He is best known as the leading writer in the school of Naturalism, which included Maupassant, Huysmans, Paul Alexis, Céard, and Hennique. His writing is characterized by scrupulous accuracy of setting, very close approximations to actual speech patterns, and emphasis on psychological traits of his characters. He believed the traits were determined by heredity and environment.
Important books of criticism that explained his methods include Thérèse Raquin (1867); Les Soirées de Medan (1880); Le Roman Expérimentale (1880) and Les Romanciers Naturalistes (1881).
Zola was a clerk in a publishing house in the early part of his career, and later became a journalist. He spent most of his life as a secluded author who prepared by reading widely. His work was controversial, with critics complaining of too vivid and too exaggerated depictions of immorality
In his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1882–83), Zola used the department store as a symbol of the new technology that was both improving society and devouring it. The novel describes merchandising, management techniques, marketing, and consumerism, and thus reveals much about our society as well as that of late 19th century France.
His late novels Les Trois Villes (1894–98) and Les Trois Evangiles (1899-1903), provide rich documentation on France and Italy for the 1890s. The Evangiles describes future events extending to 1990. Zola's depiction of the future is less successful than that of the past; these are weak novels aesthetically, as he turns from the social description of the Rougon-Macquart novels to social prescription involving blatant exposition of his ideological predispositions.
Zola himself had strong humanitarian sympathies, especially favoring the working class; in 1898 he aroused official wrath by his defense of Alfred Dreyfus. The Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason.
J'accuse (French for "I accuse"), was the title of the famous 1898 letter addressed by Zola to President Faure of France (1898) in denunciation of the Dreyfus affair. In it Zola used the phrase several times for rhetorical emphasis.
- Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. (1995). 816 pp
- Schalk, David L. "Zola and History: The Historian and Zola." Historical Reflections 1994 20(1): 77-93.
- Schom, Alan. Emile Zola: A Biography. (1988). 303 pp.
- Zola, Emile. The Dreyfus Affair: "J'Accuse" and Other Writings. (1996). 202 pp.