ON U.K. LE GUIN’S SPEECH AT NAT. BOOK AWARDS (2014, 1,860 words)




The Guardian, 20 November 2014 22.00 GMT


Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’


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,[1] 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.

[1] Hannah Ellis-Petersen: Amazon and publisher Hachette end dispute over online book sales, The Guardian, 13. 11. 2014.


Darko Suvin


Ursula K[roeber] Le Guin, born October 21, 1929, is a US author of poetry, essays, and prose fiction. mainly in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s or “young adult” literature. She has also written remarkable essays and ten collections of her sensitive verse — that have to my mind not received sufficient attention, and which I must slight here in order to speak mainly about what I can do in brief, her work in science fiction and Fantasy.

Le Guin’s work has been strongly interested in alternative worlds with different politics, natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and/or ethnography. In SF and Fantasy she belongs to the “warm current,” based on anthropological sciences and estranging ruling certainties. One of her critics has characterised it well as “identifying the present dominant socio-political American system as problematic and destructive to the health and life of the natural world, humanity, and their interrelations” (E. McDowell). The best known of her numerous SF works are the novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’m proud to say I spotted in a review as the best SF text of that remarkable peak year, and The Dispossessed (1974), which is to my mind – as I argued in a lengthy essay – the culmination and in a way end of the SF Golden Age 1960-74. Her most complex, and I think her own preferred novel is Always Coming Home (1985). She also wrote a number of brilliant short stories, my favourite being “The New Atlantis”: I have written about it as a coded parable of our times, and it is the highest praise I can imagine to say that this applies to all her works, no doubt in different ways and to a different degree. Her numerous forays into Fantasy fiction culminate in the Earthsea series, six novels that to my mind fall into two “trilogies,” one published 1968-72 and the other 1991-2001, of which the second uses a womanist point of view to largely take back the earlier one. Characteristically, when asked for her opinion on the Harry Potter novels, she said that she found the first Harry Potter book to be a “lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel'” but also found it “stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited”; a commentator said that “Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.” See for more bibliographical info http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Biblio-Short.html
Her youth was spent in Berkeley. Her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, a famous anthropologist and theoretician of culture of German descent, was professor of anthropology at the University of California, and her mother, Theodora born Cracaw, was a remarkable writer best known for her books The Inland Whale, a retelling of California Indian legends, and Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography of the last member of a California Indian tribe. Ursula Kroeber got a B.A. at Radcliffe College (the female wing of Harvard University) in 1951, and M.A. from Columbia University in 1952, in French and Italian literature. On ship in 1953 to study for a Ph.D. in Paris on a Renaissance writer, she met Charles Le Guin, a historian, whom she married. They settled in Portland Oregon in 1958 and have lived there since (three children).

For her 80th birthday a book of homage to her, which include some poems and stories was edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, with 40 contributors, most of them women authors in or around SF. All those of reading age when The Left Hand of Darkness was published adduce it as their eye-opener, but there are comments on a number of later novels too. The critical highlight for me was Eleanor Arnason’s piece, “7 Ways of Looking at Ursula K. Le Guin,” that asks in which areas would SF be diminished without UKLG. Her persuasive answer is: in feminist SF, in anthropological SF, in anarchism or systematic self-realization including Taoism, in realism, in description of aging, in style, and “in my own writing.” This encompasses a lot of terrain and it could be further developed, but I would certainly apply it to myself. (For an example, I learned from her splendid The Word for World Is Forest how gods – or if you wish divine heroes to be venerated by later generations — are made and usable in human history.)


Le Guin has won many significant literary awards. The speech which follows was pronounced in 2014, when she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It was preceded, significantly, by her resignation from the Authors Guild in 2009, protest its endorsement of Google’s book digitization project: “You decided to deal with the devil”, she wrote in her resignation letter. “There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”
I shall try to analyse from my vantage point, no doubt coarsening and making blunter, her brief but rich and lightning speech at being awarded this prestigious prize, before a full house of writers, editors, and other people dealing with literature. It begins by breaking a lance for her comrades in the genres she is best known for, Fantasy and SF, the “imaginative writers.” The reason for this is, first, that we are witnessing the coming about of most difficult times, which means a serious peril for the freedoms not only of imagination but also action and I would say even survival of millions of people, including prominently the best minds of our generation. Such “visionaries, realists of a greater reality” are desperately needed to counteract a most dangerous society, generating a rising tide of blind panic amid quite destructive technological possibilities: to my mind, a nuclear war (we cannot know how limited or unlimited) is today quite conceivable, while the destruction of planetary ecology proceeds apace by a blind and frenzied capitalism. A second reason that imagination is the beginning of all wisdom is the endangering and erasing even of the memory of freedom, the damnatio memoriae of all the most rich and multifarious achievement of the age of Lenin and the Keynesian Welfare State, from bread and butter for almost everybody (in some privileged Northern parts of the world at least) to magnificent achievements of arts and science enlightening billions of people. In a way, thus, Le Guin’s speech is a call to revive truly liberating liberalism, that of J.S. Mill and Garibaldi for example, as against the fake “neo-liberalism” of today, that brings freedom only to profiteers at a huge cost in misery of billions. It is clear that we have to ”see through our present society” – that is, see what could be different from and what is hidden by it. (Let me add that all readers of Le Guin know that her cosmic vistas transcend present-day politics: they are shaped by an update of Daoism, and scathing about organised religion.)

Since she is speaking at and about a book award, Ursula Le Guin focuses then on “the difference between commodities for the market and [true, DS] literary activity,” or creativity. I shall not comment each sagacious part of her indictment: let me only say that I read this speech as a radical indictment of capitalism from the privileged option for the arts. If I should be accused of oversimplifying, I shall take leave to ask you what is the central feature, lever, and movens of capitalism? Obviously it is profit. And, Le Guin tells us: “often, profit is in conflict with the ultimate ends of art”! Gently, clearly, but inexorably, the finger has been pointed. Furthermore, capitalism is expressly named as a tyrannical force analogous to the divine rights of kings against which the 1776 revolution of Washington, Paine, and Jefferson was fought. At the end of her life, at the age of 85, a prominent intellectual writes as it were her ideological testament. What does she end it with? With the final recompense work can have, beyond (but of course including) nourishing the worker: which is Freedom. As the French revolutionaries said in the Marseillaise: Liberté, liberté chérie. This revolutionary liberalism shakes hands across centuries with socialism and anarcho-communism (as you can read at length in Le Guin’s masterpiece of The Dispossessed).

This, dear Reader, is a concise but precise Declaration of Independence of the Arts from Capitalism.

Lucca, September 2015


This entry was posted in 1. SF & UTOPIANISM, 3. POLITICAL EPISTEMOLOGY. Bookmark the permalink.

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