Prolific science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin recently spoke words of great sense to her audience, while accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
She did not utter pat phrases or gracious, overdone thank-yous, in the manner of Academy Award winners. Le Guin instead used the occasion to urge fellow writers to stand up for what's good about writing and resist the marketing trends that bury the marketplace in mass-produced book-think. You know, the kind of books that successful authors are being urged to mass produce, rather than write, in a grasping, greed-inspired effort to flood the market with easy sellers.
There is a lesson here for all of us. Do we really want to be that kind of writer? Is that what we should aspire to? There are plenty of people jumping on the popular band wagon. But quality isn't sitting there beside them in many cases.
Le Guin doesn't think it's the way to go. Writing is art, she reminds us. It's not a commodity.
She certainly did properly thank those who helped her receive honors that evening. But she also referred to a time when writers of her scifi/fantasy genre could not get recognition as writers, and were excluded from awards consideration. The awards, she said, went to "the so-called realists."
Now, she says, the rewards may well go to those who can see the direction society is going, and the dark as well as hopeful side of the future.
In the future, she said, "We will need writers who remember freedom."
"Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenues is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship."
Publishing these days, she said, involves sales departments given control over editorial content. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries, for an e-book, six or seven times what they charge others…I see (writers and publishers) accepting this—letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write?"
Le Guin charged those who write and publish books not to accept this situation, but to resist, and fight for change. "Books are not just commodities," she said. "The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. Resistance and change often begin and change in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."
She concluded her speech with this reminder: "I really don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want, and should demand, our fair share of the proceeds, but the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom."
Bravo, Ms. Le Guin.
Ann Connery Frantz is a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative and writes fiction/nonfiction, as well as Read It and Reap, a column for book clubs, for the Worcester, MA, Telegram & Gazette.