It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish—for making style a problem for the first time in fiction. After Flaubert, and in particular after Flaubert’s letters, style is always mirrored, always self-conscious, always a trapped decision. Style became religious with Flaubert, at the same moment that religion became a kind of literary style, a poetry, with Renan. Flaubert himself admired Rabelais, Cervantes, and Molière as if they were beasts of mere instinct: ‘they are great… because they have no techniques.’ Such writers ‘achieve their effects, regardless of Art,’ he wrote to his lover Louise Colet in 1853. But Flaubert could not be free as those writers: ‘One achieves style only by atrocious labour, a fanatic and dedicated stubbornness.’ He was imprisoned in scruple, and he imprisoned his successors in scruple. He is the novelist from whom the Modern, with all its narrow freedoms, flows.
If James Wood is right about this, then perhaps we have Flaubert to blame for the ceaseless whining of writers about how miserable their work is, how agonizingly painful — so painful, indeed, that only someone whose calling is divine and whose spirit is pure can bear up under it. If so, then Flaubert has a lot to answer for. (Notice also his diminishment of the achievement of earlier writers: It was easy for them. What an ass. A genius, yes, but an ass, and evidently the creator of a template for literary asses-to-come.)