Ursula K. Le Guin’s Call To Arms for 21st Century Writers

If you haven’t heard by now, Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven) gave an exceptional, and very important, acceptance speech at the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

A transcript:

To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I 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 isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.


Quite beautiful. And spot on.

This is a clarion call for 21st Century Writers to seriously wake up.

She’s saying books are not just commodities, as many Big Publishers and E-book sellers – like Apple and Amazon –  would have you think nowadays. Literature is not a quick way to make a buck. It’s not a new line of footwear, or designer purses, or a new app.

Books – and when I say this I’m talking about quality content, not some of the first draft, ‘self-published’ rubbish that is saturating the market nowadays – books are not bargaining chips in games of blackmail or coercion as Amazon, the Big 5 Publishing Houses and Amazon have turned them into.

No, Literature – and as Mrs. Le Guin points out, Sci-Fi and Fantasy in particular – is something special, it is something unique among the Arts. It is capable of eliciting empathy, an understanding of what it means to be human. Sometimes it gives us glimpses into what it would be like to be someone else, or something else. It humanizes what would otherwise be known to us simply as The Other. Especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy, as they take us into new worlds and bring us face-to-face with exotic Beings not seen anywhere else. They help us realize things, metaphysical things, that sometimes are not so prevalent in our day-to-day lives.

And it is exactly because of this that pure profiteers should be ashamed. The commodification of Literature is not trivial. It could be interpreted as an act of decadence. But of course, we’re talking about capitalism here, where only $ is God.

And this is where I will be so bold as to add on to Mrs. Le Guin’s statements. It’s not just the Amazons and the Apples at fault here. In a thousand ways, they have enabled writers, like never before in the history of world, giving them a chance to be heard. Of course, that comes with almost selling your soul to marketing and self-promotion. But does it really have to be that way? The true writers and authors would say no – sacrificing your art form and technique should never be an option. So this is where some of the blame lies for our current predicament, of which Mrs. Le Guin failed to mention:

It’s all the overnight, self-proclaimed  ‘writers’ and ‘authors’ themselves. The ones who, just like Amazon and Apple, do not bother learning the painstaking craft of writing, but instead have turned that painful art of telling a great story, which can take years if not decades of honing, into a cheap, fleecing scheme.

In this Age of Digitalization, Writers and Authors (authentic ones) must maintain an ethos, a guiding self-discipline to commit fully to the art of literature and its foundational principles of sound sentence structure, rhythmic eloquence, and proper grammar. The ease with which ‘books’ can be self-published nowadays should in no way rob the art form of its beauty.

Unfortunately, this is what’s happening in many instances, as lazy writers and so-called instant ‘authors’ use self-publication to try and write some kind of sloppy semblance of a story in a first draft, put a nifty cover on it and throw it out into cyberspace, trying to trick an unsuspecting consumer into buying their ‘book’, so they can make a quick buck.

Here is a very good article titled “Among the Disrupted” by about this very thing: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html?_r=0

If you can wade through Mr. Wieseltier’s inflated and overwrought writing style, he is saying exactly this: That writers of the 21st century, if they are to take on the responsibility of writing something and publishing it for the public to consume, should hold themselves to the highest level of standards in so doing. Ease of publication does not mean the easing of writing standards.

We are at the beginning of a new dawn, where people have been given a medium for their voices like no other time in history. Let’s not ruin it.

Literature is not a commodity. It is a bridge between worlds, between hearts and minds. It lets us see above the grittiness of everyday living. In many ways, it can give that grittiness meaning.

Mrs. Le Guin has sounded the clarion call for 21st Century Writers…

Let us answer it!

– Charles Moritz

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