Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was given a lifetime achievement award, and she said some naive things.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s November 19 speech at the National Book Awards in New York struck a nerve. My nerve. In six minutes, after accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the grande dame of American science fiction and fantasy lambasted her own publishers who charge libraries “six or seven times the price for books they charge their customers,” “profiteers” (read: Amazon) who tried to punish a publisher (read: Hachette) for “disobedience,” and fellow writers whom she says have buckled under the imperative for profit. “We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art,” she said.

Bravo.

Le Guin spoke many truths, but her speech left me cold. Was it envy? I wondered how one as intelligent and honest could so easily scold an industry which has brought her fame and riches. I find it hard to accept that a publisher took risks on her early work purely because it wanted to support art and not as an interesting, if head-scratching addition to its catalog that might earn a few dollars over the long term. It is genre fiction, after all.

Perhaps I was skeptical of her rant because it resembles so many other laments for a tight-knit, rapidly disappearing world, that of a select group of “serious” publishers and “serious” editors who work with “serious” writers. These tastemakers have had a stranglehold on literature for three hundred years. Having seen first-hand the disruptive power of digital technology while I was at RealNetworks in the 1990s, I understand how frightening and painful transformation can be. I wonder if the ancient Greek poets of the oral tradition castigated merchants in the agora for selling those awful printed versions of epic poems. People just aren’t hiring singers of oral art anymore! It’s those damned scribblers disrupting the market!

Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good. A cursory examination of recent bestsellers shows this to be false. Critics and discerning readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be laughably bad. My daughters warned me that the sequels to Twilight and Hunger Games were sub-par. The fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons, was a sorry mess. The tastemakers aren’t always on target. In fact, they publish crap when they know it’s crap. Why? Pandering earns revenue that subsidizes the few brilliant writers, including Le Guin. Gotta love capitalism.

Le Guin calls herself a friend to self-published authors, even as she decries Amazon. This is naive at least, because if it weren’t for Amazon’s scale, which reduces the cost of production and provides access to a large market, self-publishing would’ve remained the realm of rich dilettantes. Let’s be honest: Amazon behaved like a bully in its recent dealings with Hachette. Despite its business practices (or because of them), the company, along with competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, is enabling a renaissance of written expression. It’s most recent project, Kindle Scout, is pushing aside the tastemakers by crowdsourcing publishing decisions, democratizing the filter process by offering readers a chance to weigh in on what is worthy of publication. Devolving decision-making to the masses always frightens the entrenched powers.

Amazon is in business to make a profit. Who knew? That’s been the case among booksellers since Gutenberg. If the German printer hadn’t made a profit with his bibles, he would’ve tossed his press onto the dung heap. Singling out Amazon (though I always agree that the powerful be held to account), strikes me as paranoiac. Amazon isn’t a demon; it’s showing signs of creaking under its own weight. In reality, the book universe is moving toward a new mix of traditionally published and independently published content distributed on a variety of platforms. The resurgence of the independent bookstore, once thought dead, is the best proof of this trend.

The printed book still sells strong as a teaching tool, keepsake, gift, or status symbol. The ebook is valued for its convenience and low price. Smart indie writers employ free-lance editors and cover designers. Readers ask for a voice in the publishing process, while trusting that some tastemakers have it right. Le Guin ought to revel in this emerging creative anarchy, instead of wishing all the people who don’t fit her worldview would go away.

Disclosure: My books have been published traditionally, on Amazon KDP, on Smashwords, and by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary.

5 thoughts on “Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

  1. Hey Joe,

    interesting analysis of her speech. I watched that talk and cringed at times. The whole ‘book’s are art not products’ shtick is getting tiresome. There is always a balance between art and commerce. Even the classic artists in the renaissance had to ponder how to make their art appealing for buyers (i.e. murals for churches etc.)
    As soon as you produce something and you’re selling it, you have a product, that doesn’t lesser its value.
    It’s also tiresome that famous/wealthy authors whine about capitalism and companies, like when James Patterson bashes Amazon and its ‘evil’ practices while making a fortune from that marketplace. Today’s climate allows everyone to have a shot at publishing, and target audience relevance and quality count for success, not sitting in a selected group of elites who decide what the public gets to see.

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  2. Saying that Ursula K. Le Guin is wrong to criticize the system that brought her “fame and riches” (is she rich? First I’ve heard) is like saying that a person who has worked her way up to the lofty position of regional branch manager at Walmart is wrong to go to newspapers and criticize Walmart’s worsening treatment of its workers on the eve of her retirement – even if she feels strongly that that treatment has become increasingly immoral over the course of her tenure. As Le Guin herself said, she is at the end of her career. And her position as a writer lends her opinion unique weight. Why should she withhold it? Is a person who’s worked with an industry that treats people badly under an obligation to keep silent about that industry’s mistreatment because it has treated her less badly? IMO, no.

    As for : “Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good…” that would certainly be a ridiculous opinion for Le Guin to hold – if she actually held it. But Le Guin’s long, long career as a book critic as well as an author (in which she fairly and mercilessly dealt with far better books than Fifty Shades of Grey, that still fell short of her standards) gives the lie to your straw-man. Le Guin is not beyond criticism – but it should be better criticism than what you deployed above.

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    • I’m not able to ask Le Guin about her assumptions, but I’ll take your point. I do think that most writers and the public at large place great trust in major houses to publish high-quality material, and these houses fail regularly.

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