Ursula K. Le Guin’s Show-Stopping Speech
On November 19, Ursula K. Le Guin received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, celebrating her lifetime of achievement. The author of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and many, many more books, science fiction and fantasy fans have long known of Le Guin’s greatness. And Le Guin’s six-minute speech proved that her wit, her deftness with words, her passion, and her ability to peer into the future have not dimmed with age. Bold, contentious, creative, and beautiful, Le Guin’s speech rightly earned a standing ovation.
Le Guin began her speech by saying, “I rejoice in 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.” The line may have garnered laughs from the audience, but I was glad to see her standing up not only for writers, but also fans, of sometimes marginalized genres. And it foreshadowed a speech filled with comments that many in the room would find uncomfortable.
She continued, saying:
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.
I loved this paragraph. Given Le Guin’s writings about the future and the future of technology, her dire warnings should not be ignored. Moreover, it was a powerful response to those who would dismiss genre fiction as “escapism.” Yes, I think she would say, SFF is about escapism. Not to hide from reality, but to escape from reality’s constraints, to transcend them. To drag readers into a new reality – a better reality. This is what art, as a creative endeavor, should be about. Perhaps that is why luminaries from literary fiction are also dabbling in dragon’s gold and generation ships. Through the use of genre fiction’s tools, they can describe that new reality.
Le Guin further developed these themes of challenging reality and the power of art by calling out the current state of the publishing industry, in particular the recent spat between Hachette and Amazon.
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.
Considering the audience consisted of many in the publishing industry, this was a brave statement, telling truth to power.
But Le Guin also offered hope to writers and readers, saying, “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.” Of course, this ray of hope depends on writers stepping up and fueling that fire of resistance, of rebelling against the status quo. But in Le Guin’s eyes, writers must not only rebel in their writing, but also on the business side of things. “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.”
Not only was I happy to see Le Guin celebrated for her achievements, I was thrilled to hear her give an acceptance speech that went far beyond a simple “Thank you.” At 85-years-old, Le Guin has had a long and distinguished career. And at a time when SFF is struggling to come to terms with the publishing industry, with diversity, with gender, and with making a living as an artist, Le Guin is not shuffling off into the shadows. She is confronting the very same issues.
The holiday season is quickly approaching. And although it can be a hectic, stress-filled time, it can also be a great time to curl up under a blanket and read, or re-read, something great. So if you have the chance, pick up one of Le Guin’s novels or her book on writing, Steering The Craft. As Neil Gaiman, who introduced Le Guin and presented her with the medal, said of Le Guin, she “made me a better writer, and I think much more importantly, she made me a much better person who wrote.”
Ursula Le Guin has challenged us. How will you respond? Read great books. Write the next great book. Take up Le Guin’s arguments. Genre fiction is not second-class. It is powerful art capable of inspiring change and designing our future. Hard times may be coming, but they do not have to stay.