By Elaine Magliaro
Ursula Le Guin is an award-winning American author of novels, children’s books, and short stories. Her preferred genres are fantasy and science fiction. Le Guin has also written poetry and essays. Harry Kunzru (The Guardian) wrote last month that many readers discover Le Guin’s work when they are young–“through her Earthsea sequence, now acknowledged as one of the great works of 20th-century fantasy.”
In an astonishing run in the late 1960s and early 70s, Le Guin produced not just Earthsea but several of the great novels of science fiction’s postwar new wave. The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness fulfilled the genre’s promise, using speculation to address social, political, ethical and metaphysical questions. Since then she has continued to publish novels and short stories informed by the mystical philosophy of the Tao Te Ching and the west coast tradition of political radicalism, written in a clear, clean prose that is never tainted by inkhorn medievalism or technological jargon. A two-volume collection of stories, The Unreal and the Real, was published this summer, giving an overview of her entire career.
Because of her subject matter, Le Guin isn’t always recognised for what she is, one of the great writers of the American west, a product of a coastal tradition that looks forward at the Pacific with a wilderness at its back and the great cities of Europe very far to the rear.
In November, Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards. She gave an important acceptance speech about the dangers that literature faces–corporate greed, maximization of profits, obsessive technologies, art treated as a market commodity–in present times.
Parker Higgins transcribed Le Guin’s speech. Higgins noted that the “parts in parentheses were ad-libbed directly to the audience, and the Neil thanked is Neil Gaiman, who presented her with the award.”
Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech:
Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the 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 quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
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 ebook 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 and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. 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, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, 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.
Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014:
From the National Book Foundation:
In recognition of her transformative impact on American literature, Ursula K. Le Guin is the 2014 recipient of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is the Foundation’s twenty-seventh award recipient.
For more than forty years, Le Guin has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction. Among the nation’s most revered writers of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin’s fully imagined worlds challenge readers to consider profound philosophical and existential questions about gender, race, the environment, and society. Her boldly experimental and critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and children’s books, written in elegant prose, are popular with millions of readers around the world.
“Ursula Le Guin has had an extraordinary impact on several generations of readers and, particularly, writers in the United States and around the world,” said Harold Augenbraum, the Foundation’s Executive Director. “She has shown how great writing will obliterate the antiquated—and never really valid—line between popular and literary art. Her influence will be felt for decades to come.”
Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin: ‘We will need writers who can remember freedom’ (Raw Story)
Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’ (The Guardian)
“we will need writers who can remember freedom”: ursula k le guin at the national book awards (Parker Higgins)
The 2014 Medalist For Distinguished Contribution To American Letters (National Book Foundation)
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. 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, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
There is no devine right to capital.
The divine right of kings was taken up by John Locke for one, who also was one of the thinkers who informed our founders. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are his idea.
Hopefully, art which wants to destroy the idea that a man’s life is his to live it as he sees fit will die on the vine.
Good for Ms.Le Guin! Commercialism and greed has tainted so many areas in our lives. She makes me think that Elizabeth Warren has a message that will resonate with most.
For those who are interested, there’s an interesting article about Le Guin and her work over at The Boston Globe. Here’s an excerpt:
Ursula Le Guin: she got there first
In the 1960s realism dominated American letters. Science fiction was the bastion of engineer geeks. And then Le Guin emerged with a series of books that challenged the way we think of not just technology, but civilization.
Chief among them was “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin’s 1969 novel set several thousand years in the future on an ambisexual planet, where men and women take on male or female sex characteristics depending on their relationships or desires.
Le Guin wasn’t just ahead of the curve in contemplating the social construction of gender. While science fiction zoomed toward the technological future, she wrote about anarchist movements, the way societies create aliens within themselves, and climate change.
“Of many present day memes,” Margaret Atwood wrote in an e-mail, “well might it be said; Ursula got there first!”
And she did so by writing about characters with profound inner lives and terrible dilemmas. Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” read her books in elementary school and found them far more than escape pods.
“What interests her the most, it seems in my opinion, is the hard art of human wisdom, how desperate we all are for it and yet how it can only ever be learned by confronting suffering and loss and responsibility — by, in other words, growing up,” Diaz wrote in an e-mail.
Elaine, I often use Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale” when describing a possible future under a Christian Theocracy. I’ll have to check out Le Guin’s work.
I loved that book!
I think Atwood’s scenario probably comes as close to what could become reality if fundamentalists gained power. With all the talk of the white population levels falling in Western countries and the renewed emphasis on a woman’s “traditional” role among religious right and conservatives who are strongly influenced by them, it’s not a stretch.