Here’s a video of the author’s speech upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014. She gets applauded when she says “Right now I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. 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 e-book six or seven times more than they charge a customer. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwah. 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.”

Good strong stuff. Now of course trade publishing is driven by profit (but is happy to publish quality too). What Ms Le Guin calls “responsible book publishing” also needs profit, but is driven by other forces, forces of which she approves. But her plaint glosses over the fact that the authors who are producing that market commodity which is the staple of trade publishing are also benefitting financially from the enterprise, some rather well. And why not? It seems to me to be a perfectly sane and reasonable choice to write money-making trash rather than art for posterity. Not as noble, perhaps, but certainly rewarding in this life, which is surely all we get. I don’t think that it is any more virtuous to chose to be a struggling artist rather than a wealthy bestseller-writer, though we do tend to judge that way. There is however absolutely no reason to believe that either type of writing is going to go away any time soon. There will always be people who write because they have to, because they need to communicate something important; just as there will always be people who write because they want to make as much money as they can. Lucky the author, like Ms Le Guin, who gets to do both. There is no essential conflict between the two strands, except perhaps when we get to the ultimate customer. But at that point the art-writer, while no doubt disappointed, will have to acknowledge that the customers’ dollars were never their primary target. Such “art” books may become harder and harder for the big houses to publish. That just means they’ll be published by other smaller houses, (some of whom may in turn aspire to be big).

I had not known that Ursula K. Le Guin was the daughter of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. Ms. Le Guin’s website may be found here.

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