Tony Norman: Author Ursula Le Guin puts publishing’s ills into words
November 21, 2014 12:53 AM
Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Ursula K. Le Guin at the National Book Awards on Wednesday
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This week, author Ursula K. Le Guin reminded the literary world, and by extension the rest of us, that money shouldn’t be everything, especially when it comes to publishing.
The occasion was the annual National Book Awards, the gala that host Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler memorably compared to “the Oscars of the book world if nobody gave a [expletive] about the Oscars.”
Introduced with great deference by author Neil Gaiman, Ms. Le Guin, who turned 85 recently, was honored with the 2014 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The author of “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “The Dispossessed” and the Earthsea series, Ms. Le Guin has had a huge influence on her peers and has won pretty much every major literary award in her long career.
Though narrowly classified as a fantasy/sci-fi writer because she’s never been particularly interested in cataloging the ennui of the suburbs, Ms. Le Guin’s influence is detectable in the work of such celebrated writers as Mr. Gaiman, David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Library of Congress designated her a “Living Legend” in the Writers and Artists category in 2000, Ms. Le Guin has always been irked that writers of sci-fi and other genre fiction are typically marginalized by the literary establishment despite demonstrably superior writing in a lot of cases.
“I rejoice at accepting this,” she said of her new award, “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 past 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”
After waving the banner for her genre cohorts, Ms. Le Guin decided it was time to take on Amazon, the gargantuan online retailer that has attempted to dictate to publishers ebook prices that would financially handicap most authors.
For reasons of enlightened self-interest and cowardice, many big-name writers have avoided commenting on Amazon’s battle with Hachette, a publishing house that refused to buckle. That skirmish was recently settled to the satisfaction of both, but bad blood lingers between pro- and anti-Amazon factions. It was into this controversy that Ms. Le Guin boldly waded this week. [See video here.]
“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,” she said.
“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,” she said.
“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 with 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.
“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,” she said to wild applause as Amazon executives sat grim-faced.
She concluded that she didn’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. Thank you.”
Though I’m the Post-Gazette’s book review editor, I wasn’t at the ceremony in New York. Had I been, I would’ve been among those who offered to carry Ms. Le Guin from the dais back to her table on their shoulders.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.
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