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Sci-fi Icon Ursula K. LeGuin Denounces 'Profit' at National Book Awards

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LeGuin
Ace

I am a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness and her Earthsea novels. At the National Book Awards yesterday evening, LeGuin received an award for her distinguished contributions to American letters. About time! The plain fact is that so-called literary fiction has devolved into an etiolated academic enterprise while the best contemporary novels are now being written by the authors of speculative fiction like LeGuin.

However, in her acceptance speech, LeGuin weighed in on the struggle between the international publishing conglomerate Hachette and on-line retailer Amazon.com. As NPR reports:

Once she was onstage, she pulled no punches in a fiery speech about art and commerce. "We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa," LeGuin said. "And I see a lot of us, the producers, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant!"

She was referring to the recent dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over e-book pricing. The power of capitalism can seem inescapable, LeGuin said, but resistance and change begin in art. And writers should demand their fair share of the proceeds from their work.

"The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom."

I doubt that LeGuin plans to give away her books for free. (Available at Amazon for $8.99.) With regard to profits, LeGuin somehow failed to note that Hachette's revenues in 2013 were over 2 billion Euros with a profit of $233 million Euros. LeGuin and other authors who want their "fair share" are objecting to Amazon's discounting policy because, well, they feared that it would lower the amount of royalties (ahem, profits) they would receive. Of course, writers, like any other workers, certainly have a right to negotiate for the "beautiful reward" of higher pay. On the other hand, if books are cheaper, authors are likely to attract more readers. 

For an excellent analysis of the dispute between Amazon and Hachette read my colleague Nick Gillespie's article, "Amazon is NOT the 'Putin' of Books."

In any case, the two corporate giants apparently buried the hatchet last week.

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  1. In any case, the two corporate giants apparently buried the hatchet last week.

    You mean…buried the Hachette? Come on, Ron, these write themselves.

      1. I don’t even know what that word means, Ron.

        1. There’s subtlety, then there’s missed opportunities. Oh, well, I guess we’ll just have to LeGuin and bear it.

          1. Ursalaying me.

  2. Denounces profit? That’s nice.

    I wonder where the food on her table comes from, then.

    1. People who put her on a pedestal because she’s a woman who sometimes writes decent science fiction? I say that as someone who likes several of her books.

      1. Le Guin is the Frida Kahlo of science fiction.

        1. Nailed it.

        2. Nice.

    2. She’s a geriatric leftist, it comes from the government of course.

    3. “Denounces profit” always, always means “someone else’s profit”. Never their own, because their motives are pure. Only other people are motivated by filthy lucre.

  3. letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant!

    Guess what, Shirley…

  4. “The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

    If this is a representative sample of what her prose brings to the table I think I’m safe skipping her books

    1. The Left Hand of Darkness is actually very interesting, though slow, and is well written. I guess she’s better when she has time to compose her words. NutraSweet would be a better person to critique her work, though, as he is the scifi expert.

      1. It’s not that she is a particularly bad writer, but she is one that is so overpraised that it has become a very tiresome joke.

        She wrote two and a half good books, didn’t become a complete loon or die, and parlayed that status into being the redeemer of science fiction from its sexist past.

        1. Well, I guess it was her or Leigh Brackett, right? And writing The Empire Strikes Back, Rio Bravo, and Hatari! doesn’t make up for “planetary romance”.

          1. It should have been Tiptree, but for the whole dying part.

        2. I couldn’t get through most of her books–her plots dulled my senses. At least other overpraised sf writers like PK Dick I could enjoy for a while before throwing it at the wall in disgust.

          1. I think PKD is overanalyzed as opposed to overpraised, but I see you point.

            1. This re PKD.

              Leguin’s remarks are silly, though depressingly predictable. However, I would rate “The Left Hand of Darkness” as in the top ten SF novels.

            2. I personally find PKD’s actual writing to be fractured and incoherent, but his ideas were fantastic.

              1. I’ll give you his writing can be uneven. This is almost certainly due to having to write fast to pay the rent and put food on the table as I think he openly admitted. It wasn’t the first PKD novel that turned me on to his work (Dr Futurity I think from when he was just trying to copy what was selling). The novel that made me a fan was DADoES (pre Blade Runner days), after reading that I decided I had to read everything this guy has ever written, he pushed all my buttons big time. This took ages as then only a few of his novels were in print at any one time.

              2. Which, given Dick’s mental health issues, makes a lot of sense.

                1. Which, given Dick’s mental health issues, makes a lot of sense.

                  You honestly get the impression from his various biographies that his mental issues were less of a problem than the incredible speed at which he wrote most of his work. And that a lot of it he was just churning out for a paycheck.

                  1. Yeah the guy could write fast, turn out a novel literally in a few days! The paradox with PKD is that he found freedom to write whatever he liked and could let his imagination run in hyperdrive in a genre that the literary world considered a ghetto.

          2. What particular aspect of PKD’s writing triggered that response?

        3. didn’t become a complete loon

          Her advocacy for a genderqueer eco-anarchism doesn’t qualify her as a complete loon?

          You are kinder than I.

          1. I was thinking more along the Joanna Russ complete loon trajectory, where she turned from writing to become a bile-filled critic lashing out at everything that didn’t fit her very narrow vision of political correctness.

            Le Guin managed to quietly drift into an acceptable sort of crazy, or at least one it wasn’t “polite” to point out as such.

            1. Liek Harlan Ellison, or whatever his name is? I think I read some of his work, but after he went off the rails, I lost interest and never reread them.

              1. Ellison has always been a major asshole. But a very creative and talented one.

      2. The Dispossessed is one of the few books I’ve read where I disliked every character and didn’t care what happened to them.

        Accelerando is the other one that comes to mind.

        1. I rooted for the lobsters.

          1. A 419 scam becoming sentient AI was a brilliant idea.

            1. Or RIAA merging with the Mob.

              and yes, no one was worthy of my care.

              1. Yeah, RIAA merging with the Mob but with Objectivism thrown in, an idea that only makes sense in Charlie Stross’s head.

          2. Oh, I did like the lobsters, come to think of it…

      3. I liked the Earthsea stuff.

        Everything else of hers that I’ve read comes off as horrible, preachy, heavy-handed SJW-type bullshit.

      4. My favorite LeGuin novel is Dispossessed.

    2. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven many years ago, and I recall I enjoyed them at the time. I haven’t read anything more recent by her, though.

      1. +1 Lathe of Heaven. Good book.

      2. I like both books. The Lathe of Heaven was my first LeGuin novel, which I read after seeing the surprisingly decent TV movie that ran on PBS decades ago.

    3. And I see a lot of us, the producers, accepting this ? letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant!

      Welcome to the world that those of us who aren’t employed by government inhabit.

      1. I suggest Ms. LeGuin start her own publishing house and distribution channels so that she can battle the commodity profiteers.

  5. When she finally dies, the scribbles she leaves on the page as she keels over will win a Nebula and we will finally be free of her.

    1. So you’re not a fan? WAR ON WOMEN

      1. It’s more the cult that has grown up around her. She’s made her own mistakes, especially as she has begun to believe her own hype, but if everyone avoided writers who said some dumb stuff about economics the bookstores would be virtually empty.

        1. Can we try that with politicians?

        2. You mean like Richard Morgan, Charles Stross (at times), Iain Banks…I’ll just stop now. At least Asher isn’t retarded.

          1. Asher may be the closest thing we have to a working libertarian science fiction writer, but little of his work (other than the Owner series) is explicitly libertarian. Peter Hamilton’s early Psi novels, certainly, but he’s gone fairly cosmic.

            And all while Cory Doctorow has won a Prometheus three times…

            1. Asher may be the closest thing we have to a working libertarian science fiction writer

              What is Michael F. Flynn, chopped liver?

              1. The January Dancer stuff didn’t do much for me, but he fits.

            2. I love Ken Macleod but have read while wincing at his commies-in-space politics.

            3. I would actually posit that Asher might be more of an anarchist. The points he makes in The Owner series are so virulently anti-government–of any kind–that it pegged my personal anarchist meter.

            4. Don’t get me started. Doctorow is an internet libertarian, but real life is different. It annoys me almost as much as his pointless, unappealing novels that people seem to love. And I say that as someone who really enjoyed several of his short stories.

            5. And all while Cory Doctorow has won a Prometheus three times…

              I know! Who on earth has been voting for him?

              Or maybe it’s just because of this:

              Asher may be the closest thing we have to a working libertarian science fiction writer

          2. Goddamn Richard Morgan and fucking ‘Market Forces’; rarely have I regretted buying a book more. The suggested reading list should have been a tip-off, what with Noam Chomsky on there (talking about something other than linguistics).

            ‘Altered Carbon’ was so damn good, that I got sucked in. Reading later that Market Forces was some unsellable script gather dust in a trunk that was rushed to marked as a book after ‘Altered Carbon’s success explained so much.

            1. There’s a coherent though somewhere in that second paragraph, I promise.

            2. Oh any God, fucking Chomsky. He gets on my nerves, even though I have to read his shit because I’m in education and English. Fucker disappears up his own ass like a gerbil on speed.

          3. “At least Asher isn’t retarded.”

            The Owner series is pretty high handed in its population bomb scare tactics.

          4. The worst of the worst has to be Kim Stanley Robertson with William Gibson coming in at a close second.

            Greg Egan is pretty good. But mostly because he tends to avoid anything political and just deals with weird possibilities in regards to theoretical physics and the fact that he is not known enough to develop a cult.

            Neal Stephenson isn’t retarded though he has moved away from sci fi.

          5. Oh and Vernor Vinge isn’t retarded either.

        3. SF/F writers appear to be the worst of the bunch. Or maybe its just that the business of being a successful SF/F writer demands so much contact with their audience that their opinions are more widely sought and distributed. I mean, I’m sure Usrula has never gone from convention to convention to hock her product like a TV salesman trying to get stores to carry her line.

          1. It’s interesting how so many of them use futuristic scenarios to remove economics from the picture in their stories. Even when they don’t (Morgan, especially), they often still treat trade/commerce with disdain.

            You know who doesn’t do that? Peter Hamilton. Economics and trade are always a normal feature in his works (at least all that I’ve read of his).

            1. I stopped reading science fiction because I simply couldn’t stand the absurdity of future worlds that made zero economic sense. Societies based on slaves and government eventually reach a technological dead end and vanish rather than advance. I don’t even require the writers to be libertarian, just not ignorant of human development. I’m sure there are one or two SF writers without such disease, but it’s too late for me to care anymore.

            2. Also, David Weber. Anytime the idea of a Basic Income Guarantee starts to sound like a not-completely-retarded idea, I read the first couple of chapters of On Basilisk Station and the feeling goes away.

  6. the authors of speculative fiction like LeGuin

    ALL FICTION IS SPECULATIVE

  7. I AM AN ARTIST, TREAT ME WITH RESPECT

    egotistical bitch

    1. where’s the damn edit button? a better reading would have been

      I AM AN ARTIST, HONOR ME

  8. The Left Hand of Darkness is what my penis calls my offhand.

  9. Why does the left hate the concept of commoditizing? I thought getting the highest number of goods to the most people was a good thing.

    1. It’s all ego. They’re IMPORTANT. They UNDERSTAND.

      1. Right. Leftism is elitism at its core.

        “How dare the hoi polloi get access to my materials without paying MY “freedom premium”!

  10. And writers should demand their fair share of the proceeds from their work.

    “The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

    So which is it? Proceeds or freedom? Proceeds of freedom?

  11. So Amazon is the “profiteer”? The party that wanted to sell things for less?

    1. According to LeGuin and her ilk, one is a “profiteer” if one makes money a certain way that LeGuin and her ilk don’t like. But if one does in a way they approve, well then, one fights for “freedom.”

      Those dying strains of hypocritical Marxism never seem to die.

      1. They have to be hyocritical to survive. Other wise you end up as North Korea where no one can buy sell of write really anything let alone Sci Fi novels.

    2. Who continues to operate at a loss to deliver more goods to more people for lower prices.

      1. Which drives home my point that this is all about ego. Does she complain about all those people who borrow her books from the library?

        She objects because Amazon tells her what her product is worth.

        1. I’m pretty sure that when I first read Left Hand of Darkness the cover price was 95 cents or so. Who’s profiteering here, now?

    3. Yes, they are evil for providing more affordable books.

  12. What is I wish to be free to profit?

    1. What if*

  13. I’m pretty sure that Ursula Le Guin has been a batty feminist communist utopian since she started writing. While there are libertarian types in SciFi, most are over in Baen either publishing their nth space opera or thinly-disguised sword-and-sandal epics. I’d say that most contemporary sci-fi is safely nestled between hardcore militant communism and relatively softer socialism.

    1. I usually don’t assume that the societies they portray necessarily reflect the authors’ politics (though I’m sure it often does). Speculative fiction should be about what is likely to happen, or what might happen and not necessarily about what the author would like to have happen. Sadly, something between hard core communism and soft-socialism probably is the likely future of humanity, as much as I’d like to believe that it is not.

      Frank Herbert is a good example of someone who is pretty clearly not inventing the world that he thinks should exist, but speculating about what might happen in a far distant future.

      1. Frank Herbert isn’t speculating. Dune is just The Middle East in space.

        1. Actually I think Dune is supposed to be Earth.

  14. Years ago, I read The Lathe of Heaven and liked it. Ron’s article made me curious to read The Left Hand of Darkness. I just checked Amazon and it isn’t available on Kindle. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to live without reading that. But, I may check out the Earthsea books.

    1. I’m surprised it’s not available as an e-book. You should easily be able to find a second hand copy. TLHoD is well worth tracking down, its a really great SF novel, one of the best.

      1. one of the best.

        Unless it’s about multi-dimensional Lovecraftian horrors from the cold vastness of space, I don’t want to hear that shite.

      2. I was also pretty surprised. They had almost everything else from le Guin on Kindle. May just be an issue with the original publisher. I may still look for the book.

        But it also highlights the point of how those evil profiteers at Amazon can make a book so readily accessible to someone who is curious.

        Yeah, I’m sure that there are still plenty of literary types who decry reading from anything but a “real” book. Meanwhile, my carry-on luggage disagrees.

    2. The Earthsea books are good, but are fantasy not SciFi. I read them as a teenager and found them boring, like Willa Cather boring.

      1. Thanks for the heads-up.

  15. The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

    “You can have capitalism without freedom, but you cannot have freedom without capitalism”

  16. I suggest Ms. LeGuin start her own publishing house and distribution channels so that she can battle the commodity profiteers.

    She can write her stories out by hand and sell them at Renaissance Fayres. That should save her from any unpleasant emotional anguish caused by profits.

  17. Other brilliance from Ms. LeGuin

    Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further development.

    Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain’t no free rides, baby.

    1. “16k ought to be enough for anybody.” — Ursula K LeGuin

  18. So, anybody read any good sci-fi lately?

    The Lost Starship was okay, but nothing magical.

    Fluency, on the other hand was excellent. Ms. Wells is going to be a star one day.

    1. I’m reading Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy right now. It’s pretty good. Hamilton is a very competent writer, with flashes of brilliance. And he can write a battle scene like nobody’s business.

    2. Currently reading Pavane, its an old novel but so far is matching its critical reputation.

    3. Just finished Brin’s Existence. The ideas were interesting and he did a brilliant job of incorporating existing technology paths into the book, however there were dropped plotlines everywhere and huge timeline gaps that made it difficult to read.

      It would have been better as a compendium of novellas.

      1. I haven’t picked up a Brin book since Heaven’s Reach, and considering my handle, that’s saying something. He was really going down a path of suck. Has that reversed?

        1. I’d say Existence is worth it for the ideas. Certain portions of it were well-done, but as I said above, would have been better as a stand-alone novella. Actually, I think some of the book has been published before as short stories.

          It’s mainly a vehicle for his views on positive sum games.

    4. My backlog is getting out of hand. Finished The Terror, and just started Martin Martin’s On The Other Side.

    5. I’m still stuck on Weber’s space opera myself. I finally caught up with the series, and find myself checking Amazon to see when the next bit will come out.

    6. Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts were great, if sort of grimdark – Watts doesn’t do happy endings. Happy anything, really.

  19. writers should demand their fair share of the proceeds from their work.

    “Fair” share? sighs, shakes head.

    1. I loved The Probability Broach .

  20. It should also be noted that just earlier this year Hatchette had to pay the DOJ millions of dollars to settle charges of colluding to fix prices. This whole anti-Amazon campaign has basically been an attempt to obtain the exact same concessions via other means.

    1. That is interesting.

  21. And no one has done more than Amazon to make it easier for unknown writers to get into print (e-print?) AND larger royalty payments.

    1. That’s the real reason established media personalities are all taking Hatchette’s side. Hatchetter acts as a gatekeeper; by limiting new authors abilities to get into the market, the existing authors can charge monopoly rents for their work.

      1. Exactly, publishers know the logical terminus of this development…your services are no longer required.

        1. If you think about it, the only reason publishers needed to exist as they have is that books used to be difficult and expensive to mass produce. Owning the press was a big deal. Now anyone can get a nice looking book made in any quantity for not much money. Of course publishers provide other services to authors too, but there is no need for those to all be provided by the same people who print and distribute books.

          1. Again, their primary function now is as a gatekeeper. Determining which authors get widely exposed to the public. Who goes on Oprah, The Daily Show, etc. You think it’s conincidence that ever since Colbert got a cushy Hatchette publishing contract, all their big authors show up on The Colbert Report?

      2. Which is pretty understandable, especially among authors who managed to make a good living at it in the past. It seems to be getting harder to make a good living writing books. But tough shit for them. Things change. It’s hard to make a good living doing lots of things that used to be economically viable. And people aren’t going to stop writing.

  22. I guess this means another entry on my list of artists who’s work I enjoy, but whom I’d never want to meet because they seem like complete assholes as people.

  23. BTW, my favorite Ursula K. LeGruin story is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.

    1. That story is widely beloved, and I can’t understand why, because the premise is completely implausible. You’re just supposed to take for granted that there’s some causal relationship between the cruelty to the child and the happiness of everyone else.

      I think it was dissected along those lines in a recent Prometheus newsletter.

      1. It’s a Reducto ad aburdum. It’s taking utilitarian thinking to it’s logical extreme (utopia for everyone except one person who is completely miserable) and showing how monstrous the logic is.

        1. I get what she was trying to do. I’m saying the premise was lazy.

          Compare to “The Lottery”, which is similar. At least in that story there is some connection between actions and consequences. There’s a reason they select a person at random to brutalize. Even if it’s not realistic, at least it makes sense in-universe.

          “Omelas” doesn’t even make sense in-universe.

  24. Who the hell reads fiction at all?
    1) Real life is far more bizarre than anything some hack could cook up on their own.
    2) Everything has already been done before.
    3) Fiction is just a zillion words used to attempt to influence your thinking when a simple order would suffice. I mean, I don’t have to read 1,000 pages of Dickens to know that child labor is bad, m’kay?

  25. What if the freedom she refers to is the freedom of the creator? The freedom to price their work as they see fit, after which the customer is free to buy it or not? As opposed to the freedom of companies like Amazon to commodify her product for their own purposes. Who should be the one to make such decisions: the author or the middleman?

    The long tail is a joke and “if books are cheaper, authors are likely to attract more readers” will certainly work. Just as it worked with Spotify, with artists seeing their income cut to a fraction, nevermind the volume sold. Just as it worked with the AppStore, with the perception of the value of software pushed down to 0.99 or free (or with scammy IAP as the only option left), with the average developer making next to nothing.

    Of course we are always told the success stories, the amazing revenue generated by the few top apps, or the few top songs, or the few top books. But the problem is, that while before a content creator could make a decent living by making a niche product for a niche audience, these days the race to the bottom is slowly but surely destroying that option. The volume just isn’t there at the kind of prices the commodifiers demand. “Lower the price to sell more” is being marketed as some sort of “everyone wins” deal, but look who’s telling it: Amazon, Spotify, Apple, Google, Steam etc. It’s always the companies whose real profit comes from being the gatekeeper to their own marketplace such as Kindle.

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