Ursula K. Le Guin

LOS ANGELES – DEC 15: Ursula Le Guin at home in Portland, Origon, California December 15 2005. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images)

This week author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away at the age of 88. Le Guin was a master of speculative fiction and one of a handful of writers credited with bringing the science fiction genre into the literary fold in the 1970’s – that is, except by those writing snobs who are absolutely convinced that only “realism” can ever count as serious or important literature, regardless of how clever or well-written a speculative piece may be.

In 2014 Le Guin won an award for distinguished contribution to American letters and gave this wonderful acceptance speech. I’m quoting the whole thing because it is just that good, and because it touches on various themes I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year.

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 maximise 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.

I have a couple of takeways from this. First, Le Guin was an excellent writer, easily on par if not better than most of the “literary realists” whose work doesn’t get dismissed as “genre fiction” only because they write about “real life” – whatever that’s supposed to be. Le Guin wrote about real life, too, but from the far more interesting standpoint of speculative fiction.

Second, by 2014 the publishing industry was already in crisis, under attack from discount sellers like Amazon and and facing an enormous glut of books on the market due to the rise of self-publishing. It’s understandable that publishers would want to do everything they could to move books, but at the same time Le Guin is right that an author’s vision should never be compromised by what will or won’t sell.

Sadly, it’s become common advice that authors should chase the market – if you self-publish, your cover should look like those of other books in the genre, your blurb should read like every else’s, and your story should employ tropes that are easily recognizable to your readers. It’s nice to say that as artists we should dispense with all this, but the reality is that if we do we will usually sell nothing. With self-publishing our share of the proceeds may be more “fair” in terms of overall percentage, but a better percentage of nothing is still nothing.

And as I’ve said before, I wish I had a solution to this conundrum, but I don’t. I just am going to keep doing what I’m doing – making my living in information technology and writing on the side, because making enough to live on writing books is basically impossible except for a lucky, tiny minority.

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