“To Hell With It”

Ursula K. Le Guin and Her Place in the Literary Scene


This past September, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a health update on her blog, informing her readers that her congenital heart defect was “exacting its toll.” She spent some time in the hospital and returned home to rest, apologizing for the silence on her blog. Readers and fans were invited to share comments on bookviewcafe.com, a cooperative publisher that Ursula helped start.  

“Beautiful Ursula,” one writes. “You have given so much — books! whole worlds! — it’s funny to pay $5 or $10 for a book and get a universe in return — and I understand you can’t receive presents from a bunch of fans but still, thank you.”

Another says, “…Reading your work is so inspiring, not just in sparking the ambition to also pursue writing, but in thinking about things. And by things I mean thinking about people, about relationships, about who and what we are in the time and place we are.

“I love your work. I think you are a gift to humankind…”

Another: “I think you are a national treasure.”

One more: “My world is a better place for knowing that you are in it.”

The fantasy and science-fiction scholar Brian Attebery says, “Every writer I know who talks about Ursula talks about a sense of having been invited or empowered to do something.”

This is the woman we’re here to discuss.

Ursula was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. She grew up in a house full of stories and history. Her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, was an influential cultural anthropologist, who moved west in 1900 to do field work among the Indian tribes of Northern California. In her recent New Yorker article on Le Guin, Julie Phillips writes, “At a time when the dominant story of America was one of European conquest, Ursula was aware, through her farther and his Indian friends who came to the house, that there were other stories to tell and other judgments that might be made.”

Ursula has never gone in for the mainstream.

She doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for dichotomies and strict classification, either.

Rather, Ursula explores the edges and margins, the pieces without definition. In her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (which, by the way, earned her a Hugo and a Nebula award, arguably the most prestigious awards in science fiction), Le Guin places a man named Genly Ai on the planet Gethen. Ai is from a future version of Earth; the inhabitants of the planet Gethen are neither male nor female, but follow a cycle that allows them to become either for a few days a month. This permanent male from Earth is considered a “pervert” in this new world. By exploring the other, Le Guin gives insight into the self. “Like all great writers of fiction,” writes The Boston Globe, “Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own.” She shows us what we are not, and then tells us that we’re wrong—that thing over there you find so appalling and unknown? It’s you.

She does this beautifully at the close of A Wizard of Earthsea. In the novel’s penultimate scene, our main character, Ged “reached out his hands… and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one” (251). We are what we fear, messy and dirty and dark.

In her Atlantic article, “How Reading Makes Us More Human,” Karen Swallow Prior dubs the reading of literature a spiritual act. “Because it goes beyond mere biology,” writes Prior, “there is something profoundly spiritual -- however one understands that word -- about the human ability, and impulse, to read.” She goes on to say that the act of deep reading—ingesting and interpreting —“unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others.”

In an academic article entitled “The Rhetoric of Emotion, with a note about what makes great literature great,” James R. Averill of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst argues that great literature “appeals to emotions” felt universally, which then provides for catharsis—either through emotional release or productive creativity.

Great theories, both, but let’s be clear—there’s no absolute explanation of literature, no defining line. But, nebulous as the whole thing is, fantasy and science fiction still seem to exist outside.

Which brings us back to Ursula K. Le Guin. “Somewhere in the nineteenth century,” she says, “a line got drawn: you can’t do this for grownups. But fantasy and science fiction just kind of walked around the line.”

Ursula was recently inducted into the Library of America, what the New York Times calls “the closest thing to immortality between hardcovers.” Usually restricting itself to dead, male greats such as Melville, Twain, and Hawthorne, Le Guin is only the second living writing to receive the honor. The library wanted to re-issue some of her well-known and much-loved science fiction, but Ursula fought for a collection of more obscure work. “There’s some innate arrogance here,” she says in an interview with The New York Times. “I want to do it my way. I don’t want to be reduced to being ‘the sci-fi writer.’ People are always trying to push me off the literary scene, and to hell with it…. I won’t be pushed.”

I was already pretty sure I was in love with her before I read this particular interview, but her use of minor profanity endeared her to me even more. Also, I learned that she enjoys a bourbon-and-ice with her husband on their porch every evening, a ritual I indulge in as often as permissible (and occasionally more).

 If I am lucky, I will live long enough to model more of my life on Ursula’s.

In 2014, The National Book Foundation awarded Ursula with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She spent six months writing her six-minute acceptance speech, and it quickly went viral. Rather than paraphrase, I figured it’d be best just to let you see and hear Ursula herself.

“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.”

In 1985, Ursula was nominated for the National Book Award—this same celebration where we see her deliver this powerful and passionate speech—for her novel Always Coming Home, described as a “far-future California utopia.” She lost to Don DeLillo’s White Noise. “I published as a genre writer when genre was not literature,” she has said of the decision. “I paid the price, you could say. Don DeLillo, who comes off as literary without question, takes the award over me because I published in genre and he didn’t. Also, he’s a man and I’m a woman.”

We can’t ignore that piece, it turns out.

There are undoubtedly a few women in some of the collected thematic volumes, but of the 286 books put out by the Library of America from its founding in 1979 to its latest release this year, only 30 are by female authors. That’s about 10.5%. And since the Library often puts out multiple volumes from the same writer, only 20 individual women are represented. Not great numbers. We see the same trends across the history of publishing.

Up until the feminist movement, Ursula wrote primarily about men, from men’s perspectives. We see this strongly in A Wizard of Earthsea—not only is the narrative male-dominated, but most of the females are pretty damn deplorable. (Let us not forget the conniving young witch who in adulthood again crosses our hero’s path only to be ripped to pieces by monsters.) A wife and mother with a supportive husband, Ursula found herself at odds with some of the angry rhetoric of the feminist movement. She had always refused to write directly from personal experience, and she admits that she just wasn’t sure how to write from a female perspective. “I had lost confidence in the kind of writing I had been doing,” she explains, “because I was (mostly unconsciously) struggling to learn how to write as a woman, not as an ‘honorary man’ as before, and with a freedom that scared me.”

Like the limitless bounds of fantasy and science-fiction, writing across gender is liberating, I believe Ursula K. Le Guin is one of our primary pioneers in that liberation. The Left Hand of Darkness—that exploration of absent and shifting gender—came out around this time, a book Le Guin cites as an attempt to explore gender in the world of science fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin says, in a Kirkus review, “was my ignorant approach to feminism. I knew just enough to realize that gender itself was coming into question. We didn’t have the language yet to say that gender is a social construction, which is how we shorthand it now.”

Le Guin went on to work feminist elements into her future work, continuing to challenge established assumptions. In a 1975 essay titled, “American Science Fiction and the Other,” she writes, “One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society. If this is true, then the very low status of women in science fiction should make us ponder about whether science fiction is civilized at all.”

She goes on to say, “The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that science fiction has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters—or old-maid scientists de-sexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs—or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes. Male elitism has run rampant in science fiction. But is it only male elitism? Isn't the "subjection of women" in science fiction merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshiping, and intensely parochial?”

“If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person,” she writes, “if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

“You have, in fact, alienated yourself.”

Le Guin reminds us that it’s the lines—between literature and non-literature, between men and women, between light and dark—it’s the lines themselves that are troublesome. Ursula K. Le Guin gives us a lifetime of work that refuses to conform to any set place, time, theme, or genre. Her work transcends classification, which I might argue is the utmost freedom, the liberty Le Guin has fought for.

Let us learn from her, and follow.