Ursula Leguin and "the realists of a larger reality"
"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. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. "
As she has been for so many years, Ursula Leguin speaks once more to the core for me. I've visited numerous times every world she has shown us, and one thing she has always shown are the infinite possibilities of the imagination and culture, brilliantly reasoned out through the eyes of the anthropologist's daughter that she also is. I have travelled with her through worlds of solitude, where a young girl must be alone to "make her soul" in "The Birthday of the World" collection. I've visited a world in the midst of an Ice Age, and come to love a pragmatic hero who is also a hermaphrodite, neither male nor female on a world without gender, in "The Left Hand of Darkness". I've visited Earthsea many times, and watched the coming of age of the mage Ged, who can talk with dragons, and must learn not only about power, but more importantly, the Equilibrium, keeping the balance. And in "Four Ways to Forgiveness" I've seen two worlds come apart and re-form as slavery is ended, and former slaves and owners must find their personal salvation as well in the midst of a vast revolution................thank you, Ursula, thank you for making it possible for me to visit those worlds, to escape my own when I needed to, to see with your words the infinate possibilities of human experience...............
Her speech is a call to artists as well as writers, she says what I have so many times thought recently - how "money sick" everything has become, and how we are losing our freedom in so many ways. "But the name of the beautiful reward", she says, "is not profit. Its name is freedom." The freedom to create uncensored, internally or externally, by the endless demand that what is created somehow be justified, it's "real value" be determined, somehow, by how much money "it" can make. Which is no "real" evaluation of success at all, any more than the "success" of corporations has anything to do with preserving our planet's future. We need to put money consciousness outside the door when we enter the house of creative integrity - otherwise it's like a loud cacophony of endless commercials, nattering away, obstructing any capacity to hear, see, know, be "en-souled". If the work makes money, or doesn't, has to be irrelevant - a difficult thing in a capitalist/corporate world that can increasingly determine no other means of value anywhere.
When young artists come to my home, I'm always dismayed at how rarely any of them ask about the work displayed there, what it means, why I did it, even what it's made out of. No, most of them ask about shows, ways to promote work, how, in other words, did I make money from my work and can I help them do so. And I've never said this out loud, but the work displayed is a Conversation I secretly long for others to engage with in with me. And in the babble and preoccupation with money, my voice, the voice of the work, is never heard. What wealth, if money was left outside the door like our shoes, what real wealth might be found in the creative conversation hanging on the walls, the sharing of the deep impulses from which their, and my, work sprang?
In accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at this year’s National Book Awards, eminent sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin made a knock-out speech about the power of capitalism, literature and imagination that, as she put it afterwards, “went sort-of viral on YouTube.”
I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it 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 last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
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. 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. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
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 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 and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
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.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really 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 is not profit. Its name is freedom.