Sweet Jesus, I don’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m disagreeing with Ursula K. Le Guin. Have I ever mentioned she’s my favorite author of all time? That I cried when reading Left Hand of Darkness because it was the perfect book, and I knew I would never match it? Yes, that Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ms. Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the sixty-fifth annual National Book Awards and had this to say:
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 production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … 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’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom. (New Yorker)
Okay, I’m not exactly disagreeing as I’m suggesting she’s not really seeing into the future as much as projecting shadows from the past. (Yeah, I said that.)
The Future is Now
I don’t think we need writers who “know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art” any more now than we ever have. We have plenty of those. In fact, we have more of those than the reverse. We always have. It isn’t authors who have dollar signs in their eyes.
More than ever, the profit motive has dwindled among authors. MORE authors today know they cannot make a living at their art, yet they practice their art anyway. They have something to say about life, and they say it in uncountable ways.
Sure, you find elites grumbling about the bad writing, bad editing, poor quality, etc. Know what? Fuck ‘em. Everyone has their story, whether it’s genre fiction or literary fiction, whether it’s rated highly by the New Yorker or by almost nobody. Every story is spoken by someone and speaks to someone.
More importantly, what we have today are thousands of authors writing their stories AND ABLE TO SHARE THEIR ART WITH THE WORLD. This is new. This is radical. This is revolutionary. It’s about time literature had a reformation.
No longer do giant corporations with profit motive and ridiculous cost structures hold the keys to communication and production — and the ones who try to hold on to “tradition” (and market share) are thrashing with all their might, churning the waters. They’re using every weapon they can find: fear, threats, manipulation, collusion.
Shadows of the Past
But perhaps Ms. Le Guin was referring not to web content, niche authors, and self-publishers but to the elite writers: the Stephen Kings and Neil Gaimans. These people truly do make a living on their writing, so they have profit motive in their art. Always have. But they’re a dying breed, aren’t they? We’re heading into an era where fewer authors (at least as a percentage) are writing for profit. They’re writing for truth — their truths. Their many, many truths.
What does that tell you?
What that tells me is, instead of heading into a time when we need “writers who remember freedom” and “the realists of a larger reality,” we are already in that time when authors DO remember freedom and WRITE about it and LIVE it and SHARE it in ways they never have in the history of the world.
I think Ms. Le Guin has a particular version of authorship that is tied to history; authors are those people who create a story that is bound and printed and distributed to stores. I understand that definition because it was what distinguished amateurs from professionals. Of course, every person has stories. That’s what it means to be human. Before the web, the mass of humanity could share their stories only as amateurs with intimates.
That’s history, shadows of the past. Authors today publish and market themselves and get distribution help from small publishers, themselves with little to no profit motive and just their love of art. If you write a post on a website, post a story to a forum, sell a digital story, create a print-on-demand book, or get in print in a brick-and-mortar store, you are an author. You will acquire a readership of people you don’t know, who come from all over the world to read your story.
I want to acknowledge the limitations to this democratization of literature. Those who share in this renaissance must have a certain level of education, economic security, and access to technology.
Still, in a few decades we have come far from the centuries wherein authors needed idle wealth, nepotistic situations, or the capability of establishing bargaining relationships with conglomerates.
I see a bright future, not a fearful one. Yes, “resistance and change often begin in art” — something we should continue to cultivate, not something we have yet to find.