“He’s got a dragon in his book,” she said. “A very limp one."
August 5, 2015 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin is Breathing Fire to Save American Literature - Portland Monthly, Taylor Clark. “I just played with words all my life,” she told me. “I kind of went to my room and found out what was going to happen that day.” [Previously: "How are things in the Land of Youth?" Ursula Le Guin blogs from 85 | Ursula K. Le Guin on writing and freedom at the National Book Awards]
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (31 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's nice when you learn that someone who you've admired for years for their writing ability is just as amazing as the characters she has created. Actually, it's better than nice. It's goddamn awesome!
posted by triage_lazarus at 7:12 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have loved her writing since I first discovered it in a school library all those years ago.

She is amazing, full stop.
posted by qcubed at 8:45 AM on August 5, 2015


I'm not sure what part of modern publishing she really objects to. The acceptance of sci fi and fantasy into the canon? The democratization of publishing by the internet and Amazon self-publishing? Does she want smart genre fiction to be harder to find and less popular?
posted by mikewebkist at 8:46 AM on August 5, 2015


I'm not sure what part of modern publishing she really objects to.

RTFA.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 8:53 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


“We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art,” she said. “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit ... is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship."

...

Foremost among her concerns these days, it seems, is what Le Guin considers a worrisome literary shift whereby writers—squeezed to make a living in a world that attaches less and less financial value to their profession—view themselves more as brands and “content producers” than artists. “I see so many writers getting pushed around by the sales department, the PR people, and being led to believe that that’s what they do,” she told me. “That’s a terrible waste.”

Artistic resignation in the name of pragmatism—“letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write,” as she put it in her National Book Awards speech—elicits Le Guin’s especial disapproval precisely because she herself spent an entire career bucking what others thought she should write. Yet even now that her own science fiction has been lofted into the modern literary canon, praised by no less an elitist than Yale’s Harold Bloom, Le Guin remains more interested in keeping the good fight going than in declaring victory. “We’ve come a real long way,” she admitted, “and in fact I think
essentially these genre walls are down. But you would not believe how contemptuously reviewers and other people still just dismiss sci-fi. There’s still so much ignorance, and that bugs me.””
That kind of sums it up.
posted by Atreides at 8:58 AM on August 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


She says in the article - "“We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art,” she said. “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit ... is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

Which - although I have not investigated this in the land of book publishing in particular, myself - seems similar to the same problem in the other arts. I also think that despite all the ways you can obtain a lot of book content these days, Kindle does seem to dominate the field of book distribution more and more, so the fact that she delivers this information directly to a panel a lot of Amazon reps are sitting on carries some weight.
posted by bitterkitten at 8:58 AM on August 5, 2015


Came to paste in the perfect pull quote, beat handily. Twice.

So, to note that the topic of "art" is brought up by a SciFi author has a touch of irony no matter how non-traditional ground breaking the SF artist. (as a long time hard core SF reader I rarely considered the stories in terms of "art")
posted by sammyo at 9:06 AM on August 5, 2015


I don't think the branding issue is limited to just artists. It feels like the rise of social media has pushed people in general to think of themselves in terms of "personal brands".
posted by Sangermaine at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get that she *says* she's frustrated with the state of publishing, but I don't understand what a better state would look like. Back to fantasy being critically panned AND unpopular? Genre fiction being ghettoized AND written for pulp publishers by the word?

We all love a brazen "elder stateswoman" speaking truth to power, but what she's SAYING leads me to picture a world where everyone self-publishes through Amazon and no one pays attention to professional reviewers.
posted by mikewebkist at 9:14 AM on August 5, 2015


Also in recent Ursula K. Le Guin news:

Ursula Le Guin's advice for aspiring writers: 'There are no recipes'
The award-winning science fiction novelist launches an online writing workshop for would-be authors

Workshop post at Book View Cafe: "Navigating the Ocean of Story".

First workshop question: "Navigation Q1: How do you make something good?"

A review by her: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville – masterfully horrific SF
From zombie gore to unnerving parables of environmental disaster, this collection of short stories showcases a dazzling talent
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:38 AM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I get that she *says* she's frustrated with the state of publishing, but I don't understand what a better state would look like. Back to fantasy being critically panned AND unpopular? Genre fiction being ghettoized AND written for pulp publishers by the word?

I'm just not seeing anything in the interview to suggest that this is what Leguin wants. If you don't mind elaborating, where are you seeing this?
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:40 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm sure that's not what she wants. But she seems upset with the current state of literature, which is easily the friendliest publishing (and the culture in general) has ever been to writers like her.
posted by mikewebkist at 9:47 AM on August 5, 2015


This recent (June 1st) post might explain a bit more, but there should be more context going into this regarding her opinions on Google Books and Amazon: "Up the Amazon with the BS Machine":

Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my business anyhow. My only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.

posted by Celsius1414 at 10:06 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


@Celsius1414: again, I don't see a path forward. She talks about Amazon wanting to "sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing," as though yesterday's books become unobtainable. But Amazon is the BEST place to find old and out of print books. She disparages best seller lists, except when they highlight books she likes.

This reminds me of the David Byrne article yesterday: someone who is both artistically respected AND very successful in the old system telling the world how the new system is broken. But the vast majority of musicians do not have the bargaining power of Byrne and most authors do not have the power of Le Guin. The new system may be WORSE for her, but as a reader it's MUCH BETTER for me.
posted by mikewebkist at 10:22 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do we really need to go back and forth over the idea that Amazon's ever-more-consolidated control of publishing might be undesirable? I mean, I know Amazon would like for us to quietly cede the notion that there is anything problematic in their subsuming the entire consumer economy, but...
posted by brennen at 10:30 AM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


The new system may be WORSE for her, but as a reader it's MUCH BETTER for me.

But here's the rub - why, exactly, is it better for you? As people have pointed out, it's "better" for you because the "new" way of doing things has commodified creative works. And as people in all sorts of creative professions are pointing out, that's not really sustainable in the long run.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:41 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


She's upset with publishers (and critics and other writers) using and abusing genre labels for fun and profit.

She's not happy with publishers seeing writers as commodity "content producers" and loss leaders.

She's fearful of new writers being forced into those publishers' copycat sausage mines: "urban fantasy", "milsf", doorstop trilogies, "young adult". She doesn't want the literature she loves to degrade into Hardy Boys or Romance novel formulae.

She's also tired of writers not owning what they do for fear of reprisals, or simply out of squeamishness for dirtying their pens with genre ink (see: Atwood, M.).
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on August 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


She's fearful of new writers being forced into those publishers' copycat sausage mines: "urban fantasy", "milsf", doorstop trilogies, "young adult". She doesn't want the literature she loves to degrade into Hardy Boys or Romance novel formulae.

I've found myself unnerved by the large numbers of what seem to be paint-by-numbers genre authors I've been encountering these days when searching for new things to read on Amazon, particularly in the Kindle store. I assumed she was alluding to this profusion of poorly-written, largely unedited, formulaically-plotted ebooks that sell for cheap and that one presumes the authors need to crank out in quantity, with disregard to quality, to make a living. The other frustrating thing I've been finding connected to this is somehow these books get insanely good ratings that don't reflect their actual quality - which I know is nuts because I've previewed a few of them out of curiousity - which makes sorting by user ratings on Amazon increasingly unhelpful as time goes on when looking for well-received new books of quality.
posted by aught at 11:23 AM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Artistic resignation in the name of pragmatism—“letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write,” as she put it in her National Book Awards speech—elicits Le Guin’s especial disapproval precisely because she herself spent an entire career bucking what others thought she should write.

She shouldn't worry too much about this; if my con-attending experience is any indication, most marketers have thus far failed to find a way to sell deodorant to sci-fi fans.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:26 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I meant to add, and maybe it goes without saying, that when one sees this trend one assumes Amazon is encouraging these authors at least in part, and perhaps in large part, because they have direct control over them without the intermediary of a publishing house to negotiate with, and because the overhead is so much lower (and therefore their profits that much higher). It's a cynical way to be in the "book business" but increasingly the kind of thing one expects from Amazon.
posted by aught at 11:26 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I assumed she was alluding to this profusion of poorly-written, largely unedited, formulaically-plotted ebooks that sell for cheap and that one presumes the authors need to crank out in quantity, with disregard to quality, to make a living.

Yeah, I doubt Le Guin is against writing books that would fit any of those labels, as some of her best work would fit many of them, but is against the pressure of writing with the sole end of a commercial product, specifically and only because the publisher sees it as a marketing opportunity.
posted by bonehead at 11:29 AM on August 5, 2015


I want to be like UKLG when I grow up
posted by infini at 12:49 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I like the image of uklg going to her fucks-to-give cupboard, finding it entirely bare, and laughing as she closes the door.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:10 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Interestingly from talking to my writer friends the 'easy' money in writing seems to be in cranking out reams ofrule 34 porn for sale as 99 cent ebooks.

I am less convinced that this is so very different from the golden days of pulp sci fi, apart from the removal of the editor role.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:13 PM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


But here's the rub - why, exactly, is it better for you?

For me, it gives me access to huge swathes of books that would otherwise never get to my podunk country, and they are way , way cheaper than the frankly outrageous prices commanded by paperbacks here. I'm reading even more, and I'm buying way way more, especially indy where more of my money goes to the author.

I agree that there is tonnes of shit clogging up Amazon, but it seems lots of people like about enough for it to sell really well. So be it, there's still way more interesting stuff.

I feel like leguin ignores what's driving the push for greater commodification and branding: vastly increased numbers of published authors, and the clamour of readers for fiction they can slot.

In her hey day, there were one tenth of the books being published now, publishers formed an impenetrable barrier between readers and authors, that is no more.

Yes, there were some advantages for it, but I feel for now as a reader, the cons outweigh the pros. You can publish, pretty successfully, without publishers now and I think on the whole its good.

Amazon, in seeking to establish its own monopoly, is breaking up the oligarchy of the publishers, they are no white knights ;I'll not cry for them.
posted by smoke at 5:58 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


With self-publishing through Amazon, (and I'm sorry if this question is blindingly obvious) who is doing the editing? Does it get done at all? What is the mechanism which forces or encourages it to happen, if the whole work sells for 99 cents?
posted by newdaddy at 6:07 PM on August 5, 2015


No one, no, nothing.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:43 AM on August 6, 2015




With self-publishing through Amazon, (and I'm sorry if this question is blindingly obvious) who is doing the editing? Does it get done at all?

Based on the self-published books I have bought: the author, if anyone; and no. Loads of the kind of typos an average spell checker will not catch, as well as usage and grammar problems, and the sort of overall flabby prose and diction issues any half-way decent editor could have steered an author away from.

Not that you don't find typos and the occasional grammar issue in professionally published books, too, especially in recent years, since increasingly it has felt (to this life-long voracious reader) that copy-editing has become significantly less of a priority. It's possible corporate publishers feel as if the majority of their readers will not notice the difference. (Of course, they may be right.)
posted by aught at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2015


and the clamour of readers for fiction they can slot.

I feel as if someone needs to come out and say it: books that are like crappy TV. That is, junk food of the page, meant to be skimmed quickly for plot and action, with little in the way of nuance, prose styling, or original characterization to interfere.
posted by aught at 12:21 PM on August 6, 2015


Like they were a product extruded from a fantasy-making machine, or something.
posted by bonehead at 12:42 PM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


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