Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification
“To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil,” Leo Tolstoy confessed with uncompromising self-awareness in reflecting on his youthful vice of writing for the wrong reasons — as a young man, he had treated the making of literature as a means to a material end, a bargaining chip traded for admiration and profit with other literary profiteers who were just as “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.” Around the same time, across the Atlantic, the young William James made the difficult decision of choosing purpose over profit — a decision that would eventually establish him as the founding father of American psychology — and observed the crux of the tradeoff: “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.” Of course, artists must eat — but at what cost does their livelihood come, weighed on whose scale?
Nearly a century and half after James and Tolstoy’s moral struggle with the competing forces of culture and commerce — a struggle that has intensified infinitely with the rise of the modern market system — another titan of literature and seer of truth addressed these elemental questions of creative culture with uncommon lucidity and luminosity of sentiment.
On November 19, 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) took the podium to receive her second National Book Award with a short, stunning acceptance speech, later included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writers Week (public library) — the splendid collection that gave us Le Guin on the artist’s task in meaning-making and her operating instructions for life.
Le Guin writes:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
Le Guin was a seer in the largest sense — her gaze bent past our culture’s horizons of peril and possibility visible to most, and she saw the early warning sings of a darkening reality. A decade after she first began admonishing against the commodification of art, she points to the creation of cultural artifacts motivated not by artistic merit but by marketability as one of the most perilous traps of our times:
Right now, 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 profit and advertising revenue is not 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 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, what to write.
Le Guin ends her admonition on a hopeful and empowering note — a clarion call for resistance, reminding us that any broken system is fixable, and that the fixing falls on our own participatory hands. More than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt insisted in her dying hour that “we do make our history [and] we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course,” Le Guin exhorts:
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, 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. Very often in our art, the art of words.
I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I 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 isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
Le Guin’s unassailable belief in literature as a force of freedom and her fierce advocacy for public libraries were a large part of our inspiration for donating all proceeds from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — which contains her last published piece — to the public library system. Seeing her deliver the speech live, with quietly impassioned conviction and incandescent dignity, only amplifies the urgency and bittersweet hopefulness of her message, which stands as a pillar of her legacy: