Addendum to “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

Addendum to Are they going to say this is fantasy?


At a Guardian event held at the Royal Institution in London on Sunday, Ishiguro said that veteran author Ursula K. Le Guin was “a little bit hasty in nominating me as the latest enemy for her own agenda,” after she had written a blog post accusing him of “despising” the fantasy genre.

“I think she wants me to be the new Margaret Atwood,” he said, referring to the criticism the Canadian author and poet has received from Le Guin for distinguishing her writing as “speculative fiction” and for saying science fiction was about “talking squids in outer space”.

“If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies,” he said. “I had no idea this was going to be such an issue. Everything I read about [The Buried Giant], it’s all ‘Oh, he’s got a dragon in his book’ or ‘I so liked his previous books but I don’t know if I’ll like this one’.

“[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.”

I am delighted to let Mr Ishiguro make his own case, and to say I am sorry for anything that was hurtful in my evidently over-hasty response to his question “Will they think this is fantasy?”

I still don’t quite understand why he asked it, but I only questioned it because it appeared to me to be drawing the kind of “battle line” that he deplores.

Indeed I wish I hadn’t flown off the handle at what I took for a sneer at the literature of fantasy, offending him so that I suppose he and I will never be able to discuss such issues as his remarks make me long to ask him about. For instance: If I said I was “on the side of” dragons, but not really “on the side of” pixies, would that interest him at all? Would he be interested in talking about the various definitions of the word “fantasy” as inclusive of most imaginative literature (as I use the word), or as limited to a modern commercial development in fiction and the media (as I think he was using the word)?

I certainly had no intention of nominating Mr Ishiguro as “the latest enemy for my own agenda,” and regret very much that my clumsiness led him to take my words so much amiss. I have no agenda that I’m conscious of, and I certainly don’t want to nominate any enemies (and least of all Margaret Atwood, whom I have long been honored to consider a wonderfully unpredictable, admirable friend). My enemies must nominate themselves; I have no interest at all in making, finding, or knowing them.

Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc. They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?




Addendum to “Are they going to say this is fantasy?” — 11 Comments

  1. Pingback: “Are they going to say this is fantasy?” | Book View Cafe Blog

  2. I really like how you include Mr. Ishiguro in his own words, then offer additional serious followup questions. I hope he does want to discuss, say, being on the side of dragons but not pixies. I’d like to both hear his opinions and your elaborations.

  3. I think Ishigoru is way too sensitive and ridiculously negative in both his original statement and in his reaction to your commentary.
    I was blessed to see you and Margaret Atwood here in the People’s Republic (of Portland) several years ago. I’ve shared that dialogue several times on my Facebook page.
    By no means did I or, I think, any reasonable person, find your original comment even minimally offensive. I regret that you felt you needed to apologize.
    Clearly Mr. Ishigoru is a victim of the “Literary” elite ongoing disdain for anything that falls into their definition of “genre”. I find this snobbery particularly snide in light of the science fiction and fantasy elements which are “creeping” into mainstream “literary” literature.
    On the other hand, it’s not surprising that so many mainstream authors try to avoid “genre” labels. Even small bookstores tend to put anything that smacks of “genre” in what is often least accessible part of the store. Rarely does one find non-realistic fiction in the main shelves. The only time it happens is when an author like Philip Roth or Michael Chabon writes one. Often critics will give, at best, a nod to the non-realist elements in mainstream fiction.

  4. A forgivable assumption, I think. I would have made it too, although in rereading his remark I get that it was perhaps a hasty judgment. But forgivable because I finished my college Creative Writing degree having spent a lot of time writing bits of fantasy. I had one of my student peers return a piece with the notation “Sorry I don’t like fantasy so I can’t critique this.” A year after I was done, my lecturer for three classes posted up on Facebook how relieved he was that no-one had written a sci-fi or fantasy piece that semester. The prejudice is solid, and foolish. I am glad Ishiguro doesn’t subscribe to it. With any luck, a writer of his caliber playing around in the genre will persuade a few people to reconsider.

  5. Like Richard York, I regret that you felt you needed to apologise to the obviously hyper-sensitive Mr Ishiguro, for a critique that I felt was insightful and profound. I think that, in fact, Ishiguro’s use of language – enemy, agenda – and his extraordinary shorthand of ‘ogres and pixies’ to represent the literature of fantasy, rather gives him away. But I am partisan and prejudiced: I have let your sentences carry me round the universe and back again in story after story and book after book, and you have opened my eyes and changed my mind in various ways. By contrast I have tried to read two of Ishiguro’s novels: finished one with gritted teeth, and abandoned the other half-way through – coming away on both occasions unenlightened and exasperated. Perhaps he should read your critique again – a little more thoughtfully and modestly.

  6. Having read both of Ms. LeGuin’s blog posts and Mr. Ishiguro’s response to the first one in “The Guardian,” I have the sense that Mr. Ishiguro’s initial spoken question, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?” was, perhaps, mispunctuated, and should have read, “Are they going to say ‘This is fantasy.’?” In other words: are they going to say this is fantasy and dismiss it. He seems to be not so much drawing a line himself as fearing that his readers will draw a line and leave him on the far side of it, unread. So, as I read him, he’s afraid of being marginalized, not eager to establish the margins. I agree with Ms. LeGuin and all the commentators that the distinction is invidious–implying as it does that there is “sci fi/fantasy” and then there is Real Literature, and it would be better, I believe, if all writers of Real Literature would be unapologetic about writing Really Literary (and literate) sci fi/fantasy.

  7. When my children were young we listened to your books on cassettes. Our most favorite was Left Hand of Darkness read by you. We no longer have the cassette. We have all searched long and hard for another copy, ideally on CD, without luck. I have taken a “shot in the dark” to contact you this way to ask if you know where I could find this recording.
    Your books are dear to me always. Thank you. Melody

  8. I enjoyed your initial ‘riposte’ to Mr Ishiguro’s remark, taking his statement initially the same way that you did. I hope that he is able to put aside any negativity and discuss with you the question about dragons vs pixies, or however you want to put it. I would be very interested in the outcome of such a conversation and I am burning to know what your take on the dragon/pixie issue is. Is it like the division you mention in ‘The Language of the Night’ where pixies are from Poughkeepsie, a twee invention of the waking world vs a leviathan of the soul? I’m not sure all pixies would agree. Faeries are very much a non-trivial thing but they have had some terrible treatments over the years.

    Please could you elaborate? I wouldn’t be the person or the writer I am without your influence, I’d be much less bold and the path would have been tougher to get to where I am, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your work has given me – it is a treasure worthy of being a hoard and always lights up whenever I go to think on it again.

    P.S. I loved your interview on Radio 4 here in the UK this month. In it the interviewer mentions Ged’s turn to face the darkness within as a mastering of darkness and you agreed. In the story though, Ged and his shadow return to natural unity. I was surprised to have that categorised as mastery – I thought it was acceptance. Being accepted and owned gives the dark back its proper place which is a guardian position, rather than having it mistaken for all your enemies. Or is the shadow still somehow a danger that has to be disciplined? I guess I’m not sure if you mean it to remain an antagonist within or a dark ally.

  9. Just wanted to say that I read the Buried Giant and agree totally with your thoughts on it and I am not a reader of fantasy. It just didn’t feel authentic to me and I felt uninvolved. I only persisted to the end because of who the writer was. I couldn’t understand why the book was so reviewed so well and thought I must be deficient reacting to it as I did so it was good to read your views. Being a writer myself, I expect he couldn’t take the criticism impersonally and rounded on what he perceived was an enemy. I sympathise with his hurt feelings but feel at his stage of career he should have learnt to grin and bear it: better to have people discussing your work than not and since when can’t people express their views without being attacked?