Ursula K. Le Guin speaks truth to power at the National Book Awards

9780385353304Well, a speculative fiction title didn’t take home the National Book Award, sorry Station Eleven. Instead it went to Phil Klay’s acclaimed  Redeployment, about Iraq War veterans adjusting to civilian life.

SpecFic did make its presence known, however, thanks to a powerful speech from Ursula K. Le Guin, who received the Medal For Distinguished Contribution To American Letters.

In that speech the 85-year-old author delivered bracing attacks on the intellectual elitism that confines accolades to “literary fiction”.

“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.”

She also predicted that soon the voices of the science fiction community would be needed throughout the world:

“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.”

But her biggest target was the creeping influence of money in art. Le Guin made headlines recently comparing Amazon.com’s control over the publishing industry to a dictatorship, and to a stunned and enthusiastic crowd she doubled down her attacks.

“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.”

And to cheers from the crowd (and probably a few uncomfortable coughs from any Amazon representatives) she called for her fellow authors to join with her:

“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. It’s name is freedom.”

left hand

Le Guin’s two points struck a chord with me. I am unapologetic in my love of sci-fi and fantasy, and feel that the great works, the ones that we talk about 50-100 years later, absolutely transcend the dreaded “genre” label. Stuff like Dune, The Man in the High Castle, and Le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness.  Pat Rothfuss addressed this recently, and I agree. These works are every bit as worthwhile as the lit-fic I have read.

And, in many cases, more enjoyable.

I also know the levels that authors go to avoid the dreaded genre tag. When I worked at Borders, books by genre-bending authors like Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard were shelved in the lit fic section. And other publishers would pay to have their authors shelved in the literature section – like Anne Rice and Christopher Moore.

Sorry, those books are genre. Don’t be embarrassed, celebrate it!

And I’ve made my feelings about the Amazon/Hachette dispute known, but Le Guin’s speech touches on another important aspect of the mixture of creativity and capitalism – the commodification of art.

While I can’t speak as much about books, I am intimately familiar with the importance of sales to press coverage in music. I can’t count how many arguments I had over the importance of reviewing an album, or covering a concert, simply because the person had shifted a million units. I know there are dozens of bands every year that deserve attention, but get ignored because there will only be 200 people in attendance when they visit town, or it won’t register on the Billboard charts.

Art should not be a popularity contest, but alas, we’re still going to have to endure a new Transformers movie every year or two. At least we have great voices like Ursula Le Guin championing genre, showing that it too should be considered art and that it should not be made purely for the purpose of making a quick buck.

—Michael Senft


About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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