The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters is one of the most prestigious literary honours. It was created in 1988 to recognise a lifetime of literary achievement. The 2014 winner of the award is the American writer Ursula K Le Guin, introduced by Neil Gaiman as a writer who “made me a better writer and much more importantly, she made me a better person who wrote”.
Her acceptance speech at National Book Awards deeply moved and surprised the audience. By saying what many are feeling and fearing, Le Guin showed a rare – beautifully rare - wit, strength and genuine passion.
The author started her speech in a traditional way, by thanking her family, her agents and editors. Immediately after, the first dry and rather cutting remark on how non-realist writers have been excluded from these types of awards for too long.
"And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all writers who've been excluded from literature for so long - my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists"
From then onwards, the tones changed and the speech went beyond conventional boundaries, because Le Guin began to attack – and she attacked bravely and accurately.
In fact, the 85-year-old fantasy novelist slammed publishers –including her own - for putting profit before #Art. What she intelligently pointed at is “the difference between production of a market commodity and the practise of art”. The editorial industry seemed to have forgotten that books cannot be sold like deodorants. Behind a book there is a story, a voice, a thought, an author. Behind and beyond books and culture on the whole there should always be freedom.
Whilst lashing out at publishers who overcharge libraries for their books, Le Guins also sharply criticized our contemporary society.
“Hard times are coming” she predicted “when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality”
Concluding with a valedictory message, she said “I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river”
With this short yet intense speech, Le Guin once again demonstrated that she is not only an incredible writer who transcends genres but also and more importantly a courageous woman who – at the age of 85 – still has much to say and teach us.
As a writer and reader myself, I thank Le Guin for her works and inspirational speech.
As a person, I believe we all should thank Le Guin for
reminding us that “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings”.