Let me preface this article with Ursuka Le Guin’s powerful speech when she accepted the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.
“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 it’s obsessive technologies to other ways of being and can 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 we need the writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sale strategies in order to maximize corporate profit 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 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 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. Well…books they’re not just commodities. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.
We live in capitalism. It’s 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. Thank you.”
What led me to thinking about the space books occupy was actually a kerfluffle that happened months ago between an author and some reviewers. The author (whose name I have forgotten) pointed out that art should not be critiqued (which really is balderdash) and the reviewer retorted that since she/he had paid money for it, the book was hers and if she wanted to review a product (a consumable good) she had bought, it was entirely her right. For example, if she could criticize a washing machine’s performance, why could she not do the same to a book that she had paid money for. The analogy is mine but you get the point I’m try to make (I hope).
Ms. Le Guin’s points are very relevant at this point in time when there is a severe need for some discourse on what writing and the making of books are. The lines have become blurred enough that the integrity of the venture is at stake. These may seem like dramatic statements but honestly, discussion is important. In this age of “free speech” and the liberty to air opinions* however one may please, it is easy to forget that once people died for making their opinions, thoughts, research known via the written form (actually, I’m pretty certain people are still dying for this but I have no statistics). We’re in a time when rejection letters contain contents that do not find fault with your writing or the quality of your art but the reason that your work is too new and may not sell. We’re in a time of packaged books: ideas and a formula handed to writers who, with little to no motivation, write books that are designed to exploit the minds and purses of its targeted audience. When writers write not because they have stories to tell but because they want to sell something. We are in a time when books become movies and sometimes are written precisely for that purpose: to gain a following before the movies hit the theaters. When empty insubstantial books are hyped up, packaged in shiny paper and sold like candy to babies.
We live in a time when ghost writers do the writing and books are sold on the strength of a person’s celebrity status whether the celebrity knows how to string a sentence together or not. Where people like James Frey has a stable full of writers whom he uses to churn out the next bestseller without giving them the appropriate acknowledgement.
As Ms. Le Guin said above, we live in a capitalist age and money tends to corrupt (or at least pervert the meaning and nature of) anything it touches. Money has also taken away the very thing writers search most assiduously for: the truth, and the freedom to tell the truth. Money hobbles writers: one cannot be true to their vision when one bows to the demands of the publishers who want what sells (unless what ones to write is what the publisher wants and what sells).
However, what is the alternative? Everyone needs to eat and most people would choose a comfortable lifestyle rather than one of a starving artist. There are bills to pay, children to see for and a future to save for. We live in a society that is unforgiving of people who refuse to sell and/or compromise their integrity and art for profit. How do writers remain artists without becoming corporate employees? How do we critique the system while oiling the cogs of this system so it runs smoother? How do we keep truth in our sight when profit clouds the horizons?
As usual, I have no answers. But I figure the discussion needed to start somewhere so here are the questions. Do you have answers, thoughts and/or opinions? Let’s discuss!