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Ursula Le Guin, a Wizard of literature dies at 88

“There was a wall” begins Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed. “It did not look important. … it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real.”

This visionary writer, who died in Portland, Oregon, on January 22, aged 88, understood the power of ideas – for good or ill.

Her most acclaimed novel, The Left Hand of Darkness begins: “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

With news of the death of the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin, the challenging, perceptive, unflinching, puzzling, exhilarating power of her writing hits home. For those who checked in occasionally or avidly to her personal website, it’s difficult to imagine she’s gone.

In December, she was still writing updates about the long-standing project to complete a film, “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin”, promising that in January they would be doing the final editing.

“It’s chapter by chapter around here,” she wrote. “Thanks as always for turning the pages with us.”

She seemed immortal, certainly defying time by constantly posting her thoughts, weighing in on debates, thinking about ways to encourage reading and writing, and campaigning for a more just, sensible, creative world in often gently subversive ways.

Asked to write a list of timeless “great” novels, she lined up six books that are, without her needing to justify, all by women.

Her science fiction, and all her writing, was never simplistic: people, societies, ideologies – flawed all, so keep at it, keep thinking, keep imagining better people, better societies, better ideologies.

Accepting the American National Book Foundation Medal in 2014, she provoked worldwide response when she challenged publishing’s sales-strategy approach, but she also gave us urgent reasons to seek out good writing: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality. . . .”

Her science fiction, and all her writing, was never simplistic: people, societies, ideologies – flawed all, so keep at it, keep thinking, keep imagining better people, better societies, better ideologies.

She celebrated when people and societies improved: in July 2017, “after the ironic fireworks of a peculiarly anxious Independence Day” (a natural writer, Le Guin, so good with the rhythms of syntax and the pleasures of semantics), she wrote about celebrating a small win for campaigners against deforestation in her homestate of Oregon. They also voted, she was heartened to report, in favour of a Reproductive Health Equity Act, codifying the legal right to abortion.

Her own biographical note suggests she led “an intensely private life”. This was possibly to discourage the legions of admirers, because her generosity in sharing her interests on her site – including posts about Pard the cat – made her appear friendly and accessible.

She began her speech in 2014 with a collegial thanks to the science fiction and fantasy genre: still campaigning, still taking opportunities to have her say.

Anwen Curry, who is producing the documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin, calls her “a singular writer who defiantly held her ground on the frontier of American letters until the sheer excellence of her work, at long last, force the mainstream to embrace fantastic literature.”

It’s sad the writer herself will not see the film completed, but how good that she was able to be there, working with the filmmakers, on what promises to be “an intimate journey of self-discovery” about this Wizard of literature.

Photo © by Marian Wood Kolisch

One response to “Ursula Le Guin, a Wizard of literature dies at 88

  1. I’ve read most of Le Guin’s output over her long career. A woman deeply passionate over a lot of causes. The Word For World Is Forest was advocating for indigenous people long before the Amazon became a cause for the white and wealthy. It’s a shame she and Hayao Miyazaki never managed to find the common ground to make a decent production of the Earthsea trilogy.

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