‘…Writers of the imagination…have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.’
- ‘…We’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now…and even imagine real grounds for hope.’
- ‘…We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.’
- ‘We who live by writing…should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.’
On 19th November last year, Ursula K Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. Friends tell me her acceptance speech went viral at the time. Having the sort of internet literacy that leads to essay-length blog posts and the belief that Reddit is the mating call of a tree frog, it’s taken me a while to notice.
Le Guin’s five-and-a-half minute speech sweeps across the state of publishing, and particularly science fiction and fantasy. As usual, I’ve offered some commentary but it’s no more than a pale reflection of the workings of the greater mind. If the video below doesn’t work, there’s a full transcript.
Writers of the Imagination
Le Guin’s first couple of minutes were spent on a subject I’m fond of pontificating about; the artificial distinction between what she called ‘writers of the imagination’ and the ‘so-called realists’. I read both camps but write mostly in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. It is an enduring mystery to me as to why the realms of the imagination, to paraphrase Le Guin, are regarded as somehow inferior to ‘realist’ contemporary or historical fiction. I know very well read people who insist they ‘don’t read science fiction’ and if I persuade them to read something from the genre they like, they construct a convoluted argument as to why it’s not really science fiction.
I wanted to cheer when Le Guin eulogised authors who could imagine ‘other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope’. Science fiction and fantasy are far better placed than any other genre to conduct thought experiments, to look over the horizon of the future and speculate on what may be over there. Much contemporary thinking on the future has been shaped by the control by coercion shown in George Orwell’s 1984 and the society rendered docile by the fulfilment of very wish in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Both novels are works of the imagination, and if they are generally classed as ‘literature’ rather than science fiction, it’s more because of the widely held disdain for science fiction than their subject matter.
If you’re one of the ‘don’t read science fiction’ crowd and I haven’t convinced you, I can only suggest giving the genre a try. It’s often said that there’s a lot of rubbish in the genre, which is true but no more so than in any other genre. Knowing that makes plunging in blind a bit of a hit and miss process, so here’s a few suggestions to get started:
Short fiction that’s only a click away
The Endocrine Tyranny by DJ Cockburn (in the spirit of shameless self-promotion!)
The Ones who Walk away from Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin
A Spy in Europa by Alastair Reynolds
Down on the Farm by Charles Stross
The Very Pulse of the Machine by Michael Swanwick
Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky
Twice upon a Midnight Dreary by Richard Zwicker
Novels that bridge the gap between the literary and the imaginative
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Earth by David Brin
Kindred by Octavia E Butler
Teranesia by Greg Egan
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Act One by Nancy Kress
The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Contact by Carl Sagan
More hardcore genre novels
Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the USA) by Ben Aaronovitch
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Moonseed by Stephen Baxter
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
The Stone Canal by Ken McLeod
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
I refuse to believe that anyone who likes books can’t find a lot to like in that list!
Freedom for the writer
Le Guin went on to talk about the commoditisation of writing for profit, with some thinly veiled references to the ongoing Amazon-Hachette dispute. She alludes to the conflict that besets any professional artist: the artistic impulse drives us to create what we want, but a professional needs to get paid in order to support themselves and be a professional in the first place. The problem is that the profit motive isn’t just about making money for the publishers. The money being made is an indication of how many people are buying, and therefore reading, what we write. Without readers, we may as well not bother publishing at all.
On the other hand, are publishers the best judge of what people want to read? Tales abound of highly successful books that were repeatedly rejected. My favourite is the possibly apocryphal story of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was rejected by all the major publishers until it found its way to Bloomsbury. The acquisitions editor was going to reject it until his eight-year old daughter begged him to publish it. The editor advised Rowling to get a day job, saying she would never make much by writing, and ran off a small print run of 1,000 copies. The rest is history.
The face of publishing has changed dramatically since Harry Potter whizzed into the world in 1997, as it’s now possible for authors to publish and distribute books ourselves. I’ve done it myself. Arguably, we authors now have all the freedom we want as we no longer have to get past the gatekeepers of the publishers. The problem is that for every legend of self-publishing success like Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking, there are hundreds if not thousands of hapless authors like me who dream of our sales reaching triple figures. It’s not just a question of money. No sales mean no one is reading our books. The freedom to be obscure and unread is not the freedom that most authors crave.
Amazon is at the centre of the tension between freedom and professionalism as limiting the earnings of established authors is at the centre of their dispute with Hachette, but their self-publishing services have given unknown authors like me the freedom to bypass the major publishers. Unlike Le Guin, I find it very difficult to decide which side I support.
As I can’t influence the direction the debate will take, the only sensible reaction for an author is to watch what is going on but focus on writing something.