In the other world that is, Ursula K. LeGuin has already traveled to Stockholm and accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. In this world that is, she accepted National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters last November with this speech:
“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 who can see through our fear-stricken society and it’s 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.”
She is speaking of what William Faulkner spoke in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner said (in a somewhat longer speech — he was — after all, a man):
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
In her speech, Ursula said, “We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa.” She was referring to last fall’s commodity war between Hachette Publishing Group and Amazon over pricing policies, a war which took the books of countless writers off-sale via Amazon, inaccessible to new readers, for many months. She added, “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.”
Here is the underlying truth: books are not even produced and sold as well as deodorant. At least deodorant has basic performance criteria and sufficient investment is made in product development and production to ensure it has at least a moderate degree of effectiveness. The people who make it, from those who create the formulas, to those who manufacture the product, are at least paid enough to eat, have a home, and live.
There are those who would argue that deodorant is more essential to life than books. Deodorant is a convenience which enables people to exist in close proximity to each other without offending each other in a way in which we are no longer culturally comfortable.
Books, at present, are made and sold by people who have far less regard for their customer and far greater contempt for them than the average personal care product manufacturer, whether it be Unilever or Proctor & Gamble. Ursula refers to book creation (by writers), selection (by publishers), and sales (by sales and marketing staff or retailer algorithm — i.e. Amazon) as “Books, you know, they’re not just commodities.”
If books were Secret or Degree deodorant, they would work “by accident” or “by surprise” and be made pretty much for free by home workers with more chance of getting a good income by winning the Publishers Clearing House prize than they did by making deodorant that worked. They would be sold by venal, exploitive companies looking for free stuff, putting as much out for sale as possible in the hope of finding sufficient numbers of people seeking to eliminate unwanted body odor by whatever means available. If by chance, any of the product might attract sufficient customers, they would then remake the package, putting whatever random ingredients might be found as cheaply as possible into it, in the hope of convincing the customer they were buying “the exact same thing.”
That’s books. Right now. Made by companies whose businesses were set up when the “divine right of kings” Ursula refers to in her speech had been questioned only in what is today, the United States, and beginning to be questioned by guillotine in France, a question first answered by Robespierre, and then by Napoleon Bonaparte before becoming the brilliant nation that is today’s France.
In the hope — of living — right now, the overwhelming majority of writers do exactly as Ursula describes in her speech. Working for free or nearly so, they hope to put the ingredients together on the off-chance they are able to squirt their thoughts into a plastic tube and have millions rub it on their brains.
In the other world that is, Ursula LeGuin has already accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. In this world that is, we are only now beginning the fight to liberate our hearts, our minds, our thoughts, our dreams.
If a writer cannot even live while doing his or her work? That — is the central question. Only those able to work for free, those who do not have families they must support by a certain income, those who are able to exist on patronage from powerful friends … only those tell the stories. These days. This world that is.
But, just as corporate food has had its day, having made us fat, sick and nearly dead, so too has corporate writing. It does not know it is dead yet, just as McDonalds struggles with 30 percent less profit and lower sales for the first time in its history and Kraft profits are down 40 percent.
And they try to tell us it’s because no one reads any longer. They try to say that books can’t compete with games and apps and television and films.
It’s because people aren’t interested in reading the book version of Velveeta. Over and over again.
Originally published at www.amysterlingcasil.com on May 3, 2015.