Ursula K. Le Guin on speaking truth to power at National Book Awards

Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2014 National Book Awards.
(Robin Marchant / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

On the morning after the National Book Awards, speaking by phone from a Manhattan hotel, Ursula K. Le Guin was feisty, smart and pointed — exactly as we might expect.

“I don’t want to put writers against publishers,” she said, referring to her remarks Wednesday evening, as she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, “but if we want independence, we have to make it. We are not slaves of the corporation.”

Le Guin’s comments were an extension of a speech that was the highlight of the ceremony at the Manhattan restaurant Cipriani.


But then, it can be exhilarating to speak truth to power.

This is what the 85-year-old Le Guin did, first taking a moment to “rejoice in accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long” — authors of science fiction and fantasy — before offering an impassioned defense of books as more than mere commodities.

“We just saw,” Le Guin observed, referring to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, “a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience.” She concluded by saying, “The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

Le Guin, of course, has long been one of our most powerful writers of conscience, author of a dizzying array of works that address, among other issues, gender and environmentalism.

Her breakthrough novel, 1969’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” (which won both a Hugo and a Nebula Award) involves a society populated by “ambisexuals,” in which gender is not fixed but fluid. Her 1985 novel “Always Coming Home” describes an agrarian tribe called the Kesh that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” Presented, in part, as a work of ethnography — Le Guin’s father was the Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber — the book originally came packaged with recordings of Kesh songs and poetry.

What this suggests is a mind that rejects the easy categorizations on which contemporary culture relies.

“The whole word genre,” she said Thursday morning, “builds [a] wall right there” — although in the next breath, she acknowledged that “on the other hand, genre is a real thing; it defines an art. The problem is judging by genre and saying something cannot be literature.”

For Le Guin, this is an issue of both personal and academic interest, because she has been labeled a writer of science fiction despite having produced “across the board.” Even more, it is a way of shutting down the conversation, of fitting books into little boxes, which is something literature by its nature rejects.

At the award presentation, Le Guin spoke of our need for “writers who can remember freedom,” calling them “realists of a higher order.” The implication is that the book, that writing, is more than entertainment, but an essential social force.

“We live in capitalism,” she continued. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. … Resistance and change often begin in art, and very and often in our art — the art of words.”

Asked to elaborate, she spoke over the phone about community.

“I am interested,” she said, “in publishers that publish in the old sense of the word, that take responsibility toward books, toward readers and authors, toward literature.” For this reason, she used part of her speech to critique publishers that overcharge libraries for ebooks — a practice she described the following morning as “abominable, a real loss of community.”

“The idea of a public trust,” Le Guin explained, “has been swept under the carpet. But the fact is that people can be mutually responsible. A public library is a neat example of a public trust. We trust the public to take the books and bring them back, but publishers violate that if they not make books available.”

For her, the point is the back and forth, the porousness of art and literature. In its sway, we are brought together in the most intimate fashion, sharing what she called “mutuality.”

“The word trust,” she said, “fits very well with what writers and artists do. They share a trust, an interaction with the public. Capitalism screws it up by making it a commodity exchange, but we need to keep the relationship.”

She paused then, for a moment, gathering her thoughts, choosing her words like the writer she has always been. “It’s only tangentially involved with money. Money is important. But art is a calling.”

Twitter: @davidulin