Ursula Le Guin’s writing was imbued with a rare, intense thoughtfulness.
Though best known as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, the novelist, who died on Monday at the age of 88, defied all attempts to pigeonhole her into any category. (Her death shook the literary world, and saw an outpouring of messages from writers and fans around the globe. The New York Times has a fine, and extensive, obituary. And Margaret Atwood’s tribute is well worth reading too.)
In Le Guin’s own words, it’s a self-defeating exercise to search for a message in any of her books—she was in the business of delivering stories, not sermons. They’re damn good stories, and the fun of them is in the reading—in trying to sum them up, gist-ify them, one ends up throwing out everything worth keeping.
Several years ago, my mother emailed me the story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. There is indeed no message, though you definitely won’t come away empty-handed (or headed)—like every book of Le Guin’s that I’ve read since, it makes you think. It lets you think. But doesn’t force you to think.
In all her essays, her articles, her blog posts, Le Guin comes across as very much a brooker of no nonsense—she is firm of conviction and sharp of tongue. She was a force to be reckoned with, her stand always clear—to hell with heartless corporate publishing houses, with capitalism unchecked, with the alternative facts of the present day.
In her books there is no black and white—no bad guy for the protagonist(s) to defeat, destroy or debunk. There are journeys and sometimes adventures, but no grand conclusion. Even The Dispossessed—which is distinctly political—doesn’t thrust a framework of right and wrong upon the reader. Le Guin, at least when she wrote it, clearly favoured the anarchists to the capitalists, but both are shown with their own sets of flaws. Questions, both implicit and explicit, come up, but the book doesn’t present you with the answer.
As in all the best works of fiction, her characters, from Genly Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness to Ged in the Earthsea books to Shevek in The Dispossessed, grow and display a certain depth. And their tales are never about them “winning”—they live, they learn and they do things great and small. Ultimately, you walk away from a Le Guin book feeling rather full, as if you’ve eaten a solid meal. It’s never a struggle to digest, but there’s plenty to chew over.
All of that, I suppose, is why I landed on “thoughtfulness” as the best descriptor for her work.
I leave you, dear reader, with one last recollection. The copy of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas I read was set as a classroom exercise and as an intro to the story, there were a couple of lines exhorting you to “read it and reflect. Ask yourself, is the child Truth?” There is a child, yes, but I can honestly say that Truth never entered the picture. All sorts of stuff about society and how we value what we value pops into your head over the course of the tale, but again, you really must discover it for yourself.
“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin
For those looking for a taste of Le Guin:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (short story)
A Message about Messages (blog post)
What Makes a Story (blog post)
On Serious Literature (essay)
Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading (essay)
For those looking to dive right in, The Left Hand of Darkness is great.