Le Guin’s Hypothesis

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.

He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?

Mr Krystal gives a good brief discussion of 18th-century disapproval of all novel-reading as guilty pleasure, and is amusingly acute about the dire modernist invention of the “serious” or literary novel, which tossed out all other novels as genre — trivial.

But his only quoted example of the literary novel is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Now, I love that interminable four-decker and think it one of the great novels about war. But it was never well known in America, and I wonder how many people have even heard of it by now. If it exemplifies the literary novel, the literary novel is: obscure, unpopular, syntactically complex, ninety years old, and British.

So, then. Is literature the serious stuff you have to read in college, and after that you read for pleasure, which is guilty?

Mr Krystal doesn’t say this directly. But he says nothing about the non-guilty pleasure that both literary and genre novels can afford. And what he says about genre fiction all fits into the familiar modernist mishmash of Puritanism and reverse snobbery.

I don’t want to join the group still huddled together in a corner of a twentieth-century lunchroom smirking over a copy of Amazing Wonder Tales because it’s “bad,” and flipping off the stuffy teacher who wants us to read A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “good.” I don’t want to be there any more.


 “Skilled genre writers,” Mr Krystal says, “know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”

Who “we,” white man?

Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicated and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art? That Virginia Woolf, so often demonstrably plotless, was artless?

And I question the idea that we “turn to” genre fiction as addicts turn to their needle or their bottle. Genre as Fixfic.

Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years. The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate. Ask the Wedding Guest to stop listening once the Ancient Mariner gets going. He can’t. He’s hooked. Sometimes you get hooked on mere plot, sometimes on mere familiarity and predictability, sometimes you get hooked on great stuff.


The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.

Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.

To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.

This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.

Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.


If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.

If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.

Because there is the real mystery. Why is one book entertaining, another disappointing, another a revelation and a lasting joy? What is quality? What makes a good book good and a bad book bad?

Not its subject. Not its genre. What, then? That’s what good book-talk has always been about.


We won’t be allowed to knock down the Litfic/Fixfic walls, though, as long as the publishers and booksellers think their business depends on them — capitalizing on the guilty pleasure principle.

But then, how long will the publishers and booksellers last against the massive aggression of the enormous corporations that are now taking over every form of publication in absolute indifference to its content and quality so long as they can sell it as a commodity?




Le Guin’s Hypothesis — 82 Comments

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  12. Ms. LeGuin, you realize that your inclusive definition of literature is entirely too sensible to catch on, do you not? I’d love to be wrong, of course, and will be sharing this article. It’s time to exorcise the shade of Henry James and his insistence that only realistic novels are ‘serious’ and thus worth reading.

    • I think that James’ criticism is that the writer draws from a web of diverse experiences and ideas, which then lends a credibility to the novel. And, remember, he was fighting for the idea that novels were high art at all. I find his criticism to be easily applicable to a decent work of sci-fi or some other “genre” piece. Take Bradbury, for example. He drew on experiences from childhood, from the social issues of his day, from viewing media, et cetera. This could easily be like James’ web of experience, and it really makes Bradbury’s work feel alive and credible (even when reading about robotic Houses of Usher and martians).
      There’s the accidental side of James’ critical theory, but the substance doesn’t have to exclude any genre. =)

  13. Since first hearing AWOES read aloud on a children’s tv show, I tend to trust that she indeed has the better mind when it comes to literature. Speak your mind – we need your clarity to be heard in these days of confusion.

  14. Dear Ms. Le Guin,

    just a few months ago, I have been introduced by my professor to your works. according to him, your works compose “Literature” as compared to others whose works are selling out like crazy. lo and behold, you’re actually saying that there’s no need for such a degrading divide between “Literature” and “the others.” and with that, Thank you. this might make me look as someone who’s too easily swayed, but with just this single blog entry, i was able to see that literature is not a matter of whether it’s provocative, good or tacky; but of how “it” speaks to you.:)

    p.s. by the way, I deeply enjoyed your first book of Earthsea. as of now, this is your only work that i have read.

  15. Yes, this is a wonderful first hypothesis! I would love a followup blog article reflecting on quality and taste and preference and how certain stories resonate for one reader and not for another. I remember the grief I felt at the end of “Engine Summer” by John Crowley, and how I shared that book with a good friend who saw the whole thing as a sloppy, drug-addled mess. What flaws will I forgive in one work of fiction because it offers me something I need, while detesting them in another? And when IS my reading a guilty pleasure because a book is disappointing me — or untuning my ear — or it feels like eating junk food — but I keep reading anyway? Why do I do that? Usually there is some quality that I still find compelling or delightful or at least addictive. Reading some of Le Guin’s books themselves have involved suspending certain perceptions of manipulated-ness (Tehanu sometimes felt self-consciously re-inventive) in order to allow what was working to happen (Tehanu, again, devastated me by the time it was done)… And having re-read A Wizard of Earthsea again recently, frankly I’d probably feel self-consciously re-inventive about women’s representation in that world too — especially writing a followup book 20 years later. And then other works by Le Guin just seem perfect to me, spare and elegiac and true (a couple of the stories in Birthday of the World come to mind). And I imagine she had to let each book be what it is, with whatever flaws it might possess, and move on. What I love about her is that I completely trust her to have tried, with great capacity, to speak truly. Whatever manipulation or seams or rough edges might still be perceptible are related to that endeavor. And speaking truly is fundamental to quality. Perhaps that is what I miss in some of the other fiction that I read, that it feels false or hollow or just lacking in nutrition for the soul. Or maybe it just reveals — unconsciously — aspects of the creator’s spirit that trouble me (Philip Pullman comes to mind, brilliant but for me a little icky around the edges). The spirit and humanity that comes through Le Guin’s writing has helped to guide me through my life, reconcile me to my own experiences of profound pain and trauma, and to remind me of what matters. Though we’ve never met, I love her for that, and will always be deeply grateful. Each new book from her has come into my life as a welcome gift; and one of the ways I realized I was middle-aged was when it occurred to me that these gifts wouldn’t continue to arrive forever. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to write and say thank you. I guess this is the moment — so thank you, Ursula, for having the courage and dedication to share your gifts and vision with me and so many others. Please keep speaking your truth; I’ll do my best to do the same.

  16. I get a kick out of the very notion of literary classics. Dickens wrote serials for newspapers and penny magazines. Poe wrote almost solely genre fiction. We all had to read about dear old hairy Grendel (Beowulf) when learning about old, middle and modern English and isn’t Grendel just a monster movie in print? Most of what survives from one culture or cultural period to the next is what was popular. Well, until you get to the late 19th century when the academics got a hold of it all and began to strangle it with the overwritten and druly dire. Melville was so poorly received in his lifetime he had to resort to being a customs clerk but then some academic got ahold of him and !viola! every American child gets to meet Ismael with his tattoos floating on a chest.
    What part of the Scottish Play can every English speaker quote? Aren’t there ghosts abounding and wasn’t Ophelia whored out by her father and doesn’t Romeo and Juliet keep resonating because it is a very human theme of kids falling in love despite parental disapproval? And didn’t The Bard borrow most of his stuff from guys who wrote before him and weren’t his productions popular entertainments of the time? Today his stuff is Classical, mostly because the language changed so people have to think a little harder to get the jokes and the sex references. Don’t the English venerate St. George who slew a dragon?
    My favorite modern mistep of academia involves Machu Pichu. When it was first explored and the analysis published, a small room in an apartment was found that had a wall niche containing a wheeled llama with a ring in its chest, a small bird with articulated wings and a hole in its belly and a slim tunnel from its beak to its butt and a small orb. Oh! A family altar! I read it, lo! those many years ago and though “well, future archeologists and anthropologists will see our seating all aimed at the TV and think we all worshipped there (and we do, I suppose.) How stupid! It’s a boy’s bedroom with a llama pull-toy, a bird whistle with the stick gone and an osified leather ball!” Well, some forty odd years later and didn’t they revise their thinking to ‘a pull toy, a bird whistle and a ball’! The plump little fertility goddess of northern Europe with her featureless face, pregnant belly and braided hair has lost her divinity because they recently found a factory’s garbage dump (the science types call them midden heaps.) Hundred of the little faceless wonders along with a skinnier cousin, still faceless. So now they are dolls because we don’t make goddess statues by the hundreds, do we? How many crucifixes, plaster Mary grottos and illuminated praying hand knickknacks are sold annually, huh? So, now we bend all the way over away from religion and everything is a toy, like anyone but the Amish could get their kid to play with a faceless doll! Like any little girl would rock a pregnant pudge to sleep – or cuddle up with it at night! You have to laugh at academia or you’d just be wasting time sending your kids to university.
    H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and company have entered Classic Literature so I suppose flights of fancy involving genetically designed angels (Sharon Shinn) or romance writing vampires (Tanya Huff) are not that far behind. I’m waiting for Edgar Rice Burroughs to get his kudos. Judging by the Olympics 2012, Ms. Rowling already has.

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