Ursula LeGuin made this speech last night at the National Book Awards, where she was honored. A wise woman who has looked at the way "powers and principalities" work for most of her life, LeGuin spoke about both the need for writers who can envision a different and better reality, and about the current dangers of writing-as-commodity. Her speech was not long, but wisdom doesn't need many words. She said, in part:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. 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.
I've been talking about these things -- the role of the writer in current affairs -- recently with my friends T.C. and Parmanu, and I'm ashamed to admit that my attitude has been more discouraged and even cynical than it should be. In the face of the powers "we the people" are confronting today, it is very hard to see how the voices of writers and artists can create real change. The deteriorating, intractable situation in the Middle East, in particular, along with recent elections and the political leadership in much of the western world, have made me feel even less empowered than usual. But I should know better: that's not the point, as I know deep down, and have said before. Art needs to express the truth, but it also needs to point toward something better: to keep hope alive. The Russian and Eastern European poets who've always inspired me knew this very well; so have many of the writers and artists of Latin America. Emerging voices of women and oppressed minorities from around the world are beginning to be heard through literature, art, photography -- but what about here, in North America?
Part of the problem for me, I've come to realize, is being a white privileged American: who wants to listen to us? And what, exactly, do we have to say? But here is LeGuin, instantly making that point, simply telling the truth not with bombast, but with the quiet authority gained not only through her long career, but her long human life observing the ways of the world. As the western world changes in so many ways for the worse, it's incumbent on those of us who've seen that change to speak about it, to express what we are observing, and what's in danger. But I'm not convinced this response has to be done in a negative or overtly critical way; it's also possible to write or make art that simply shows a different reality, a different way of being. I know I've been marking time, a bit, in my own work -- and that's OK, we need to do that sometimes. But eventually, hopefully, we find the way to move forward and express something true and meaningful. I'm grateful for my younger writer-friends who are more idealistic, perhaps, and push me to look beyond my own discouragement -- to dig deeper.
Last night I read a few short stories by the Chinese dissident writer and painter Gao Xingjian. I've never read his work, though he won the Nobel in 2000. Because of his criticism of the government, everything he has written is banned in China; he lives in Paris and is now 74 years old. The stories I read, from his collection "Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather," were a revelation. In just a few words, he conveys everything he wants to say: the story of a newlywed couple climbing up a hill to see a rural temple becomes weighted with enormous anxiety that we realize is the result of his past years in "reeducation" farm work - something Gao himself endured. But this is conveyed in a simple vignette, mainly through dialogue.
It's in almost direct contrast to the lengthy, description-rich work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I've just read finished the massive recent biography of Marquez, and re-read Love in the Time of Cholera and am halfway through a re-reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude:a book filled with protest but also so rich with humanity and truth abotu power that it spoke not only to a whole continent, but to human beings everywhere.
It's not given to most of us to be like these three writers, but we all have our part to play. I know that as an artist, a publisher, and a person, I can hide my light under a bushel, or sell out to commerce, or continually nurture the light shining within myself, for my sake and that of others. It's really my choice.
But what do you think? Do you think art can make a difference?