My Le Guin Year: Craft Lessons From a Master

Every so often I set out to read as many books as I can by a single writer as I can in a single year. It’s the best way I know to do a deep dive into a major writer’s work, and to try to understand them in the context of their own career: I inevitably come to see what a writer excelled at from the start, what they had to learn as they went, and what they never got quite right; I become familiar with the ideas and topics and tropes they returned to most often, learning how their ideas and aesthetics changed over time. It’s a rewarding and engaging way to read, and every writer I’ve read this way has become a lifelong favorite, including Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, and, most recently, Ursula K. Le Guin.

In early 2018, I read Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time, on a whim. I’d owned the book for years: why hadn’t I ever read it? I don’t really have an answer. I do know that up to that point I’d read about Le Guin more than I’d read her fiction: I’d enjoyed “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and a few other stories, a handful of essays and interviews, her acceptance speech from when she won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. I’d heard about Gethen and Anarres and Urras, a little, and Earthsea, a little more, but I hadn’t been to those places yet—they were like countries on another continent that I knew my friends had visited but I couldn’t quite picture.

In any case, I liked The Left Hand of Darkness from the start, and the more I read, the more I loved it. A couple days in, I stayed up all night reading Genly Ai and Estraven’s desperate, emotional crossing of the Gobrin ice sheet. While their freezing escape from Pulefen Farm was still in-progress, I remembering thinking it might be becoming one of my favorite passages of fiction; by the time it ended with this unforgettable sentence, I knew I was right: “All those miles and days had been across a houseless, speechless desolation: rock, ice, sky, and silence: nothing else, for eighty-one days, except each other.”

Even before I put that book down, I knew I was about to embark on another of my year-long reading projects: the next day I started The Dispossessed, and soon I was reading The Word for World is Forest and The Lathe of Heaven and A Wizard of Earthsea, and onward into the rest of Le Guin’s vast body of work. Before 2018 ended, I would read twenty-six of her books, including most of her novels, dozens of her short stories, two volumes of her poetry, plus a couple collections of her essays and her translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, finally finishing my Le Guin year with the newly released Complete Illustrated Edition of the Earthsea Cycle.

After all that reading, what did I find I admired most about Le Guin’s work, beyond the obvious splendor of her imagination and her many gifts as a storyteller? Certainly I admired her intense moral clarity, which despite its exactness rarely manifested as either rigidity or righteousness, as well as her utopianist ideals, which never gave way to pollyannish thought. I envied her ability to create compelling plots driven by the exploration of ideas rather than more usual kinds of want-based conflict, advancing lines of inquiry and thought through dialogue and non-violence, as described in her excellent essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” I was moved by the subtle ways she ensured the personhood and humanity of “alien” characters in her science fiction: for example, the short green-furred Athseans in The Word for World is Forest are as “human” in that book’s eyes as the invading Terrans, our earthly descendants.

I could write another essay entirely about Le Guin’s prose, because there is so much joy and skill in her sentence-to-sentence writing. Consider one of my favorite sentences from her 1966 debut Rocannon’s World, tucked in the middle of a paragraph near the beginning: “A hundred worlds had been trained and armed, a thousand more were being schooled in the uses of steel and wheel and tractor and reactor.” What an exquisitely well-built sentence! See the two progressions expanding its scale as it goes, its scope expanding from hundred to thousands of worlds, then through an arms race of centuries of technology; hear the parallel construction of the two rhyming sets of steel and wheel and of tractor and reactor, the latter two words a pair it would never have occurred to me to rhyme.

I loved all this and more. More than anything else, I loved Le Guin’s worldbuilding, with her well-made ecologies and cultures tied to the unique geographies evoked in her hand-drawn maps, like that of the sprawling archipelago of Earthsea, with its islands waiting to be explored by Le Guin’s imagination. I thrilled at how she turned thought problems into intricate cultures, working from the big picture down to the minutiae of local life, filling books with pleasurable details like the “common table implement” on Gethen “with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts,” a necessity for drinking hot beer on a frozen planet.

For Le Guin, questions and ideas might best manifest in the form of a new world, new places providing space, as she said, for exploring “reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination.” The more I read of her fiction, the more interested I became in the “reversals of a habitual way of thinking” visible in some of her books, especially wherever she revised her ideas inside already existing worlds, a practice which allows a reader to follow the progress of her thinking across her career.

In her 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?”, Le Guin responded to the critiques of The Left Hand of Darkness by her fellow feminists according to her thinking then, seven years after the novel was published; twelve years later, she revisited the subject for her collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, adding additional annotations to the original essay. It’s a fascinating document, showing the mind of a responsive, responsible writer at work, over time: in the end, Le Guin acknowledges the validity of much of the criticism of her novel but concludes that The Left Hand of Darkness should remain as it is, because “it doesn’t seem right or wise to revise an old text severely, as if trying to obliterate it, hiding the evidence that one had to go there to get here. It is rather in the feminist mode to let one’s changes of mind, and the processes of change, stand as evidence.” But being unwilling to change the novel itself didn’t mean she never tried other approaches to depicting gender on Gethen in other contexts. As Jon Michaud tells it in The New Yorker, in 1985 Le Guin “wrote a screenplay based on the book in which she invented pronouns for Gethenians in different phases of the reproductive cycle,” after which she “used those invented pronouns when doing readings from the novel.”

Nowhere else is Le Guin’s writing through such a “process of change” more visible than in the Earthsea Cycle’s six books, three of which were published between 1968-1972 (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), with the final three published much later, beginning with Tehanu in 1990. The first trilogy primarily follows the adventures of the wizard Ged, in what Le Guin later calls the male-dominated tradition of the “hero-tales of the Western world”; when she returns to Earthsea in Tehanu two decades later, she resumes her tale from the perspective of Tenar, the former child high priestess we met in Tombs of Atuan now a widowed mother of her own grown children, living alone on a farm in the countryside, having long ago refused to be taught the kind of magic Ged was taught—the magic of men, which readers of the trilogy have long been told believes itself superior to the earthly “skills and powers” of women: “Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic,” went a saying in the School of Wizards at Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, an idea that Tehanu finally shows to be a prejudiced untruth. Women’s magic, we learn now, is “deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon.”

In her 1993 essay “Earthsea Revisioned,” Le Guin lays out a startlingly honest telling of the first trilogy’s genesis—”I look back and see that I was writing partly by the rules, as an artificial man,” she writes, “and partly against the rules, as an inadvertent revolutionary”—and also why Tehanu and the books that followed could not help but be different: “In my lifetime as a writer,” she writes, “I have lived through a revolution, a great and ongoing revolution. When the world turns over, you can’t go on thinking upside down. What was innocence is now irresponsibility. Visions must be re-visioned.”

So Le Guin returns to Earthsea, but not to ignore the original trilogy and the problems she now sees in her world, her characters, and the story she’s told, or to undo what’s come before. After all, she says, in “Earthsea Revisioned”: “I like my books… This isn’t a confession or a plea for forgiveness.” Instead, she sets out to tell a new and better story set in a flawed world of her own making, as the person she is now, twenty-two years after she first set foot in Earthsea: in Tehanu, Le Guin says, Earthsea is “still the same, hierarchic, male-dominated society” it always was, “but now, instead of using the pseudo-genderless male viewpoint of the heroic tradition, the world is seen through a woman’s eyes. This time the gendering is neither hidden nor denied.”

For these reasons and more, Tehanu is a fascinating sequel. It begins with Ged stripped of power and Tenar long ago having rejected any desire for the kind of power Ged once had, Le Guin instead “reducing” her heroes to goatherding and caretaking, and, after Tenar’s rescue of the injured girl Therru, childrearing and the healing of trauma. The power fantasies of previous books gives way to the responsibilities and travails and joys of home and family and restoration, a life Tenar and Ged are imperfectly suited for even as they strive to achieve it. In the end, Le Guin writes, “Both Ged and Tenar face the defenders of the old tradition. Having renounced the heroism of that tradition, they appear to be helpless… Their strength and salvation must come from outside the institutions and traditions. It must be a new thing.”

As a writer, I find Le Guin’s revisioning of Earthsea and of the kind of stories she might tell there deeply inspiring and instructive. Isn’t this one good way to proceed through a life of making art, if a writer wants to write ethically and honestly about the real world they live in and about their hand in the making of imaginary ones? “All the moral weight of it is real,” Le Guin wrote, of the flawed world she made in Earthsea. “The politics of fairyland are ours.”

What I’ve wondered ever since my year of reading Le Guin is: Can I do this too? Can I write the kind of novels—and invent the kinds of worlds—that will make possible not one story or one thought-experiment but many, making space for me to return as my ideas and beliefs evolve? What I see in Le Guin’s example, especially in the evolution of the Hainish and Earthsea Cycles and her subsequent writing about those universes, is one way to let the worlds I write live past the stories I know to tell in them now, so that I might return to find the stories I need to tell later, stories in which my own imperfect world becomes ever better, however slow and painful and insufficient that progress might be. This is one way in which a book or series of books might seek to become an ever more accurate model for the world we live, a world whose own imperfections cannot be ignored or unmade, only moved on from and improved upon.

It’s a rare day now when I don’t think of what I learned from Le Guin and her books. I’m grateful for the thrilling tales she told, but equally thankful for how and why she told them. Whenever I consider the kind of writer I want to be, I remember her famous National Book Foundation acceptance speech, where she said, “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now… writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries; the realists of a larger reality.”

A realist of a larger reality. That’s who Le Guin was for me, in so many ways. That’s who I’d like to be too, as I do my best to follow her example, writing and rewriting and revisioning my way toward a reality larger than the one I can see today, on or off the page.

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

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