Ursula K. Le Guin Broke Down Walls With Her Writing

Ursula Le Guin at home in Portland, Oregon, on December 15, 2005.

On the phone with Ursula K. Le Guin ten years ago, we were talking about pronouns. I was an editor, in the position of playing mediator between the writer and the house style at Harper’s Magazine. The prescriptions of house style have a way of crumbling under the pens of great writers. The sentence in question had three pronouns with singular impersonal antecedents. It was a question of gender and an arbitrary one, but the sort of dilemma that comes up all the time because language is an imperfect thing that we’ve inherited and we’re constantly remaking it. Just ten years later, the question seems quaint. You could do “he”; or you could do the then increasing popular “she”; or you could do the highly infelicitous “he or she.” But house style didn’t permit “they.” “You find the usage in Shakespeare,” she told me, defending her use of the plural pronoun. “That seems a worthy precedent.” Did I realize I was arguing about the gender of impersonal pronouns with the author of The Left Hand of Darkness — the novel that abolished gender as we used to know it? I did. I told the managing editor we had to stet the theys.

Le Guin died on Monday at age 88, the author dozens of novels, collections of stories, poetry, children’s books, and essays. She was an immensely popular writer of science fiction, and living proof that it was a serious intellectual endeavor, proof that literary boundaries are a construct, a marketing tool, a lie, and that genius on the page isn’t subject to border walls. “There was a wall” is the first line of her 1974 novel The Dispossessed (sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia). That’s the novel of Le Guin’s I first read, when a college professor gave me his tattered 1970s mass-market paperback, those things of beauty — why aren’t all great books, or all books, still published in those colorful pocket-size editions and sold cheap on racks at the drugstore? It wasn’t so long ago that this was the case.

The wall in the first line of The Dispossessed surrounds a landing field for spacecraft on the planet of Anarres. It’s the only wall on the planet, which is organized according to the concepts of anarcho-syndicalism, and the wall separates the planet from, well, the rest of the universe. In the opening scene, the scientist Shevek departs Anarres, leaving behind a crowd of protesters, some of them with knives out for him, to journey to the planet Urras, which is organized along capitalist lines. Riven by walls and jails, Urras seems to him a sort of jail writ large. The novel emerged from the Vietnam years and was informed by Le Guin’s involvement with the protest movement as well as deep reading in the theoretical writings of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (especially his book Mutual Aid) and the American Paul Goodman, as well as the Taoism of Lao Tzu. But at first it reads like (exceptionally stylish) conventional sci-fi, with assassins and spaceships and (then futuristic) viewscreens. In other words, it’s a gateway drug for young people to radical big ideas.

Along with her high-school classmate from Berkeley, Philip K. Dick (they didn’t know each other as adolescents but corresponded later in life), Le Guin brought radical political ideas and complex psychology to a field of writing that, for all its futurism, was still dominated by writers with a tendency to replicate the same old stories (often cowboy adventures) and hierarchies (capitalism, patriarchy) with gee-whiz gizmos and new bad guys (robots). Science fiction would never be the same.

It was a revolution in style as much as one of ideas. Le Guin was immersed in the tradition of English poetry, and there’s not an extended statement of hers on writing without citation of Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, or the like. Among her contemporaries, it was Borges and Calvino who provided examples of writing that accommodated both the fantastic and the lyrical. American science fiction had previously been dominated by a quotidian journalistic style, a stylelessness that was meant to emphasize ideas, accessible to everybody but off-putting to many, and one of the reasons genre fiction wasn’t taken seriously and sometimes still isn’t. Le Guin could never abide the dismissal of genre on those grounds and often attacked critics who would try to subordinate it to realism, with biting satire. Here she is in 2007, responding to a critic who described Michael Chabon’s efforts to revivify “the corpse” of genre fiction:

There, again—the slow, squelching, sucking steps, and the foul smell was stronger. Something was climbing her stairs, coming closer to her door. As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! Goddamn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics—the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathernata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo?

She wouldn’t abide snobs because snobbery is sometimes, to put it lightly, just an unwillingness to keep an open mind or a moral failure to think things through. In her book of advice for writers, Steering the Craft, she said that grammar was a form of morality, not an abstract morality, but a social and political practice. Here’s the sentence she and I were discussing a decade ago on the phone: “A person reading seems to be cut off from everything around them, almost as much as someone shouting banalities into a cell phone as they ram their car into your car — that’s the private aspect of reading.” (Note the mischief inherent in likening a thoughtful person reading to a belligerent moron.) It comes from Le Guin’s essay “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading,” a broadside against corporate publishing, against the habit of the National Endowment for the Arts to issue moralizing surveys about the crisis in reading, and against the idea that literature and capitalism would ever be other than natural antagonists. “Amused contempt,” she wrote, was the proper mutual state of affairs between profit and art. She was a best seller who devoted much of her life to writing poetry. She knew literature was an unruly thing, impossible to trap behind any kind of wall.

Ursula K. Le Guin Broke Down Walls With Her Writing