Ursula Le Guin: Happy Birthday! I have for you four-and-twenty critics, baked in a . . .
Well, the good news is, the brilliance that is the lifelong career and many marvelous novels, stories and poems written by Ursula Le Guin, is receiving the critical and academic attention that it so richly deserves.
As follows, in only a few of the many areas in which her work has influenced academic writing, study and thought:
Storytelling as Teaching/Reading as Learning
Warren G. Rochelle wrote in Extrapolation, a peer-reviewed journal of science fiction, fantasy, and other literature of the fantastic, published by the University of Texas at Brownsville, that Ursula K. LeGuin “wants her readers to know certain things–or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she is arguing for a certain way of seeing and knowing the world and this certain way can change the world, if applied–and possibly, save it.” (Rochelle, 2007)
Woman as Hero
Lisa Hammond Rashley wrote in the Winter, 2007 issue of Biography, a quarterly journal published by the University of Hawaii Press, that “Le Guin’s initial public forays into the controversial realm of redefining gender began with the 1969 publication of The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel’s depiction of an androgynous race challenged conventional wisdom in science fiction genres at the time, but the critical response to the book produced a firestorm of both praise and criticism for Le Guin’s work that occasioned her reexamination of her attitudes about gender.” Rashley quotes the author herself as saying, “Until the mid-seventies I wrote my fiction about heroic adventures, high-tech futures, men in the halls of power, men–men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary. Why don’t you write about women? my mother asked me. I don’t know how, I said. A stupid answer, but an honest one.” (Qtd. in Rashley, 2007)
Challenging “Conventional Wisdom” Regarding Gender, Sexuality, Marriage, Society and Economics
Michael Levy and Sandra Lindich, writing in Extrapolations, suggested that Ursula’s ground-breaking approach to “preconceived notions about gender, heterosexuality, monogamy, patriarchy, progress, organized religion and capitalism” has led her work to be among the most frequently-studied books of writers who are acknowledged as working in science fiction or fantasy in the modern or contemporary era. “Perhaps it is this daring to boldly go where few writers have gone before that has made Le Guin one of the most important speculative writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Certainly she has inspired a great deal of critical response,” wrote Levy and Lindich. (2007)
Dystopia vs. Utopia
Nor has the critical and academic attention been solely literary. Susan Story Benfield wrote a critical analysis of The Dispossessed in Perspectives on Political Science. According to Benfield, “Le Guin suggests that, although there are no utopian endpoints, the attempt to create social structures that allow for greater human freedom and fulfillment is difficult and dangerous but worthwhile. Any society, however well conceived, that perceives itself as that perfect endpoint will become destructive of freedom, a dystopia instead of a utopia. Le Guin makes clear throughout her novel that the goal must remain the cultivation of individual freedom. Any society that sets out to perfect human beings or to do away with pain and sorrow will also endanger people’s capacity for joy, freedom, and humanity.” (Benfield, 2006)
In Utopian Studies, Lisa Garforth writes of Always Coming Home, that “Le Guin’s resistance to the tyranny of structure saturates both the form of the narrative and its iconic content. Always Coming Home has no single coherent plot or straightforward description of the Kesh’s social structure or way of life. Informed by eco-anarchism and Taoism, Le Guin’s Valley utopia has no central institutions and no formal politics. However, the characteristic patterns of Kesh life do emerge, built of concrete specifics and from the bottom up. For example, the material basis of life in the Valley–its self-sufficient combination of hunter-gathering and small-scale agriculture–is elliptically introduced in the sections of the book “What They Wore in the Valley” and “What They Ate” (which includes a number of recipes and a treatise on Kesh table manners).” (Garforth, 2005)
TO THE POINT – TODAY!
From Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and current Director of the Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts at the Aspen Institute:
“What a pleasure to celebrate Ursula LeGuin’s 80th birthday. If this were Japan, we would have long ago declared her a Living National Treasure. But since this is the U.S., we can at least send her a national cheer of gratitude. She is not merely a great fantasy and science fiction writer. She is one of the finest living American writers of any kind. It may take literary critics another 80 years to recognize her singular accomplishments, but they will, they will.”
I agree with Dana.