Some Thoughts on the Writer as Artist
In the year 2015, are writers and publishers better off than in 1915? You are probably thinking of course they are. And in most regards I would agree. But maybe not everyone would. This last November, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2014 National Book Awards. The message of Le Guin’s award acceptance speech was driven home with her last two sentences:
“We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.” (1)
Le Guin was referring to the freedom for a writer to be an artist. The fact that a writer should have the freedom to be able to write whatever they want without any type of influence or interference from others. Especially others that are more concerned with as Le Guin perfectly expressed it in that same speech “maximizing corporate profit and advertising revenue.”
Le Guin was (unknowingly?) echoing Ezra Pound’s words of nearly a century earlier, when in a letter to Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe, he wrote the highlighted words below (2):
Reading Pound’s letters regarding the state of poetry and publishing during the first two decades of the twentieth century, it becomes very clear that he felt there was a certain type of writing that was being accepted by the major magazines and publishers at that time. And unfortunately for him, it was not the kind of writing he and his select contemporaries were doing. Just like today, the main reason that commercial magazines publish very little poetry and are very selective about what they publish is because they are mainly concerned with their bottom line and correctly so.
As mentioned in a previous column, the story of commercial publishing is one of cottage industry to public corporation to giant conglomerates “in order to survive financially” and it is specifically that which Le Guin is referring to in her speech. She references the Hachette/Amazon conflict that was going on at the time of her speech as well as the lesser known problem of availability/pricing of ebooks when sold to libraries that is still going on with regards to many publishers. A hundred years ago, when Pound was in the midst of his career, he may not have had to deal with giant conglomerates owning publishers or even think about how ebooks should be disseminated, but he did bemoan the limited opportunities that magazines and publishers of the day gave to published poetry that did not fit within a certain mold.
So what happened around 1915? The same thing that has been happening since – some people that cared so much about what Pound and his contemporaries were doing decided that more people should know about it and read it and made that their mission. When magazines such as the Little Review, BLAST and Poetry were started, it was with the intent of publishing new and innovative writing. Writing that was different as compared to much of the previously published writing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similar to what Tyrant Books, or magazines like Shabby Doll House and Covered with Fur, or websites like Real Pants and Entropy are doing today. These are all places, these are all publishers that support the writer as an artist. In the world of independent small press publishing at least, one finds that the norm rather than the exception.
1 = Retrieved from Ursela Le Guin’s personal website, 01/20/2015.
2 = The Letters of Ezra Pound, edited by D.D. Paige, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950. p. 10. But the image shown here is from the New Directions 4th edition reprint titled Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, copyright 1971.