Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t want her books to be sold like deodorant. And neither do I (assuming I ever sell any).
Last night I finished polishing up the second draft of my opening set of scenes, about 7,500 words, or roughly 25 pages. (People always ask me how many pages I’ve written, but it’s much easier to think in terms of word count since words per page can vary so much. Some use 250 per page as their guide; I prefer 300. Not sure why–probably because I came across that number first.) It feels good, and it’s just in time for the girls’ Christmas break and a little sightseeing and a visit from family.
Of course, as soon as I move on to the next big chunk of the book, I come across a passage that might make more of a dramatic impact if it came earlier–back in the middle of those 25 pages I just finished revising. But I’m resisting the urge to fiddle with it. After all, second draft won’t be the final draft. Moving on!
Now, the real reason for this post is a chance to reprint this wonderful speech–with that line about deodorant–by Ursula K LeGuin, author of fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and more (check out The Lathe of Heaven—it ain’t Katniss Everdeen’s dystopian fiction…).
Photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch
It’s one of those acceptance speeches that is actually worth reading. Not just “I want to thank the academy… my agent… my family…” She does that. And then she succinctly and persuasively defends the nature of her art, the art of writing, holding up its value in an age under the sway of profit and market forces.
There’s another fantasy author you may have heard of, who’s sold a few books in his time: J.R.R. Tolkien. He didn’t write the Lord of the Rings because he consulted the findings of a focus group. It was a sequel his publisher wasn’t expecting, probably didn’t want, but which so many are so grateful he wrote.
Isn’t that how the best art is? Not the result of the marketing machine, it’s something we didn’t even know we were looking for, but something that speaks to the depth of the soul.
Now, without further ado (you have to say that kind of thing when introducing someone about to give a speech), Ursula K. LeGuin:
Speech in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
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 fifty 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 6 or 7 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, 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.
Ursula K. Le Guin
November 19, 2014
This text may be quoted without obtaining permission from the author, or copied in full so long as the copyright information is included:
Copyright © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin