Le seul mot juste

Late in his life, the French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) suffered debilitating financial difficulties, irrelevance with the critics, and a string of unsuccessful plays. Despite this, his art and his vision of it became ever more sophisticated. In letters to his lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert claimed there is “le seul mot juste,” or “the unique right word,” and repeatedly declared that there is no such thing as a synonym. In my thirties, as a young writer looking to Flaubert for what he had to teach, I disregarded this central idea. I chose vagueness, not understanding the importance of precision. Besides, I told myself, you can never control how a reader interprets your words anyway!

What a fool I was. I know now that when dealing with the ambiguities literature MUST deal with, an author has to be as precise and clear as they can be. Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. And despite an author’s inability to control how a reader interprets their work, isn’t it advisable to be as concise as possible with one’s ideas to limit the flowering of false interpretations and impressions? Of course, sometimes vagueness comes into vogue, as evidenced by the successful career of Ernest Hemingway, who never deigned to describe a color in his life. For Hemingway and his dutiful readers, there is only one shade of blue, or of any color, no color has gradations. While I understand Hemingway’s point, his slavish devotion to his method is hidden beneath a veil of cartoon realism. Literature cannot fully represent human reality, yes; but should we accompany the rubbery boundaries of literature with language that just ‘makes do?’

There really is the right word for every situation. But keep in mind Flaubert himself did not use the word “perfect”. There is no “perfect” word. But there is the word that works better than any other.

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