This series is called the Dead Author Interviews Series and at least once a month we’ll interview a dead author to talk about their books and how they’re viewed today.
For this first post Voltaire has agreed to join us. Now, for those who don’t know, Voltaire was a famous 18th century French writer. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to meet for coffee at Starbucks.
The topics ranged from his early childhood, his love life, and to what he thinks of self-publishing and the digital revolution today. We discuss the performance of his books as well as his reviews, and he's not that bothered by the bad ones.
I was surprised that the 2-stars bother him more, and even some of the praise-worthy 5-stars. He's still quite modest.
It was. I was born in Poitou, although don’t ask me where exactly, and then eventually made my way to Paris. By the time I was ten years old I was already attending the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand. The Jesuits pounded a lot of useless knowledge into me, but I persevered.
And it was there that you decided that you wanted to become a writer.
That’s correct. Of course my father didn’t like that one bit.
He wanted you to be a lawyer.
That’s right, <Voltaire nods> he always wanted me to be a lawyer so I pretended that I was working at a notary’s office when in actuality I was writing poetry. Needless to say, he was quite…oh, what’s the term you would use?
Yes, quite right, he was…miffed, royally so, and when he found out he sent me to Caen. My Parisian nights were finished.
Why didn’t you just stay and defy him?
<Voltaire laughs> Why, because he was paying the bills, of course! What, did you expect me to get a job?
So then what happened?
From there I continued with my studies and eventually got a job in the Netherlands, with my father’s help of course. It was there I laid eyes on the most celestial angel, one Catherine Dunoyer. We eloped, but of course Father found out about it and pulled me back to Paris.
But I thought you loved her?
Oh, well, <Voltaire laughs> you know how love is!
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Yes, well, why don’t we get into your books, and particularly your most famous title, Candide.
Yes, Candide, a great book, a small book, and one that’s made me rich.
Well, I’ve heard that, and I’ve heard that it took me a full year and a lot of thought. I’d say there’s a little truth in both.
So why didn’t you put Candide out under your own name?
<Voltaire Sighs> I was putting something out that a lot of people weren’t going to like. Remember, I’d already done eleven months in the Bastille for insulting the Regent, and I’d had smaller stints besides.
But you did some of your best work in prison, like Œdipe among others.
Yes, yes, <Voltaire waves his arm and looks agitated> but you have to figure by 1759 I was already an old man, tired, and not ready for another stint in jail.
<Voltaire nods> That’s right, we used "Monsieur le docteur Ralph", or "Doctor Ralph,” which I’ve always been rather fond of. Anyways, we put it out there in January and by the 15th we’d gotten it into five countries.
What happened then?
It just exploded! <Voltaire brings his hands up in front of his face and smiles> I mean, they hated it, loved it, damned it, banned it and of course bought the hell out of it!
But the religious authorities jumped all over you and–
<Voltaire waves me off> Nonsense! Sure, the Church and the governments were up in arms, and that dandy Joly de Fleury [Advocate General Omer-Louis-François Joly de Fleury] raised a fuss, but within weeks it’d become part of the vernacular, and people were quoting it. By the time Geneva and Paris both banned it at the end of February we knew we had a bestseller on our hands.
Just through the roof, like nothing we’d seen before. We went through twenty different editions in 1759 alone and that meant close to 30,000 copies. In fact, the Duke de La Vallière said it was probably the bestselling title of the year. The Catholic Church gave our marketing efforts a further boost three years later when they listed the book as prohibited.
In…<author shuffles through notes>…1762, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
That’s right. And that kind of attitude continued for much the next 300-odd years. <Voltaire smiles and leans forward> Probably my favorite story is of it getting banned in America.
Oh, I wasn’t aware that had happened.
Oh yes! <Voltaire again waves me off dismissively and leans back in his chair> You see, my books had been getting into the States for years, especially Candide. One year, however, I think it was...oh, 1929 maybe, when a customs official in Boston stopped a shipment of copies that had been heading to Harvard.
So what happened?
Well they didn’t make it, at least not until the end of the semester. You see, the officials had seen my books for years, in all colors, shapes and sizes. They’d never thought much of it until one of them decided to read a copy one day. “It’s a filthy book,” they said. <Voltaire laughs>
Oh, I don’t worry much about it, but I have to say the royalties each month are still quite substantial. You can get the copy for free on your Kindle and Google Books, but people still pay for it. I will say that the cover is much better. Did you see the original cover? <author nods yes and Voltaire shakes his head> Well, it was pretty bad, by today’s standards at least. The new covers are quite better, I think.
I agree. Now, right now you have pretty good rankings in both the free and paid categories.
Right, see, even if people are downloading it and reading it on their Kindle or whatnot, university folks still need physical copies to assign to unsuspecting students.
You don’t think some students are just reading the electronic copies?
Oh, I could really care less about the students. I was a student for years and they’re hapless drunks, the whole lot of them. I’m more interested in the universities buying my books from the publishers. That’s big money each fall and spring!
Yes, I do unfortunately. It’s something I could always be accused of doing, and frankly they’ve never made me feel that good but I just can’t resist the temptation.
Your works have gotten pretty good reviews on Amazon. Do you read all of them or just the good ones?
Well, honestly I haven’t read any reviews in more than 235 years so perhaps you could share a little of what’s being said about me in this exciting Information Age.
Alright, well here’s one for Candide…er…do you want a 1-star or a 5-star first?
Let’s start with the 5-star first.
This one is from Nom de Guerre and is titled “Excellent Irreverent Satire:”
I wish I could convince everyone who avoids older literature to read Candide. This book is hilarious, dark, bitter, snide, and beautiful. If you love Vonnegut novels, you will likely enjoy Candide. The satire from yesteryear is just as applicable to the personal and political interactions of mankind today.
Would you like to hear a 1-star now?
Yes, I’d rather like that.
you call this literature?!? I mean come on now, this is a little bit ridiculous. Who can really understand this? Not only understand it but see where it might have anything to do with us and today's society!
Yeah, it’s a little harsh. How about this one?
Granted my having read Candide in it'a original French in a highschool French Lit. class may have something to do with my dislike of this novel. However, we read other books in that class that I loved (Une Si Longe Lettre for one). I can only conlude that it is the book not the class that was so horrible.
There are many things detestable about this novel so I will limit my critisicsm to only several aspects: the pot has no coherence, the character developement is not only unbelievable but also banal, the writing style ,although blessedly, terse is childish and unimaginative to say the least. And finally, a qotation I once read said something to this effect: the best novel are those that are novels not only of the hour but of all time.
Candide has no relevance to my life or this era what so ever.
One more word to those who wish to deride me as an illiterate teenage who can only process the sound bites of T.V., think again.
I am an avid reader of all kind of literature including classic literature. And, as an reader who has devoured many books, I say don't even waste your time considering this novel; there are thousands of far better works!
Oh, and I really pity you poor French literature students who will have to read Candide anyway.
Yes, I went back to look on Amazon, but it seems they removed it. Perhaps it was one of your competitors.
Yes, maybe Goethe.
He was listed heavily in your ‘Also Boughts.’
<Voltaire rubs at his chin and looks off thoughtfully> I’ll have to look into it.
So how are sales on the different retailers?
<Voltaire perks up> Sales, oh yes! Amazon by far is our biggest retailer, but we do get some good numbers form Barnes & Noble as well. Kobo hasn’t treated us too well and I’m not sure about Apple – I let the accountants worry about that, really.
Coffee – plain and simple, coffee. I drank 50 to 72 cups per day myself, and was heavily dependent on caffeine. Yes, I was an addict, I’ll admit, but it sure fueled my creativity.
So what plans do you have now, sir?
It’s back to Paris for me, and the Panthéon.
Oh, friends there?
<Voltaire shakes his head> No, that’s where I’m buried.