Friday, November 6, 2009

What, perhaps, Voltaire would have advised Judith McHale regarding Public Diplomacy

"Entertaining readers was the key to selling them books and winning their minds: he [Voltaire] didn't want their hearts. But in reality, Voltaire had always been a natural teller of tales. ... As Roger Pearson has acutely observed, Voltaire 'thought narratively', and in the 1740s, he played to his strengths by inventing the conte philosophique and adding it to the weapons in his philosophic armoury. ...

But entertainment was the means, never the end, for 'under the surface of the story, the practiced eye must be able to glimpse some subtle truth which escapes the cruder mind'. To various correspondents he explained what was required. Be brief (short, of course, but more importantly, expeditious), keep the mood jaunty (and casually louche), and above all amuse the reader ... . Every story should have a central idea which intrigues the reader and makes him think. Be as bold as you wish, but root imagination in truth, not in the commonplaces of fiction, and do it with a lightness of touch that makes fantasy, farce, horror and even startling anachronisms chime with the reader's experience and knowledge of the world. Deal in broad types, not individuals, so that the reader is insulated against his feelings and constantly exposed to the idea, which is the point of the exercise. Never lecture, never be merely frivolous, and never triviliaze the idea at the heart of the tale."

--David Coward, "To get the Beast by the tale: Voltaire and especially Candide are still 'infiniment actuel' after 350 years," Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 2009, p. 14

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