Ursula Le Guin: In Your Dreams, In Your Ideas...

I am writing this on Virginia Woolf's 136th birthday. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died a few days ago, was a lifelong reader of Woolf's work, and the trace of Woolf's writing and thinking can be found not only throughout Le Guin's essays, but also in her fiction, different as it is in style and substance from Woolf's own. Le Guin not only read the famous novels, but she also cherished some of the works that get less notice these days, including Three Guineas, a fierce critique of patriarchy and militarism, the Woolf book that I think most deserves a revival in our cruel, murderous era.

It's likely that I started reading Woolf because of Le Guin. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I had heard that Le Guin was among the greatest of science fiction writers, so I sought out her work, and the library had some anthologies with her short stories in them (The Hugo Winners volumes, Again, Dangerous Visions, etc.) as well as her essay collection The Language of the Night, so I read that, hoping it might teach me something about SF. I was attracted to the essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" because I thought the title was odd, and so I read Le Guin's riff on Woolf's famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", Le Guin's first sentence being: "Just about fifty years ago, a woman named Virginia Woolf sat down in a carriage in the train going from Richmond to Waterloo, across from another woman, whose name we don't know."

I can't say I read Le Guin's essay patiently or with much comprehension. But one of the better qualities of my younger self was that he did not blame texts if he did not understand them; he blamed himself. Clearly, if I was going to appreciate this essay by the multi-award-winning, highly respected science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, I needed to seek out "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown". Luckily, the library had a copy of The Virginia Woolf Reader, where I found Woolf's essay, which I discovered I understood even less than Le Guin's. Frustrated by this Woolf person, I read around in the book a bit more, and came upon its excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway, which for some reason entranced me. I didn't know you could write fiction like that. I'd glanced at Ulysses and even Finnegans Wake, so I had a vague and superficial idea that not all novels had to be like Johnny Tremain, but I'd never imagined that thought could be represented in the way Woolf did — instead of an ostentatious stream of consciousness, something more subtle and bewitching (which I would later learn is basically a version of what's called free indirect discourse, though Woolf puts her own spin on it). Soon after, at the local college bookstore, I saw a copy of Mrs. Dalloway in its Harvest/HBJ mass market paperback edition, and I bought it for $5.95, a high price for a mass market paperback in those days, a price that required me to save my money for a few weeks, in fact. I pored over the book, trying to learn its secrets. I still have that copy. Its binding broke long ago, its pages are all loose, its cover is battered but still bright yellow. I've got a bunch of other copies of Mrs. Dalloway now, ones in much better condition, but I hold this one most dear.

I have all of the Ursula Le Guin books I got when I was a kid, too, most of which I picked up in used bookstores, though The Left Hand of Darkness was a Christmas present. Its binding somehow remains unbroken, but the cover is bent and scratched, the pages are faded, soft with wear. And then there is The Dispossessed in an old paperback that I picked up for pennies at a used bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, a paperback that might be reinforced with steel, given how solid it still feels now, even after all the times I've read and re-read it. Indeed, I've read The Dispossessed at least as many times as any other novel.

Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I am still casting about in darkness, reaching back to memory, grabbing at anything floating by as I attempt to find words adequate to that fact. No words are adequate to that fact.

I just opened my old paperback of The Dispossessed and found a Post-It note that must be nearly 20 years old now: "cf. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by S. Delaney".

For longer than I would like to admit, I didn't realize that Ursula Le Guin's last name is "Le Guin", not "LeGuin". (I still like the look of "LeGuin".) Until moments ago, I didn't think I'd ever been tempted to the common misspelling of Delany's name, but the proof is right there in my own handwriting.

(I just threw the note in the trash. Evidence, begone!)

I discovered Delany around the time I discovered Le Guin. I struggled to read Delany more, and it wasn't until I was in college that I gained an appreciation for his work, an appreciation that would, in one of the great honors and coincidences of my life, lead me to write an introduction to a new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw roughly five years after I wrote a note to myself in which I reminded myself to go back to that book and misspelled the writer's name.

Delany's "To Read The Dispossessed" remains, to my mind, one of the greatest essays ever written about a science fiction novel. It is a difficult essay for someone who adores The Dispossessed, as I do, to read, because it zeroes in on all sorts of possible flubs and flaws in Le Guin's book. I agree, in a general sense, with the majority of the criticisms. And yet it is a testament to The Dispossessed that it survives those slings and arrows quite well, at least in my estimation — reading the novel remains a rich, rewarding, thought-provoking experience for me. Few SF novels could bear the weight of Delany's deep analysis; fewer still could remain a powerful reading experience even for someone who is sympathetic to that analysis. (Part of that is the fact that Delany's analysis is mostly an analysis of the novel as science fiction; since, as with much of Le Guin's work, The Dispossessed contains at least as much parable, folktale, allegory, fable, philosophical meditation, and other discourses as it does science fictional discourse, it has many escape routes.) I think of the greatness of The Dispossessed in the way I think of the greatness of Dostoyevsky's novels: whatever awkwardness, whatever failures of vision, whatever flat-out wrongness the book may display is overcome by the singularity of vision, the mysterious force of personality, imagination, intelligence, obsession, and insanity that becomes, on the page, something for which there is no word except genius.

Le Guin hated the word genius applied to herself. Oh well. It's the one that fits.

In some anthology or another, Robert Silverberg says — I'm paraphrasing perhaps radically — that he almost didn't publish Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" because it's a parable, not a short story. I remember reading that and being furiously angry. It crystallized for me the kind of wrongheadedness that results from letting yourself be guided by labels, categories, and taxonomy.

I don't mean to slight Robert Silverberg. I might be misremembering. Even if I'm not misremembering, he came to his senses. The headnote to "Omelas" in New Dimensions III reads:
Ursula Le Guin is one of the newest of science fiction superstars: only a few years ago her work was published only by obscure magazines and minor paperback houses, but suddenly, after the stunning triumph of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, the virtues that she possessed all along (inventiveness, compassion, erudition, lyricism) have been universally recognized, and publishers struggle for her output. The short story that follows, slender but not slight, illustrates Le Guin's merits nicely in a brief compass.
Inventiveness, compassion, erudition, lyricism. Those have remained among the great virtues of Le Guin's work, though not the only ones.

Not too long after I first encountered The Language of the Night and some of Le Guin's short stories, I got in an argument with a professor of English at the local college, a family friend, and that argument determined much of the course of my intellectual life to follow. I've told the story before, I think, but it's worth repeating here, because Le Guin was part of it in an amusing way.

My mother had grown concerned that I was reading too much science fiction and it might rot my brain. As we were driving in the car with our English professor friend one day, my mother asked him if science fiction is literature. He said no, science fiction is formula fiction. I didn't challenge him on this in that moment, but I kept thinking about it, and wrote him a letter (this was before the days of email — the benighted past!) in which I asked how this could be so. He, kindly, wrote back, we continued a strange correspondence for a while, and he gave me a copy of a Literature anthology to help me better understand what Literature is. (It didn't really help, because it didn't define the word. I liked the stories and poems in the book, though, some of which were almost as good as science fiction.)

At one point, he asked me to give him some recommendations of science fiction to read, and he would let me know what he thought. I wanted to send him a story I had recently read, a story that had affected me profoundly — indeed, it's one of the few short stories I've ever read that brought tears to my eyes at the end: "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which I'd read in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But I decided not to send him that story, because it felt like stacking the deck. After all, everybody already knew Le Guin wrote Literature! I sent him Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love" instead. He said the characters were flat and the story sentimental and forced. (I decided he didn't know how to read.)

I doubt the result would have been much different with "Buffalo Gals", given what I would now say was this professor's narrow idea of what fiction should be and do, and his Platonic faith in some ideal Literature, but I continue to be tickled by the thought that I quickly knew I shouldn't send it to him because the idea of Le Guin as Literature (whatever that is) was to me as self-evident and unarguable as gravity.

When I heard Le Guin had died, I immediately stopped what I was doing and re-read "Buffalo Gals", a story I hadn't revisited in many years.
“Go on, little one, Granddaughter,” Spider said. “Don’t be afraid. You can live well there. I’ll be there too, you know. In your dreams, in your ideas..."
As with Delany, it seems many readers who fell in love with Le Guin's early work never quite found a way to summon enthusiasm for her later work. You'll see this in some of the obituaries, which sometimes give only grudging attention to anything she published after The Dispossessed. Such obituaries are terribly un-Le Guinian; they lack generosity of spirit, and they signal a reader of limited vision and less wisdom, even if that person has encyclopedic command of facts.

Certainly, it would be difficult for any writer to escape the shadow of the original Earthsea trilogy, Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, but we fail Le Guin as readers if we don't at least try to grapple with the development of her writing and thinking.

Also as with Delany, Le Guin becomes an even more interesting writer, it seems to me, when we don't limit our understanding of her to one period of her career or one style of her writing. It's an uneven corpus, certainly — I can't for the life of me get farther than a few dozen pages in Malafrena or Always Coming Home, for instance, and, with a few exceptions, much in the Orsinian Tales does little for me, but how much of this is me and how much the texts, I don't know, nor do I know how much is me past and me now and not me in the future — but hers is a body of work so infused with intelligence, wisdom, and wit that the more Le Guin one reads, the more one is able to apprehend what she wants imagination to do, and to benefit from that co-imagining.

There are gems in the later work; maybe not gems that sparkle as boldly and brazenly as in her most famous books, but these days I am at least as likely to return with fondness and pleasure to Tehanu, Four Ways to Forgiveness, Unlocking the Air, and The Birthday of the World as anything published before them. These are books by a mature artist of extraordinary insight and artistic power.

There is, of course, much to admire and take inspiration from in Le Guin's work, but what I find most marvelous is her willingness to criticize her own previous writings and ideas. As Andrew Ferguson astutely pointed out on Twitter, this quality was present throughout her career, and unlike many writers who become defensive and perfectly willing to dig themselves into whatever hole they've stumbled upon, Le Guin relished the rethinking and reimagining. It's central to her writing practice, and as Ferguson said, "she does it joyously, cheekily, naughtily. It’s no chore."

Tehanu is the book that first made this apparent to me, and it's a novel I cherish nearly as much as The Dispossessed, even though many people, including some die-hard Le Guin fans, dislike it. I had read the Earthsea books, but while I admired them, I didn't connect with them in the way I did some of Le Guin's other writings, though eventually I came to admire the artistry of Tombs of Atuan particularly. (I feel the same about The Lathe of Heaven, another Le Guin novel many people cherish. It's fine, I enjoyed reading it, I've read it more than once, but it doesn't grab me deep in the reading soul the way others of Le Guin's works do.) I put off reading Tehanu for a while because it's an Earthsea book and I thought they weren't really my thing. But Tehanu changed everything. It's about aging and the perils of heroism and the efforts of daily life. (My story "In Exile" owes much to Tehanu, which is why I named my favorite character in the story Ursula.) I've used Tehanu in classes I've taught, I've read it over and over, it continues to astonish and to reveal new depths.

One of Le Guin's great re-thinkings has been of the language and premises of The Left Hand of Darkness. Following the development of her thinking about gender through the different versions of the story "Winter's King", various essays, and then "Coming of Age in Karhide" allows us to see a great mind and imagination rethinking, recalibrating, re-exploring, a great mind working through the limits of its visions. All our visions are limited, and to see a mind as great as Le Guin confronting her own limits, then confronting the new limits, in an endless process, is to see humility at work. More than that, it is to see how such work can be productive, how it can be the fuel for creativity. There is, as Andrew Ferguson said, great joy in Le Guin's self-critical approach, and artistry, too, as she weaves a web that doesn't annul her previous work but expands it. I love The Left Hand of Darkness, but I love it even more for the process it initiated in Le Guin's work, the process leading toward "Coming of Age in Karhide" and which I doubt ended until a few days ago: a mind never at rest, always striving toward the farther shore. Teachers often talk about the writing process, meaning drafting and revising a text, but Le Guin's oeuvre shows us a more important writing process, a process of thinking and re-thinking, of vision and re-vision. Such a process leads to work of both richness and integrity, and it suggests that the writer lives within a flow of thought and time, a flow without any precise beginning and no necessary end while there are still people to read the words that were written and to reimagine the writer's imagining.

Le Guin's work, like Virginia Woolf's, asks us to use our imaginations at least as carefully as she used her own. It is work that challenges us to be awake and aware. Though she wrote one of the great stories about solitude (titled, in fact, "Solitude"), hers was no solitary imagination and she was no genius whose brilliance is so bright that none may approach without being burnt to cinders. There was a generosity to her writing and thinking that accounts, I think, for the depth of feeling her death has caused in so many of us, sometimes to our own surprise. (I didn't ever meet her, didn't correspond with her, and 88 years is a wonderfully long life, so why am I so distraught?) She invited us to share her visions, she invited us to imagine alongside her, and so her genius was one that she shared with anyone who wanted to join her in the task of dreaming. She demanded that we be better readers, and perhaps here and there, now and then, as we strove to be those better readers her texts challenged us to be, we could imagine our way toward being better people.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

—Virginia Woolf, "How Should One Read a Book?"

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