In chapter 120 of the Chinese classic, Wen-Tzu’s Book of Pervading Mystery (通玄真經), we read: “If they are valued for what is valuable about them, then all things are valuable. If they are despised for what is worthless about them, then all things are worthless.”1
So when Ursula K. Le Guin recently quipped at the National Book Awards, “I see a lot of us, the producers accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant,” one has to wonder how enthusiastic that crammed room full of applauding deodorant slanderers would have been had none of them been wearing deodorant.
And, the remark stank beyond its implied dismissal of products engineered to overcome human body odor.
First, Le Guin’s statement is factually incorrect, and her use of “producers” is key to understanding why. Writers aren’t being sold like deodorant. Writers’ products are being sold like deodorant.
And, let’s be honest about the rhetorical purpose of this red herring. “Letting commodity profiteers sell our books like deodorant” is a less powerful indictment for a reason: it doesn’t invoke the property ethic of chattel slavery the way “sell us like deodorant” does.
Deodorant is not just deodorant and literature is not always Literature
Second, as my philosophical introduction argues, the relative worthlessness of deodorant is an ignorant prejudice, because there is no possible product that cannot be either reduced to its commodity status or elevated to its social virtue. Books and deodorant included.
If you sneer at that equivalency, I invite you first to tilt your nose back down to some semblance of decent humility. Then, I invite you to stop bathing and see how many people want to discuss the value of literature with you, how many people care to hear about the book you just wrote or read while waving the stench of your unwashed flesh from their faces.
All of the literary virtue in the world comes to nothing if you can’t get anyone to pay attention to it because you stink.
As the Buddha would say, all things are contingent. Or, as we read in Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season. Literature and deodorant both have their roles, and I guarantee you that deodorant does more for the spread of literature than literature does for the suppression of BO.
For Le Guin to use deodorant in a pejorative fashion is just plain wrong-headed, just as it was wrong-headed for her to make a pejorative reference to Islamic fatwas, which are simply rulings that often accomplish things as mundane as telling Muslims they won’t go to Hell if they drink Coca Cola.
Of course, some may protest that manufactured products, like deodorants, might be seen as having social virtue, but also often contain Very Bad Things. For example, Coca Cola is an American cultural icon, but it also contains enough high-fructose corn syrup to give a rhinoceros Type 2 diabetes. (So, they might want to rethink that fatwa.)
Point taken. However … some books, which the literati are prone to appreciate only in their social virtue, also might be bad for you. When they spread falsehoods, hate, etc. books can also be viewed as toxic sources of Very Bad Things in society, just like any other product.
Or, just like any National Book Awards speech about two types of product. The equivalency stands. If you look at books or deodorants as mere commodities, they’re commodities. If you look at them only for their social virtue, both have social virtue. And, if you look at books or deodorant only for their dangers, they can both be dangerous.
And, really, do the chemical engineers who are themselves the producers of deodorant deserve to be denigrated this way? After all, they dedicate years to learning a science that few of us writers could wrap our minds around, and their products also enrich people’s lives in subtle and intangible ways, just as books do.
When I heard Le Guin’s flippant insult (not to mention her cringe-worthy deployment of “fatwa” as an emblem of oppression) I was embarrassed and ashamed of my fellow writers for applauding such brazen and small-minded professional chauvinism.
And, it is particularly sad to see Le Guin engage in this sort of nastiness since she has so famously championed ethnic diversity in a fantasy genre traditionally dominated by Euro-tropes, and championed “genre” writing against the literary chauvinism of the academic elite. Shame on her.
True art cannot be chauvinist
Now, some might be surprised that I would bristle at Le Guin’s dismissive attitude toward deodorant in defense of books, considering that I am a writer, an editor, and an avid reader, and not a deodorant manufacturer.
But, as art, true literature is about the world, not about itself—except insofar as any self-reference is used not for literary chauvinism or glamorization, but to knock the art-form, its perpetrators, and its paraphernalia off any elitist pedestal onto which it has been unduly elevated.
I’ve quoted mystics in this rant for a reason. Art is like mysticism in that its proper purpose is to illuminate reality, but it blows out its own candle when it begins to huff in self-importance. Art is like a pair of eye-glasses, in that the real point should not be to bring attention to the eye-glasses, but to bring focus to the world beyond the eye-glasses. The discipline of genuine art, and therefore genuine literature, is Meister Eckhart’s “leaving God for God” or Linji Yixuan’s “kill the Buddha for enlightenment.”
Literature is at its best when it looks outward, with a clear and appreciative eye. It certainly doesn’t thrive on jeering dismissals of all things not Lit-rah-CHAH! *swirls hand dramatically in a manic pantomime of the literary braggart*
Ostentation is the suicide of art, and Le Guin’s polemic was saturated with literary ostentation. When the literati start insulting non-literature in defense of literature, literature is no longer really what’s going on. Cheap tribalism is.
1 I’m using Thomas Cleary’s translation, which he simply calls Wen Tzu. I use “book” in the context of that word’s use in English as a generic term for scripture—as in The Book of Genesis or The Book of Mormon—to translate that characters that others have translated as the rather redundant “authentic scripture.” (Name a scripture that isn’t called “scripture” because someone considers it authentic.)