Here are some powerful, moving, and beautiful words from Ursula K. Le Guin at the recent National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and used the opportunity to talk about the value of visionary literature and the ugliness and danger of treating books as pure commodities:
I rejoice at accepting [this award] 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.
Lest we forget, Ms. Le Guin spoke about this same “realism of a larger reality” back in 1973 at the very same venue, when she was accepting the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore:
Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetype of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a great deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived.
For even more, see this recent (August 2014) interview with Le Guin in which she expounds on the same theme:
“The genres” were ignored altogether [from the 1940s to the turn of the century] and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.
. . . . The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror [of a given type of literature] seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.
Finally, and perhaps in slight correction to Ms. Le Guin’s last two sentences above, here’s a key quote from Terence McKenna that rests and resonates well with the mix of ideas presented here:
The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish