How Ursula Le Guin makes it matter
There are few writers who challenge boundaries the way author Ursula Le Guin has. She’s a prolific writer, having created seven short story collections, four books for children, nine books of poetry and 22 novels. She’s also won several prestigious awards for writing including last year’s National Book Award.
Any fledgling writer would salivate like Pavlov’s dog at the prospect of achieving so much.
But plenty of writers are prolific. And many win awards.
The factor that makes Le Guin a fascinating subject is her rejection of boundaries. She is known mainly for her science fiction and fantasy fiction, but bucks attempts to hold her in a fixed position when it comes to genre:
“But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”*(Paris Review)
It’s true: Le Guin’s fiction reflects an artistic fluidity and adaptability that’s rare. Her books, short stories and poems are preoccupied with religion, social structures, anthropology – and Le Guin uses her breadth of knowledge on these topics to make pose challenging political questions.
One of her most well-known novels, The Dispossessed, which won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula prizes, destabilises some of the core aspects of human experience, including gender performance and motherhood. Le Guin says of her writing:
“I saw that women can write like women, that they can write about different things than men—why not? Duh! It took me years, really, to climb on board.”
The Dispossessed holds up a mirror to the sexual objectification of women caused by capitalism, while at the same time offers a vision of women emancipated from the gaze and the demands of motherhood. In one of the worlds Le Guin creates, children are raised by state-run facilities, and the mother/child bond is almost entirely disregarded, which enables women to focus on other forms of work.
Le Guin prompts us to consider the ways we are as ‘women’ and as ‘mothers’, without preaching and without taking a position on the issue one way or another.
“ My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. ”
One of the beautiful aspects of Le Guin’s writing is her capacity to pose ‘what if’ questions and allow the reader to form their conclusions.
This is the fundamental function of creative artefacts that make social impacts. All change begins with the question of ‘what if?’.
Le Guin’s fictional worlds may not be places we like or want to be – and perhaps this is why she rejects the moniker of science fiction writer – but they are places that shake conceptions of ‘how things are’ and ask instead ‘what if they were like this?’
For instance, her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas depicts a utopian society where people live in luxury and splendour. The story begins in an ostensibly facile way in its rendering of a perfect world.
And yet, the clincher comes when we discover the world’s prosperity is contingent on one child living in perpetual squalor in a dungeon underneath the world. Citizens are disgusted when they discover the child, but only a few silently walk through the gates of Omelas, refusing to be complicit.
Though published in 1974, this story remains relevant to issues of social justice and equity, especially in terms of movements like globalisation.
Now 85, Le Guin is vocal about the dangers of authors giving up their art in the name of commercial interests. In her acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book awards in 2014, Le Guin said, “Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.”
But in the same speech, she also reminds us of the power of artists to transcend the constraints of capitalism and other suffocating ideologies, “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.”
So, as always with Le Guin’s work, there is resistance and then emancipation. In contemporary society, which seems at times to, on one hand, offer critique without suggestions for liberation and, on the other, a non-analytical bubble-gum acceptance of ideologies, habits and standpoints that forgo long-term gain for quick fixes, Ursula Le Guin’s voice is a significant one.
With her sharp analytical and curious mind, her writing compels readers to question the taken-for-granted and to look for ways to resist.