginning with Madame Bovary, gave writers an array of sharp tools with which to probe the relations between appearance and underlying truth. Flaubert’s willingness to face into his characters’ flaws and self-deceptions with pitiless clarity, his unmatched eye for the telling detail and the precise metaphor, his insistence on style as salvation, on the correct word, on prose itself as the bulwark against what T.S. Eliot called the “general mess of imprecision of feeling,” created such seductively holographic mimetic effects that his method began to seem more than merely a highly evolved and sophisticated tool for getting at a larger truth. Style itself became truth. 


If any paradigm of writing were designed to flatter the writer’s opinion of himself, it would be Flaubert’s. Outside, all around, swirls a universe of shit and sham, against which stands style, technique itself, in the person of the writer. Everyone in the fictional world of Madame Bovary stinks—Charles Bovary, Homais, Emma herself. They stink of terminal naivete, of bourgeois venality, of self-satisfaction, of provincialism, of outright stupidity, of romantic self-delusion. There is only one agency in the book that doesn’t stink, and that is the writing itself—and, by extension, the author. Pitiless, fearless, the wounded surgeon plies the steel, a paradigm of intelligence, courage, skill, and… well, authority, in a kind of extended revenge upon the world under description. For the ambitious writer, who more often than not begins as an oversensitive outsider trying desperately to avoid the sins of sentimentality, of not being smart enough, of betrayal by one’s own failings or feelings, Flaubert’s sentences, in their lapidary focus, their intelligence, their immaculate cool, are there to insist that only the most rigorous syntactical and lexicographical prophylaxis can ward off that stink.


Flaubert’s approach was partly a reaction to a time of revolution in Europe, of grand rhetoric that sooner or later betrayed every ideal it advertised. His method became crucial in the aftermath of World War I, with Europe again fallen to pieces amid its summonses to glory. An insistence on clarity, intelligence, and skepticism became the necessary antidote to the empty pomposity of the slogans that helped steer Europe (and much of the rest of the world) into the ditch. The techniques that Flaubert pioneered, and which his modernist offspring, especially Joyce and Hemingway, brought into general use, picked up a philosophical, and even a political, valence that lent aestheticism a dimension that reached beyond the strictly aesthetic.


Today we are learning, again, the ways in which reflexive piety and patriotism lead to disaster. The examples are so obvious that there is no point in listing them. The detached, precise, cool and intelligent analysis, the articulate nuance, the heightened wariness of the sentimental and the tumescently advocatory, are necessary virtues. But we are also learning—again—that a lack of any conviction is as corrosive as its inverse, and reflexive cynicism is as bad as reflexive credulity. Each, in fact, feeds the other.




In an essay published forty-five years after the appearance of Madame Bovary, Henry James noted that Flaubert had pulled off the trick of fathering both the naturalist and the aestheticist streams of the novel. On the one hand, literary courage was equated with facing into and depicting the worst of society and human life with clinical detachment; anything less would constitute a failure of nerve. On the other hand, literary intelligence was equated with style itself—the mot juste, the perfect sentence. In Flaubert, truth and beauty existed in a kind of tragic relation to one another; the beauty of the execution was there in opposition to the wasteland of the subject matter.


Any writer will admire a good sentence. Sentences can lilt, and drift, and settle lightly down. Sentences punch. Sentences thrust, and parry. Sentences can extend out past the point at which they might reasonably have been expected to end, bending under the weight of first one dependent clause, then another, tiring the reader out, making her wonder when the line will end, but not, perhaps, without hope that the exercise will deliver some point, however small—some perception or image that will arrive, at the very end, like, say, a caramel apple. Who would argue that the form of the sentence should not help deliver the sentence’s meaning? But in all hermeneutical humility one is entitled to ask, “What is the meaning of this meaning?” Or, as Barry Hannah once said in response to an Iowa student who claimed to like a story’s “drive”: “Yes, but what is it driving at?”


It is entirely possible to have a breathtakingly realized technique and use it in the service of something trivial, or ill-considered, or even evil. (Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism,” on the career of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, is a most useful examination of this phenomenon.) A finely honed technique can be used to lie, to flatter, to seduce. An admiration for the technique itself can override or anesthetize an ability to evaluate or even to see the human dimension of what the artist is saying. A supremely skilled artist may use a great technique to hide something from himself, just as a wily analysand can construct subterfuges to elude the purpose of psychoanalysis. To focus on the surface of sentences at the expense of the meaning toward which the sentences build is a way of evading the most important questions one can ask of a text. Some claim that the surface of a sentence is its meaning, but that’s like saying the design of a chainsaw is its meaning. You can use a chainsaw to clear a road or to cut somebody to pieces.


Sainte-Beuve, after praising Flaubert’s literary virtues in his 1857 review of Madame Bovary, wrote, “there is one reproach which I must make against his book. It is that the good is too much absent; not a single character represents it… If truth alone is sought, it is not entirely and necessarily to be found only on the side of evil, on the side of human stupidity and perversity. In provincial lives, where there are so many vexations, persecutions, sickly ambitions, and petty annoyances, there are also good and beautiful souls… Why not show them, too?”


Henry James, who practically hyperventilated in admiration of Madame Bovary, voices a similar reservation about its characters, which he also applies to Sentimental Education’s Frederic Moreau. “Why did Flaubert choose, as special conduits of the life he proposed to depict such inferior and in the case of Frederic such abject human specimens?… He wished in each case to make a picture of experience—middling experience, it is true—and of the world close to him; but if he imagined nothing better for his purpose than such a heroine and such a hero, both such limited reflectors and registers, we are forced to believe it to have been by a defect of his mind. And that sign of weakness remains even if it be objected that the images in question were addressed to his purpose better than others would have been: the purpose itself then shows as inferior.”


We can grant the author his material—we have to—and her genius, and still feel that it is possible to write about such “abject human specimens,” with something like empathy and compassion, rather than revulsion at humanity. The effort to understand, to empathize, leads, finally, to humility.  If it leads only to pride in one’s sentences, something is wrong.




In the weeks and the months following Hurricane Katrina, one had a recurring experience. Sitting down to eat at a restaurant, or waiting in line at a grocery store, one asked the server, or the person standing next in line, how they did in the storm. I do not know how many times I heard some variation on the following, stated matter-of-factly: “We lost everything, but we’re blessed. We got Mama into a facility in Houston, and we’ve been staying by my cousin in Boutte.” Or their brother in McComb, or Baton Rouge. Or maybe their Mama didn’t make it but they got Daddy into an assisted living facility in Atlanta, where their cousin could look after him, “praise God.” They were blessed—because they had a bed to sleep in, or because they were still alive even though every plate had been broken, every family photo lost, every piece of clothing and every piece of furniture ruined beyond repair, every toy, and every memento. They would say this without a shred or a shadow of irony, and they had earned the right to be taken at their word.


This is a literary essay, and I’m sorry to drag in exhibits from what people once referred to as real life. My justification in doing so is that as long as we use terms such as “evil,” “fraudulence,” “love,” “goodness,” “perversity,” “sentimentality” and the rest, the airtight shrink wrap around questions of style and language has already been fatally punctured. To the extent that writing has any reference at all to the phenomena of life outside the circle of our reading experience, the evidence is admissable. To the extent that we are talking about the kind of writing that concerns itself with characters whom we allow ourselves to think of as “real” for at least the duration of the book, it is not just admissable but necessary, and central.


Allow me to draw uncomfortably close, here. It wasn’t just triumph-over-adversity stuff, heart-of-gold stuff. One person I knew hanged herself, and another shot himself, because they couldn’t take it. One woman, a mother I had known for years, jumped off of a bridge after spending a lovely Mardi Gras Day with friends and family. Just parked her car and jumped off the fucking bridge during the morning rush hour. A bookstore owner broke down crying in her store while we talked, with customers browsing around her, telling me how her father had died in a makeshift triage unit on the floor of the airport. Dozens of people who spent years, and most of their life savings, rebuilding their houses after the disaster had those houses expropriated in the name of a real estate scheme that will profit some of the worst scum in and out of the city. How someone in that position could find the strength to go on, let alone to make an occasional joke or enjoy a meal, is a mystery. But it’s also a fact. And after such knowledge, what forgiveness for the easy, lazy cynicism of the privileged and insulated who flatter themselves that they know the last word about human emotions, and it is “shit”?


I hate to poke a hole in the tissue of my otherwise modulated sentences. I’m not being self-righteous, or priding myself on my oh-so-precious wounds. I got off relatively easy, as Katrina trauma goes. Out of my house for six months, a little touch of PTSD, nothing too bad. You can read about it elsewhere, if you want to. But it did make me impatient with shallow nihilism delivered from a safe, tenured perch. And it raised questions about choice, literary and nonliterary, that I might not have had to think about otherwise.




A refined style, or a fine style, at least, comes out of a sense of continuity not just between past and future but between the author and the reader, the sense that the reader shares the same reference points and the same developed antennae for tone, diction, pace, and the other elements that animate prose. Just as one needs the equivalent of a particular background to understand what is going on at a debutante ball, or at certain cocktail parties, a mandarin literary style presumes a shared social milieu stable enough to act as a norm against which the finest overtones may create their delicate moire patterns.


In this sense, at least, style has always been a problem in American art, because the essence of the social reality is not stability and continuity but transformation and mobility. There is no guarantee that the reader, or even the various characters, will speak the same language. Characters wear masks; they come out of nowhere; they change shape. That, itself, is the common fact. American music, which is constantly combining and recombining elements from diverse sources, has provided a kind of subterranean ligature that embodied American ideals even as those ideals were being kicked to death in the civic, political, and economic arenas. But since Melville, Twain, and Whitman, our literature has struggled to find a form equal to the kaleidoscopic, Protean nature of the national life.


Hurricane Katrina wasn’t a regional event, although it was treated as such in the media; it was a national one. People who had never been off their New Orleans block landed in Arizona; white Connecticut families suddenly had African-American house guests, and on and on. And into full national view erupted a painful reality of poverty, race, and social disproportion that had been there, hidden in plain sight, all along—not just in New Orleans but deeply embedded in the weave of the national reality, acknowledged or unacknowledged.


In writing my novel City Of Refuge, which followed characters through the events of Katrina, this became partly a technical problem of composition. The book demanded to be written in a couple of different styles; a single, consistent style would telegraph a continuity to the events, and there was no continuity. And certainly a fine mandarin literary style would run counter to the reality in the book—the variety of the characters, and the disjunctive, harsh, chaotic nature of their experience. There are times when good taste is in bad taste. A reader shouldn’t come out of a book about such a disaster feeling as if they had just spent a day at a spa having their assumptions manicured and their complacencies flattered.


In the aftermath, a small handful of readers expressed discomfort, even embarrassment, that the book contained no evil characters. An evil character, in life as well as in fiction, can act as a grounding wire to discharge the currents of guilt, anxiety, and shame evoked by individual or collective failure. In Katrina, the facts pointed toward a collective failure of government and, by extension, of the society represented by that government. Against that collective failure, and in light of the collective responsibility for it, hundreds of thousands of individual characters struggled to rebuild broken lives. With Katrina, the finger pointed unavoidably at the witness—each citizen, each viewer, each reader– rather than at an Other who could embody the guilt and carry it away.




“Though I have never suffered, thank God, at the hands of man… still I detest my fellow-beings and do not feel that I am their fellow at all.” That’s Flaubert, in a letter to Victor Hugo composed at the time of Madame Bovary’s writing. Also to Hugo, around the same time, he wrote, “What is best in art will always elude mediocre natures, that is to say, seven eighths of the human race. So why denature truth for the benefit of the vulgar?”


It may be one of the underrecognized tragedies of literary history that the intelligence and talent that resulted in all of Flaubert’s exquisite observation and fine prose was coupled in him with an inability to experience a degree of humility in the face of the kinds of sacrifices and strengths that those mediocre natures exhibit in caring for their families, in making it through the day. It is the great weakness of Flaubert’s otherwise sublime art, and of his legacy to literature—the message that the truth about humans is one-sidedly ugly, and that the writer (and the adequate reader) stands outside and above, redeemed only by style.


After the conversation with my friend who hates “Cathedral,” I found myself wondering what the psychic benefit might be in telling yourself that, while you want to hear good things, you instead make the brave choice to face the bad. Fiction writers pride themselves on getting underneath characters’ ostensible motives and finding the true motive structure underneath. If we can do this with characters, the author ought to be eligible for the same questioning.


The flip side of brutality and evil is, dependably, sentimentality. The hit man kissing the picture of his sainted mother before he exterminates a mark, the mawkish evocations of home and youth in Nazi propaganda, the image of the pristine Southern belle under siege that propelled so many lynchings, the need for cleansing, cleansing…. Sentimentality is the perfume that disguises, and even justifies, this lust for brutal cleansing and killing.


But the inverse is also true: that an attitude, or a pose, of cool and bracing willingness to face evil and brutality, and to dismiss its opposite as wish fulfillment, might function as a sea wall against a tide of shame and grief so heavy that it can’t be faced directly. The stink of mistakes made, or possibilities lost, can make an image of the good intolerable. If it is too expensive to look at what might have been and realize that one may just not have been good enough, it can be a comfort to think that it was never possible in the first place. This evasion is possible on a societal level, as well as in the private hearts of individuals. The novel is the best tool we have for understanding the one level in terms of the other.


An insistence that seven eighths of the human race is basically dispensable, and that we inhabit a doomed, shrinking island of the elite, is the quintessence of the sentimental. Flaubert, the begetter of our sharpest tools and our most brilliant mistakes, paid dearly for his cynicism, and for the right to express it. He realized it in prose that changed the way people wrote and perceived. He was a titan. But that is never the end of discussion. Flaubert’s weaknesses as a writer were weaknesses of character. It takes nothing away from his literary genius to say that his human weakness left a wound in the writing. Maybe it left a wound in all of us who followed him. It hardened our hearts and, in the process, broke them. But maybe we don’t need to sit up with that ghost anymore.


Anyway, for me, for the length of the story “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver was a greater writer than Flaubert, because he was able to get past that tired old jive.


 "The Devil and Gustave Flaubert," originally appeared in Devil Sent The Rain (HarperCollins). Reprinted by permission.




Tom Piazza is the author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme, and he won a Grammy Award for his album notes for Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans and is at work on a new novel.


This piece was originally published in Issue #15 of The Literarian.