On Voltaire the writer.
‘That nasty man who did so much good.” Paul Valéry
Is it because Voltaire wasn’t afraid to be nasty that he did so much good? Almost certainly. There is no convincing evidence that writers can do their job by being nice.
And why should they be nice? To be asked to dinner? To be part of a corporation of writers, which like all corporate groups rewards discretion? To be rewarded with money, prizes and titles?
Nice writers are usually working for someone or senile or in the wrong business. Those who have done the most good, as Voltaire pointed out, have “mostly been persecuted.” The nasty sort continue to be persecuted in most countries. In the West they have to deal with more sophisticated assaults such as bankrupting lawsuits and job loss. Worst of all – in this society of expensive communication systems – they are threatened by irrelevance.
What about their messy personal lives, their greed, their jealousies, their hypocrisy? Who cares? Voltaire himself had a more than average number of flaws and contractions. He still created the language which ended a regime.
Writers aren’t supposed to be life models or religious prophets, clean of mind, clean of body. Nor are they supposed to be loved.
Their only job is to make language work for the reader. That is the basis of free speech. Whatever the vested interests of the day may be, they invariably favour an obscure language of insider’s dialects and received wisdom.
So the writer turns nasty. It’s a public service.
– The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, John Ralston Saul, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 306.