Here’s a great piece about Ursula K. Le Guin being published by Library of America. She’s a feisty old broad, and I mean that in the most affectionate way.
I had been trying to recommend a new read each month, and I still fell behind on my recommendations. So of course I’m upping my goal to recommending a new read each week! Starting with this one…
Does Ursula K. Le Guin write bad books? If so, I haven’t found them. While this collection of four novellas is not my favorite by her–that honor still goes to her classic, Left Hand of Darkness–I think Four Ways to Forgiveness may be her best written and most emotionally affecting book. Set on neighboring planets, Werel and Yeowe, the novellas form a study of relationships: between a man and a woman, between men and women, between enslavers and enslaved, between natives and foreigners.Le Guin has structured this book perfectly, beginning with a slow and subtle introduction to this society and gradually building to an emotional crescendo. As we read these stories–which, at their cores, are all love stories–we learn the history of a civilization that mirrors our own in uncomfortable ways.
The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.
The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.
“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:
The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.
Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.
In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.
Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)
Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)
Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.
In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”
“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:
All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.
Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:
The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.
When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.
That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.
Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:
For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.
Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.
“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.
Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.
Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.
The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.
Ursula K. Le Guin once again proves why she is one of my favorite authors of all time by taking down Oregon’s largest newspaper for their uncritical story of the occupation of public lands by armed militia. Read her epic letter to the editor here.
A roundup of interesting stuff to read about reading, featuring some of my favoritest writrs:
- All the critical backlash over Go Set a Watchman is missing the point on XOJane: I’ve got a copy and am ready to read it, but the Internet feeding frenzy really turned me off; I like to form my own opinions on what I read, thank you.
- Shirley Jackson and me on The Toast: A terrific piece about the art of copy editing and Jackson’s last book.
- Ursula K. Le Guin refuses to answer stupid interview questions for the New York Times Book Review; plus I want to be in her book club!
- Jane Austen movies plus Onion headlines equals win.
I keep a record of what I read in LibraryThing. I haven’t recorded every book I’ve ever read, because I don’t remember (boy, I wish I had started keeping a list at the age of 5 or something). But I have recorded almost 1,200 books, so I thought I’d take a look at my authors list and see which authors were most influential on me.
It seems I read widely, because there are only 2 authors with more than 10 listings, and only one, Stephen King, with over 15 listings. I think being an eclectic reader is a very good thing. For purposes of this little poll, done for my amusement only, I decided to count any author with more than 5 listings as highly influential.
Here they are then, in order of influence:
- Stephen King
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Neil Gaiman
- Jonathan Lethem
- Edward Gorey
- Christopher Moore* (once, maybe, but not anymore)
- Margaret Atwood
- Jane Austen
- Michael Chabon
- Fred Chappell
- Nick Hornby* (like Moore, this one is dubious, unless it’s him writing about books and reading)
- Kim Stanley Robinson
- Octavia Butler
- Tom Perrotta
- Ray Bradbury
- Roald Dahl
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Shirley Jackson
- Francine Prose
What’s the point? None, really, just thought it was interesting data.
At some point, I set out to read a representative sample of all the “great” writers of science fiction, so I could feel reasonably well-educated in the genre. If you haven’t read a lot of science fiction, I recommend this exercise. It provides a grounding so you can learn where the well-worn tropes originated and appreciate it when today’s writers are doing something new. However, it can be troublesome to read older science fiction, especially if you’re a woman.
Classic science fiction is notoriously bad at portraying women as characters, or even human beings. Particularly egregious offenders, considering how influential they were on the genre, are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven. I don’t necessarily think that these writers held misogynist views. Instead, they demonstrate a huge blind spot where women are concerned.
Even when writing about futuristic or advanced societies, these writers often fail to depict women as anything other than subordinate. Women are generally relegated to the role of secretary (“girl assistants,” as Clarke puts it so charmingly in 2001: A Space Odyssey), housewife or concubine. Often, the female characters are absent altogether; I believe there is only one female character in Asimov’s seminal book, Foundation. Women rarely, if ever, occupy roles equal to men as scientists, politicians or leaders. When they are present, the authors tend to fall back on stereotypes to create their characters; female characters are generally helpless, passive, shrewish, sexually manipulative, overly emotional, in need of protection or rescue, or sexual objects devoid of personality.
This portrayal of women can make early science fiction seem very dated. If you are able to read classic sci-fi in context, then you’ll enjoy the entertaining stories and big ideas. But if you find the portrayal of women consistently grating, as I do, there will probably come a time when you’re ready to call it good and move on. Fortunately, today’s science fiction writers offer a much wider range of perspectives, and it’s easier to find books with believable characters who are women, gay, people of color, people from diverse backgrounds and people with disabilities. Here’s a good list on LibraryThing to get started; however, not many of these books can be considered classics, yet.
With that in mind, I’m offering a list of 20 classic science fiction works for the absolute newbie. Dedicated aficionados will have already read most of the suggestions here, I’m sure. For the purposes of this list, I’m defining a “classic” as published before 1980 and having lasting influence. (I’ve also left off purely post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, as they could comprise their own list, so no Huxley or Orwell here.) Fourteen of these books were written by white male authors, but this reflects the reality of the genre as it developed.This list is in chronological order, and if you read them that way, you’ll get a good sense of how the genre evolved over time. Notably, the first science fiction novel was written by a woman.
I’ve suggested only one book by each author in order to provide a broad sampling of themes and tropes. If you like any of these selections, I encourage you to seek out more books by that author (many are the first book in a series). I’d also appreciate any suggestions in the comments of more diverse writers to add to the list.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
- Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
- Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
- Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)