“We will need writers who can remember freedom”: Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards

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Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the National Book Awards tonight and gave a fantastic speech about the dangers to literature and how they can be stopped. As far as I know it’s not available online yet (update: the video is now online), so I’ve transcribed it from the livestream below. The parts in parentheses were ad-libbed directly to the audience, and the Neil thanked is Neil Gaiman, who presented her with the award.

Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And 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.

Thank you.

 

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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111 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. After hearing a brief excerpt on npr this morning, I looked for a full transcript and yours appears to be the only one.

  2. Thank you very much for posting this. Wonderful speech. It almost makes me hopeful that things can and will change (but not really). All hail, Le Guin!

  3. Thank you so much for posting the transcription of Ursula’s speech! Lots of talk this morning about it but no handy transcription OF it. The best statement in support of the new paradigm and against predatory capitalism any time lately, that I am aware of. So great that it happened in that forum and that the predators were present.

  4. I agree that we will need writers who remember freedom. But it is not capitalism that enslaves. Rather it is the socialism that this speaker evidently supports that has enslaved so many through recent history.

  5. “Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial;”

    I have never seen editorial as compromised as it is today. Having been trained as a journalist and political scientist, I see undue influence over editorial department, news department that affects decisions about what is news and what is news but not allowed to be published. I see political influence over network news that skews it in favor of a conservative ideology over good judgment.
    An entire generation of writers of news have retired or been forced out of their jobs by “market forces.” I am sad for journalism as a profession if corporate policy is to determine news value.

  6. I’m a writer, and a healer and I use the spoken word or the written word to inspire.

    Thank you very much for this speech. I get so tired of receiving emails telling me that if I just pick a subject like teaching a parrot to speak and doing an e-book that profit is mine for the taking; that may well be, but I would be prostituting myself and the profession of writing.

  7. As a Deaf person, I want to just wanted to thank you personally, Parker. While I have been able to find a video of Ursula’s speech, it is not captioned and I would have missed the powerful message that she had to share with all of us. As a writer myself, I take inspiration from her words – words that were made accessible to me because you took the time to transcribe them and post a transcript for all of us to read…including this “broken-eared, soon-to-be-published author.”

    Thank you.

  8. Ms. LeGuin did not use the word “enslave.” Looking at the way that capitalism has created an era of savage inequality, impending climate catastrophe, mass incarceration, endless war and the commodification of nearly every aspect of our lives, it doesn’t look like the path to freedom to me. Through her books, Ms. LeGuin imagined many different ways to organize society that challenge the status quo. The Greek philosophers asked basic questions such as “what it the good life?” and “how do we conduct ourselves in order to create it?” If we ask such questions, we might come up with better answers than the narrow and largely failed path of capital accumulation.

  9. Besides which, many of us are living under what Americans would call ‘socialism’ today, and are very happy to be doing so, thank you. (In my own case, 30 years in Denmark.)

  10. For someone who speaks so passionately about the freedom to publish and express, it is unfortunate that she did not address the radical revolution in publishing that is providing true freedom to authors: self-publishing. With the ability to directly publish our own words through ebooks and print-on-demand, there is more freedom than ever to put new ideas and stories out there and directly reach readers without having to overcome the hurdles of the traditional gatekeepers (including the sales departments of publishers).

    It is not profit motive that gets in the way of this new found freedom, it is the all too human tendency to resist new ways of doing things, including the publishers who have resisted the adoption of ebooks by pricing them too high to protect their paper book sales. But fortunately the publishers are being dis-intermediated and writers can now much more directly reach their audience. The only two parties that are fundamentally necessary in this new world of self-publishing are the writers and the readers. All other services from editing to retailing to formatting and design can be hired out directly by the writer, and in this way the writer keeps complete control of their own words. This is the true freedom a writer seeks, and it is too bad that Ms. LeGuin did not address this profound shift in the publishing world.

  11. Wonderfully said. Through asking questions and imagining alternatives, we might be able to redirect our version of capitalism before it crashes completely.

  12. Looking at the way that *Statism* has created an era of savage inequality, impending climate catastrophe, mass incarceration, endless war and the commodification of nearly every aspect of our lives, it doesn’t look like the path to freedom to me.

    There, fixed.

  13. “Nazism was also capitalistic. Oligarchies are capitalistic.”

    Both are also *States*.

    I invite any person who advocates civilized behavior to consider whether being civilized ever means resolving your peaceful differences of opinions with others by being the first to pull a gun.

    I honestly don’t know what’s better: socialism, communism, capitalism, etc. But I don’t understand how someone can call themselves “civilized” while advocating the violence of Statism (or any other initiation of violence).

    What I like about LeGuin is that while I personally think she is confused on economics, she’s always made that advocated her preferred economic system peacefully rather than trying to impose her preference on others with violence.

  14. Le Guin didn’t speak about sexism, racism, classism, ageism, or plenty of other things she feels strongly about either. This was an award-acceptance speech. It was a little over five minutes long. One key to giving a powerful speech in a short period of time is focus. She had it, and she did it.

    As a writer, reader, and editor I’m encouraged by the growth in options available to writers. I also can’t help noticing that the #1 profiteer that Le Guin referred to has managed to integrate itself deeply into this “true freedom” you refer to. Self-publishers realize PDQ that in reaching readers promotion and distribution are key, and in many, many cases this means playing by the profiteer’s rules, using the profiteer’s proprietary ebook format, etc., etc. (Yes, I know there are ways around this, but many novices and not-so-novices don’t.) Every reader who buys from the profiteer because the profiteer offers lower prices and faster delivery is feeding the monster.

    The big publishers are kowtowing to the profiteer just as they kowtowed to the chain bookstores that preceded it. The publisher that the profiteer tried to punish — which Le Guin referred to in her speech — is a pretty powerful outfit in its own right. Some years back the profiteer went after an indy bookseller that had the same name, and had had it for much longer than the profiteer. In effect, it won.

    I can’t help but wonder how long “true freedom” will last under these conditions.

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  17. I should have commented way back when I read this, but thank you for bringing this speech to my awareness and for the transcription. I’ve linked this post to my blog. Full credit will go to you. Thanks again!

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