Acceptance speeches by authors at the annual National Book Awards program rarely draw much attention in the broader popular culture. Although they don’t usually generate buzz like the Oscars, Grammys or Academy Awards, the celebrated author Ursula Le Guin may have changed that on Wednesday, November 19, as she received a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. (See video footage of her speech here).
Le Guin generously thanked her family, agent, editors and others who have supported her work, noting that they too deserved the honor being bestowed on her. She acknowledged, to appreciative audience laughter, that many in the more high-brow “literary” community had previously excluded science fiction and fantasy from discussions of serious literature.
Then she opened a sharp critique of the “commodity profiteers” who value books only for their ability to generate profits, threatening publishers and authors who stray from the increasingly prevalent market-driven business model. Audience members listened intently, interrupting her with applause at times. Somebody shouted “We love you.”
As Le Guin continued, she expanded her analysis beyond the arena of contemporary literature: “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.”
Le Guin’s brief speech, daring to use the “C” word, “capitalism,” has generated a lot of media buzz. There have been postings in web sites for the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, National Public Radio, and elsewhere.
Her criticism of the publishing industry and Amazon is richly deserved. Amazon is well known for bullying and intimidating publishers and authors. Activists have exposed deplorable working conditions for employees in its huge warehouses, gearing up now for the holidays. Le Guin’s speech would have been worthwhile even if she had limited herself to a discussion of industry shortcomings.
But people are now talking because she made it much more than that, adding her voice to a growing chorus of writers and activists who have recognized the dangers of capitalism. They speak openly about a system that threatens us all. Writers, such as Naomi Klein, are linking climate change and environmental destruction to capitalism. Ursula Le Guin furthers the critique, envisioning a world in which books are more than mere commodities, a world where change is possible, where literature can flourish, enriching us all.