‘We will need writers who can remember freedom’: Ursula Le Guin at the National Book Awards

Artists and writers these days are forging new territory, because not only are they trying to create something meaningful during a depression, they have additional factors that make it even harder: school loans, terrible jobs, and lack of the government WPA program they kept artists alive during the Great Depression. It’s always the artist who speaks up and says, no, this is art, you can’t turn life into commerce. And they’re right, although they’re usually derided for saying so. That’s why this is so inspiring:

After accepting the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at last night’s National Book Awards, Portland writer Ursula K. Le Guin deployed a speech that lanced Amazon, her own publisher, and other “commodity profiteers” who “sell us like deodorant.” It went off like a bomb, bringing the entire room to its feet.

“The speech started out as a smattering of applause, but by the end she got a standing ovation,” said Theo Downes-Le Guin, Le Guin’s son who also runs contemporary art gallery Upfor on NW Flanders. We caught up with him this morning by phone as he assisted his mother through New York airport security on their way home (he also escorted her onstage last night). “I was incredibly proud of her. She made me cry.”

But those moved by Le Guin’s speech went far beyond attendees at the black-tie Manhattan event.

Overnight, Le Guin blew up web editions of the Los Angeles Times, Guardian, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and more. National Public Radio ran Le Guin’s anti-capitalist critique as breaking news last night and again for morning commuters. The hashtag #nbawards is almost entirely devoted to frothy Le Guin tweets (including one from fantasy titan Neil Gaiman, who introduced Le Guin prior to awarding her medal).

What prompted the adoration? Statements like those below from the 85-year-old author (read the full transcript here).

On the commodification of 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. 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.

On Amazon’s recent attempt to undercut the imprint Hachette:

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.

On power:

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.

On her fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction:

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. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. 

3 thoughts on “‘We will need writers who can remember freedom’: Ursula Le Guin at the National Book Awards

  1. One of my favorite authors. Picked up a copy of Left Hand of Darkness 30 years ago and I still read it once a year at least. Brave words, quietly spoken to the very profiteers who sell us all.

  2. Ain’t Capitalism grand? We only have ‘us’ to blame for the wretched condition that we all find ourselves in. 1% of 300 million is a very small number when compared to 99% of 300 million. Even though the top 10% owns as much wealth as the other 90% of us do. That is a situation that we allow to continue. Believing that, or buying into the belief that, we can control our own destinies simply by voting is lunacy. Not voting could be the solution. Because it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire system.

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