In accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at this year’s National Book Awards, eminent sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin made a knock-out speech about the power of capitalism, literature and imagination that, as she put it afterwards, “went sort-of viral on YouTube.”
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The 85-year-old writer started with a shout-out to her fellow fantasy and sci-fi writers, who have for so long watched “the beautiful awards,” like the one she’d just received, go to the “so-called realists.” She continued:
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. …
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. Its name is freedom.
Le Guin’s speech was fully transcribed by Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. You can read the entire speech at Higgins’s blog.
In 2000, Bill Moyers interviewed Le Guin about the 1980 PBS adaptation of her 1971 book, The Lathe of Heaven, that became the most requested film ever in the PBS archives. The plot revolves around the main character’s dreams altering reality. Le Guin tells Bill she was very skeptical that it could be adapted for television. We’re working on adding the show to our archive, but in the meantime, here’s a version from YouTube.