Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin on the State of Reading

This month's Harpers magazine features a guest essay by none other than author Ursula K. Le Guin. Her essay is full of wonderful quotable lines. Her assessment that the large publishers and book chains treat book like "junk" is quite right. I would go so far as to say that the industry treats everyone directly connected with books like so much trash: authors, booksellers, editors, etc. Books are widgets and cogs to them. The idea that they are art is some misty-eyed dream that makes little sense to them. That's is the heart of the problem. There are too many books around -- not titles -- books. They are pumped out like corn-filler and then trashed the moment they are deemed not a bestseller, usually a few weeks after publication.

From Harpers magazine by Ursula K. Le Guin:
"Staying awake" —

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain bookstores is their assumption that books are inherently worthless.

One problem that I have with the essay is the complacency that Le Guin seems to have towards the backwards direction of reading. There is a "oh well" attitude that I find a bit disgusting. Keep in mind that Ursula K. Le Guin is a great hero of mine. I've read the "Left Hand of Darkness" maybe four times over and will probably read it again. I think that it one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. So it pains me to be critical of the Ursula K. Le Guin, but this is the point of this blog. I'm here as a bookseller trying to sound the alarm that something is really wrong with the state of reading and it is not okay. As a futurist, which I would categorize Le Guin as being, she should, as we all, be looking towards the future. One should hope (and work) towards a future that is better than today and yesterday. To say that in past centuries people didn't read, so if we go back to that type of situation it is okay, is not going to cut it. The future depends on an educated, thinking, READING, population.

Although I disagree with some of her points, I still highly recommend picking up the magazine and reading the essay.


penandspindle said...

Jenn, this is why I enjoy your blog so much, and why I return. You care about the fundamentals. I truly admire that.

jenn said...

Thanks! But sometimes I get too riled up about the topic too. I commented on the NYTimes site when they wrote on the Le Guin's Harper essay and I may have sounded a little like a crank!

Scrypt said...

LeGuin's point is not that individuals who work for corporate publishers are all the same. It is that the corporate mergers which inhaled mainstream publishing expect the same profit margin as other media, which book publishing has never had. In the past, books were published by mainstream houses because editors and publishers considered them *inherently* valuable -- profitability meant that the publisher made 6% generally and allowed for certain "important" books losing money. Le Guin laments the passing of that mandate in mainstream publishing, not the absence of taste or ethics in individual editors.

Newspapers are suffering from the same newly imposed model, and so is intellectual/political diversity. Which is why a major demonstration in North America (in turnout) now receives little to no coverage if the opinions and population it represents pose a significant threat to corporate ideological homogeneity.

The internet is the one medium that now allows for the uncompromising diversity publishers gave us originally. The problem is the *relative* impermanence of what is published and the lack of validation and attention its authors often receive. The question is whether regime-manipulated populism should be the last word in literary evolution, and whether a little-known genius who deserves our full attention should become another anonymous graffiti artist on a huge and endless wall.

Scrypt said...

One last point:

Corporate profitability goes beyond the profitability of individual books and addresses the ultimate lack of profitability in counter-corporate representation becoming too visible. That's why the huge group of people who supported Gore in the Bush/Gore election, and who composed the largest number of voters, didn't see proportional representation in books and media expressing their point of view for a long time after that election **despite the profitability of that very large demographic**. Many publishers were simply unwilling to risk informing the public they were not alone.

LeGuin isn't saying book publishing is unimportant. She is saying it is far more important than corporate interests, which is why independent publishing needs and deserves our full support.

jenn said...

Script, a point on your point, independent publishing AND INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLING needs and deserves our full support. It makes no sense to me that independent publishering that depends on corporate bookselling is a good model for making an informed public.

Scrypt said...

There we agree.

From Lower East Side Books, Bridge Books and Coliseum Books in New York City to Looking Glass Books in Portland, Oregon, the closing of independent bookstores always wounds and disillusions. I give my support despite feeling like a nurse in the terminal ward. Yet if everyone supported them, our terminal stores and sellers would recover and never be replaced by vapid chains.

Post a Comment