Thinking About Ursula

Ursula K. Le Guin by Eileen Gunn

photo by Eileen Gunn

Like most people, I found Ursula K. Le Guin through her books. In the late 70s, when I was pining for some decent fiction, someone pointed me toward the science fiction section in the bookstore. I read what they suggested, started looking for other work, and discovered Ursula.

While I’d read other SF – I have always read everything – I was not tied into fandom back then and had no concept of the “Golden Age” or what the genre was “supposed” to be. For me, then and now, Ursula’s work defined science fiction.

But more than that, it showed me what fiction could – and should – do. At a time when most so-called “literary” novels focused on the unhappy marriages of upper middle class white people, she wrote about real people dealing with powerful ideas in imaginary places.

I kept coming back for more, and looking for the other writers who were doing something in the same vein. Most of them were also writing science fiction.

Everyone has their favorites among her books. The Dispossessed was the one that grabbed me first, in part because it spoke to the part of me that had spent a lot of time organizing co-ops. In recent years, I came to love The Telling.

Some of her short stories stick with me as well: “Winter’s King.” “The Day Before the Revolution.” “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” But it doesn’t matter if my favorites differ from yours. There’s so much to choose from, and all of it has that spark of wisdom, that careful choice of words, that indefinable essence that makes fiction work.

I started with the fiction and that would have been enough. But there was so much more.

When we started Book View Café as a co-op of authors back in 2008, Ursula joined us. It should go without saying that she didn’t need a publishing co-op to put out her work. She had her choice of venues.

She joined to help us make a different kind of publishing venture happen, in much the same way as she gave support now and again to other new ideas and to other writers.

She wrote blog posts for us. (I believe her post “Would You Please Fucking Stop” still holds the record for hits on this blog. It was very, very funny and can be found in her essay collection No Time to Spare, which came out in December.)

At one point, she decided to take some questions on the art of writing and answer them on the blog. I had the privilege of working with her on that project. We set up a form where people could submit serious questions about writing – specifically not the “how do I get an agent” ones – and I sorted them and passed them on to her in a form where they could be easily addressed.

While the questions were earnest and respectful, there were some I considered not worthy of her time. But she surprised me more than once by responding to those in a way that was both useful to the person who asked and useful to me as a writer.

What I noticed most in watching how she handled the questions was that she was both supportive of people’s efforts and exacting in her standards. She encouraged people to take their work seriously, but she didn’t say something was good unless it was.

It was that combination of empathetic support with a refusal to pretend that some work is not much better than others that I find most compelling. It spurs me in my own writing, in my own thinking. Over the last couple of days several people have recounted stories about a time when Ursula skewered someone who deserved that treatment, but I also got to see the side of her that supported new writers and new ventures. It is possible to do both. She showed us how.

In the end, she became someone larger than life, more than the famous and respected writer, more than a “grand master” of science fiction, though she was of course those things as well. My word for her is transcendent, though perhaps what I mean by that is that she was an example of what a complete human being can be rather than something beyond human.

She challenged us before she left us. I come back time and again to her speech at the National Book Awards:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

It’s our job now to follow her example.

By the way, you can find Ursula’s blog posts that were published here, including the answers to writing questions (Navigating the Ocean of Story), by clicking on her name under the “search by author” link on this blog.



Thinking About Ursula — 5 Comments

  1. Thanks, Nancy Jane! A perfect tribute and summation. I will always be grateful for finding “The Left Hand of Darkness” early on, giving me inspiration to try my own writing. I’ve heard much the same from so many writers.