Posted Monday night, April 30, 2018.
Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem whom Ursula LeGuin described as “a difficult, arrogant, sometimes insufferable man but a courageous one”. LeGuin once turned down the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award in protest of the SFWA’s unjust treatment of Lem. She appreciated the irony of what followed and wrote about it in an essay titled “A Much-Needed Literary Award”. Photo courtesy of Anthology Film Archives via the Village Voice.
My dead writer friend---dead before she became a friend---Ursula LeGuin was amused to discover there was a literary prize given to writers who had turned down other more notable and prestigious literary prizes for a principle. The prize was named after the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who’d famously turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature for reasons only a philosopher could truly fathom and it was called with elegant simplicity and straight-to-the-pointedness The Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal. LeGuin coveted the award but to win it you had to be offered a prize that it would have been against your principles to accept, which is not in your control. The opportunity to be considered for the Sartre prize did come her way but to her cheerful regret before the Sartre Prize existed:
I refused a prize once. My reasons were mingier than Sartre’s, though not entirely unrelated. It was the coldest, insanest days of the Cold War, when even the little planet Essoff was politically divided against itself. My novelette The Diary of the Rose was awarded the Nebula Prize by the Science Fiction Writers of America. At about the same time, the same organization deprived the Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem of his honorary membership. There was a sizable contingent of Cold Warrior members who felt that a man who lived behind the iron curtain and was rude about American science fiction must be a commie rat who no business in the SFWA. They invoked a technicality to deprive him of his membership and insisted on applying it. Lem was a difficult, arrogant, sometimes insufferable man, but a courageous one and a first-rate author, writing with more independence of mind than would seem possible in Poland under the Soviet regime. I was very angry of the injustice of the crass and petty insult offered him by the SFWA. I dropped my membership and, feeling it would be shameless to accept an award for a story about political intolerance from a group that had just displayed political intolerance, took my entry out of Nebula competition shortly before the winners were to be announced. The SFWA called me to plead with me not to withdraw it, since it had, in fact, won. I couldn’t to that. So---with the perfect irony that awaits anybody who strikes a noble pose on high moral ground---my award went to the runner-up: Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors.
---Ursula K. LeGuin, from “A Much-Needed Literary Award”.