- The Imaginative Reality of Ursula K. Le Guin
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Ursula K. Le Guin left behind a legacy unparalleled in American letters when she passed away this January at the age of eighty-eight. Named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress for her contributions to America’s cultural heritage—the author of more than sixty books of fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, children’s literature, drama, criticism, and translation—she was one of only a select few writers (the others being Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth) to have their life’s work enshrined in the Library of America while still actively writing. She joined the likes of Toni Morrison, John Ashbery, and Joan Didion in receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation, and her work garnered countless awards: the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud, six Nebulas, six Hugos, and twenty-one Locus awards among them. Her name regularly appeared on the Nobel Prize for Literature short list, and writers as varied as Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, and Zadie Smith herald her as an influence. I believe you could start anywhere in her vast canon of work—with her poems, her translations of Gabriela Mistral or Lao Tzu, her remarkable book reviews, or her activism on behalf of writers, women, and the environment—to begin to understand the importance of Ursula K. Le Guin to both the world of letters and the world at large. But she was best known for her fiction, most notably her novels, and most specifically her books of science fiction and fantasy. And fiction, the genre she admittedly felt most comfortable talking about, was the occasion for the conversation that follows.
Le Guin was one of the most outspoken advocates for imaginative writing, whether science fictional or fantastical, arguing that this form of writing is literature as much as any work of realistic or mimetic fiction ever was. Yes, there are innumerable examples of terrible writing in genre fiction, writing that mechanically reiterates tropes with uninspired prose, she’d argue, but no more so than in the realistic narratives of popular fiction. Many of the greatest works of our literary heritage, from The Metamorphosis to Gulliver’s Travels to Don Quixote to Beowulf, are in fact works of fantastical imaginative fiction. And Le Guin worked tirelessly to see that the best of science fiction and fantasy was recognized as art, as just as literary as so-called “literary” fiction. But at the heart of this, I suspect, is also the deeply held belief that to portray reality without the human imagination is actually not a realistic portrayal at all. That maybe there is something about employing our imaginative, inventive faculties, faculties that are rooted to our identities as humans in the world, that allows for a deeper access to the real. “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real,” Le Guin once said. “But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.”
Similarly, in the essay “The Operating Instructions,” she talks about the idea of “home,” that home is not one’s family or one’s house but something imaginary: “Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but [End Page 187] you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are.” Le Guin found her home, the people who would show her how to imagine it, in her late thirties. After suffering many years of rejection submitting her work to both conventional and science fiction and fantasy magazines, she finally started receiving acceptances within the genre world, a world that seemed to both recognize and invite the unconventional aspects of her work. It wasn’t long before it seemed like she was bursting upon the scene at breakneck speed. The first decade of her career, beginning in the sixties, included some of her most well-known works of fiction: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of...