“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.” Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed
It has been a year since the passing of Ursula K Le Guin. The world, including myself, mourned the passing of one of the greatest literary minds the world has ever known. In the last year, I have taken the time to revisit Le Guin’s works – fictional and non – and I never thought that I would be able to say with any sincerity that I could keenly miss someone I had never met. But Le Guin’s death was not just a moment of grief for academic minds, but signalled a new era in which a tremendous personality would now be absent, and at a time when we need her voice the most.
I did not always like Le Guin. In fact, sometimes I detested her. Le Guin’s works haunted me from the age of 16. I was could not get through a text on English – any academic text or required reading – that did not reference Le Guin on multiple occasions, often in the majority of chapters. To be bombarded with the same name, with multiple different viewpoints and criticisms was exhausting. Studying literature was not the easiest or most comfortable path. I loved stories, but I was guided to learn about classics which felt stuffy. I wanted to study contemporary works but I was stuck with English traditional stories. The writings felt pretentious. The debates were all carried out with a veneer of condescension. Studying literature would have crushed my love of stories – had it not been for that bloody Le Guin.
Her words became lodged within my skull. I recited them readily in essays; her criticisms always offered something new and seemed to push against the bluster of so many other critics and theorists. It was only when I sought to use her as an extra reference that I discovered her fictional works. Her works of fantasy and science fiction had never been acknowledged or recommended to me during the course of my education. I had known her only through her dry observations. She was presented as someone who was a literary critic rather than an extraordinary creator too. I have no doubt that part of this was due to her gender, but also largely due to the genres she specialised in. Fantasy is dismissed as being materials solely to guide young adults through to adulthood. Science-fiction is often sneered at all together. Too old for kids, but not respectable enough for adults. But her works, some of which date back to the 50s, changed literature forever. She was one of the few women who managed to be published. Her works also examined racism, xenophobia, misogyny and gender – including stories which contained fluid depictions of gender, something entirely radical for its time, and still revolutionary now.
Her fiction was unapologetically political. Le Guin dealt with current affairs, such as the Vietnam War, and she also explored different political theories and establishments, such as anarchy. Her stories often were set in different series with their own lore, and each story contrasted with the next to give a rich and confrontational body of work that with each reading only raised new questions. She helped define what science-fiction and fantasy meant.
Yet, Le Guin, despite being such a stoic presence by creating a huge portfolio of works, was always unpredictable and refreshingly honest in personality. Some writers have managed to release their works to coincide with the rise of social media, accidentally or not, and have rode that wave to pastures new. Their brands would not be half the size they are without social media and the dawn of digital marketing. Le Guin was an author from the era before, and yet she was the perfect creator for this new age – because she could never stand bullshit or complacency. She called out authors, including Rowling, who she felt did not give proper respect or credit to their peers who had laid so much groundwork before them. Le Guin always worked toward a sense of community, and with the idea that creators should resist capitalism and support one another. But do not for one second think that she looked down upon the younger generation of writers from lofty comfort.
Le Guin was remarkably critical of herself. She would revisit stories and write notes criticising her own writing or conduct. She slammed herself for being defensive when she was first called out for not being more feminist. Le Guin had adopted narratives that suited male publishers and authors as she struggled to establish herself as a writer in such a sexist time. At first, she was defensive of the criticism but after years she reflected and said people were right to criticise her and that she should have done better. Le Guin did not stop there. She was not free from criticism and nor did she ever want to be. A good creator embraces it, and listens to the audience and works to do better, and that became her philosophy. She did not need the age of Twitter. She wanted to engage and create stories that were relevant long before authors were ever forced to engage more actively with audiences.
Le Guin respected and appreciated her audience, as well as the power of stories. Audiences should get a right of reply to texts that may represent them or feel personal. If the criticism was negative, Le Guin would listen and try to do better. That is how a society truly progresses; by having the tough conversations and hearing things that aren’t often pleasant to our ears.
But Le Guin was tough in return. She didn’t just want her texts to be read and thrown away, and nor did she want her words to simply be accepted. She was an anarchist and she wrote of a utopian anarchist society in The Dispossessed, but she also expected fans who read the work to be critical and not just think that the society presented was happy, good or an ‘ideal’ for us to aspire to. Her stories rarely make for comfortable or easy reading. We are supposed to get to work as an audience and ask questions. We do not always have to answer them, but we must ask questions of the words on the page nonetheless.
There were fierce and wonderful debates to be had from stories and Le Guin had no time for hubris – her own or anyone else’s – that might get in the way of important discussions. At a time of rising fake news, authors blocking swathes of fans for being called out (respectfully) and of diminishing critical discourse, Le Guin is needed more than ever. Her loss is painful to the literary world but if we have learned anything then fans must always question and remain stubborn in doing so. Le Guin left us all with her legacy and we have work to do. Now we must shape literary discourse into what we need it to be.