Ursula K. Le Guin's fiery speech at the National Book Awards is generating a big reaction Thursday morning.
"Ursula K. Le Guin Steals the Show" says National Public Radio, which reported that "the crowd went wild," after Le Guin called Amazon "a profiteer" and said it was trying "to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa," a reference to Amazon's pricing dispute with Hachette. "And I see a lot of us, the producers, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant."
NPR reported that "you could have ended the evening there and almost everyone would have gone home happy — except for the Amazon contingent, who notably had no comment on Le Guin's speech, or the ribbing they endured throughout the night."
Le Guin was in New York to receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards. Anyone who thought Le Guin would say a few thank-yous and leave the stage was unaware of her long history of advocacy for women writers, genre fiction, and individual freedom. She has spoken out against Google and Amazon in recent years and seized the moment when given the opportunity to address the elite of American publishing.
"Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart," Le Guin said. "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," Le Guin continued, "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."
At this point, Le Guin was interrupted by applause. "Thank you, brave applauders," she said.
Here is the rest of Le Guin's speech, courtesy of Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who posted a transcript taken from the live feed:
"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.
"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. It's name is freedom."
Twitter is aglow with compliments for Le Guin. A hashtag -- ursula le guin #nbawards -- has been created, something she'll surely find amusing.
-- Jeff Baker