DeFlip Side #154: Le Guin’s Beautiful Reward

DeFlip Side #154

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And talk about book geek Nirvana.

Last week, Neil Gaiman, a relatively new favorite author of mine, took the stage to help celebrate Ursula K. Le Guin—one of my favorite authors of all time, and the writer of my favorite book.

Le Guin was in New York City to receive the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, as part of the larger National Book Awards, bestowed annually by the National Book Foundation.

Now I don’t usually hold much stock in the book foundation’s choices, because in my experience they champion the kind of depressive, wallowing mainstream fiction that I simply cannot abide. But instead of ranting about that, let me just say that I was stunned that a Science Fiction visionary like Le Guin even made it onto their self-satisfied, elitist radar.

And what’s more, they tapped another genre giant, Neil Gaiman, to present the award. Gaiman is one of the most popular authors in the world, and a genre-shaping literary force in his own right. But he was suitably humble in the presence of Le Guin, as he recounted the transformative role Le Guin’s work played in his life:

“I bought, with my own money, a copy of a book called A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 11. And I read it. And I discovered from that book that obviously, going to wizard school was the best thing anybody could ever do… And I bought the rest of those books as they appeared and now I was completely hooked.”

Gaiman’s heartfelt recollection hits home, because I discovered A Wizard of Earthsea at roughly the same age, and was affected by it just as profoundly. As with Gaiman, it’s what hooked me on genre fiction, never to look back. And I still find myself irrevocably and happily snared by Le Guin’s nuance and thought-provoking voice.

Even in a writing field crammed with visionaries, Le Guin’s work stands out as exceptional—mainly because her fantastic worlds are so grounded in emotional truth—whether those emotions come from an arrogant boy wizard on Roke or a sex-shifting alien on Gethen. Her observations are unique yet universal.

And that truth—that gentle yet relentless focus—was on grand display as she accepted her award. First she took an affable swipe at the historic ghettoization of genre fiction perpetuated by mainstream organizations like The National Book Foundation:

“I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of Fantasy and Science Fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called realists.”

But this wryness took a more serious turn, as Le Guin expressed the need for more such authors, and turned her parsing gaze on the book industry as a whole:

“We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

And I just love that she doesn’t let authors off the hook either:

“And I see a lot of us… who write the books… accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.”

Finally she brings it all back to the importance of ideas, specifically the kinds of probing, transformative ideas that are in the traditional province of genre authors:

“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings… Resistance and change often begin… in our art—the art of words.

“I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing… want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

Freedom. It’s the perfect place for Le Guin to wind up. Because even though she’s 100 percent right about the woefully mercenary state of the publishing industry, it’s nothing new. But what is new is the freedom authors today have to circumvent the industry entirely.

Thanks to open e-publishing platforms like Amazon—one of the so-called commodity profiteers that Le Guin is lambasting—authors have more freedom than ever to write and try to sell whatever they want directly to readers, and let that same market that has so co-opted publishing be the arbiter of their success.

And I’m going to use myself as an example. As an author I’ve had success using the traditional model, pitching my stories to editors who’ve decided to pay me for them and publish my work. But I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t want to be hassled by a bunch of arbitrary gatekeepers who are judging my work based solely on whether they can commoditize it to fit their business model du jour. I know my writing is up to professional standards. I don’t need their validation.

So rather than go through the nonsense, I’ve decided to just put some of my work out there to sink or swim on its own. I’ve taken advantage of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform to release a new novella called “The Seeker,” which is equal parts Science Fiction, Horror and Dark Fantasy, and not so easily classified by—or sold to—traditional publishers. Yet it deals with ideas that are more ambitious than anything I’ve ever written. You can find a link to “The Seeker” here on the website. If it finds readers, I’ll publish more stories set in the same universe.

Make no mistakes; I haven’t given up on traditional publishing and I certainly have trepidations about e-publishing. It’s a scary leap for someone who has aspired to write traditional books his whole life. Despite the handful of authors who you hear about finding wild success using this new model, odds are that my work will be lost on the vast heap of unreadable prose dumped onto the digital landscape by countless well-meaning people who simply can’t write. But honestly, how is that any different than having a bound copy of the same story sitting on a shelf next to the likes of Danielle Steele or John Grisham?

So I’m choosing to embrace this new freedom, that “beautiful reward” that Le Guin so eloquently spoke about: the freedom to let my stories and ideas speak for themselves. Perhaps, in the process, they’ll speak to others.

And just like that Ursula K. Le Guin has once again utterly transformed my literary landscape—only this time as a writer. Which turns out to be another thing about Le Guin that Neil Gaiman and I share. As he said during the ceremony:

“She raised my consciousness… She made me a better writer. And I think much more importantly, she made me a much better person who wrote.”

Well, she’s certainly done the same for me, Neil. And it’s nice to be in such good company.