The Beautiful Reward
- Alice Stephens
- December 3, 2014
At its core, writing is about power, not profit
Talk about post-Thanksgiving letdown. My older child has returned to college after an all-too-brief visit, my younger has a nasty case of strep, my guts are traumatized from all that crisp turkey skin I couldn't stop hoovering up, and, in about 24 hours, this column needs to be submitted for editing.
I briefly pondered just transcribing Ursula Le Guin's powerful and thought-provoking "Beautiful Reward" speech delivered upon receiving the National Book Award's 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, but that would be a shameful dereliction of my bloggerly duties.
The least profit-driven holiday of the American calendar, Thanksgiving Day has been hijacked by the corporation-dominated holiday gift-giving season, turning it from a celebration of family, solidarity, and gut-busting gluttony into a bloated glut of advertising-driven football games and door-busting consumerist frenzies.
Le Guin's wisdom resonates.
Driving past the line snaking around our local Best Buy at 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, I recalled her saying, "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings."
When I read about a children's book written by Bruce Springsteen, I remembered her words: "We need writers who know the difference between the 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."
I think about people I know who have written thoughtful, wonderful, and appropriate books for children that build language, reading, and life skills, but who can't find a publisher. Meanwhile, a book about a murderous baby, whose author admitted wasn't entirely suitable for children, gets a sweet deal from Simon & Schuster.
(Okay, I don't know what kind of a deal Springsteen got, but the prime publication date indicates that S&S expects it to be a "popular holiday" item.)
Just what marketing niche does a 56-page illustrated book — about a sociopathic toddler — with no more than a dozen words per page fall into? Slap it with the label "adult picture book," get the rock star — sorry, author — to give out a few interviews, and shelve it under market-commodity-and-irresponsible-book-publishing.
(It is a serendipitous irony that Ms. Le Guin took the phrase "Beautiful Reward" from a Springsteen song off the "Lucky Town" album, "as a tribute to a great artist whose work I love.")
As I welcomed my son home for his first Thanksgiving break from college, I thought about the parents of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Edmund Perry, and countless others who would never marvel, as I did, at how their child has grown in just a few months away from home. I heard Le Guin's clarion call, "We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality."
We need writers who are brave enough to look beyond the televised "facts" to the underlying issues, to the questions of who and what is valued in this society, revealing the falsehoods and convenient myths that the powerful employ to maintain the status quo. We need publishers with the courage to publish books written by foreigners, minorities, and the marginalized, no matter the marketing challenge.
Le Guin exhorted us to "see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being." Just a few weeks ago, the media and politicians were irresponsibly sowing panic about Ebola. Suddenly, even though a scant few were stricken with the disease in a country of 316 million people, every sick person was under suspicion.
We have been made so afraid for our safety that a SWAT team — with weapons drawn — can be deployed on the streets as kids come home from school (as happened two years ago in my neighborhood), and children must endure lockdown drills as part of their education.
Government and corporate surveillance is rampant, and the few voices counseling caution are ignored by a general public intent on buying the latest iPhone and getting faster delivery from Amazon. The freedom offered to us by the Internet and mobile devices has turned into a virtual Panopticon as we are stripped of our privacy, spied upon, every click of the mouse tracked. Big business is watching you.
But all is not hopeless. In this country, at least, we have a voice, and we should use it. Le Guin reminds us that "any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words."
The power of words is especially apparent during Thanksgiving, when my extended family gathers together to celebrate with open hearts, good cheer, abundant food, and conversation. In exchanging words, we provoke, learn, laugh, reminisce, and grow closer.
I will never achieve the literary heights or receive the awards that Ursula Le Guin has, but I know I am no less fortunate than she. Through the power and art of words, I have my beautiful reward: pursuing the craft of writing without having to sacrifice anything but time. Le Guin's wisdom spurs me on: "The name of our beautiful reward is not profit, its name is freedom."
[Ursula Le Guin photo copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch.]