25 January 2018

R.I.P. Ursula K. LeGuin

by Brian Thornton

Ursula K. LeGuin
Acclaimed fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin died last Monday at her home in Portland, Oregon. She was 88.

LeGuin was, by any measure, a great writer. I tore through her Earthsea trilogy while still a teenager. From there I moved on to her science fiction, which really didn't hold my attention. I daresay adolescent boys weaned on adventure fiction were probably not her intended audience while writing those works. Either way, I suspect the shortcoming was mine, and not hers.

When she added to the Earthsea chronicles decades after finishing the original trilogy, I tried the next book out, and didn't finish it. Again, I suspect the shortcoming was mine.

That said, I was, and continue to be, blown away by what is arguably her greatest work, A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in her Earthsea series. Completed in the late 1960s, it has never been out of print since.

And with good reason.

The book's plot pays homage to a whole raft of ancient and medieval hero cycles while also anticipating the likes of Harry Potter. It is the story of Ged, a poor boy from a poor island, who early on demonstrates a talent for magic, and so is hustled off by his bemused (and discomfitted) family and neighbors to the BIG TIME: a school for wizards.

Once there he (stop me if you've heard this before) makes friends and enemies, fails and succeeds at a variety of challenges set in his path, demonstrates tremendous potential and youthful arrogance which so often accompanies such potential. And then while showing off he makes a colossal (and freudian) mistake. Said mistake scars him both literally and figuratively. This mistake's immediate consequences are rectified only at tremendous cost to others. The long-term costs are borne almost solely by Ged himself.

The other two books of the trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore are terrific books in their own right, but don't really stand alone the way A Wizard of Earthsea does.

But for all that, LeGuin was a master stylist, with interesting and very public ideas about writing. She mentored several generations of writers, and was not shy about giving her opinion about the nature of inspiration, and the state of the publishing business itself.

I was reminded of this while working on this post over the last couple of days, and reading a fair number of wonderful tributes to Ms. LeGuin. While reading the indispensible Chuck Wendig's own take on this, I followed a link he posted to LeGuin's extended response to the question: "How do you make something good?"

I'll close with the portion of her response that speaks directly to the concerns of emerging writers concerned about catching on in the publishing business:

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflĂ© if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflĂ©, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And that, in and of itself, is pretty damned good.


  1. Good morning, Brian. You seem to have a knack of identifying cultural touchstones.

    Eve is a major LeGuin fan, the dragon series if I recall. We've both written about UKLG recently.

    I probably shortchanged reading her, but I prefer hard sci-fi. Only one story appealed to me, but what a wonderful story it was! I loved The Ship Who Sang. Like you, I read LeGuin as a kid and never forgot it. I swear, if I ever own a sailboat, I'm going to name it Helva.

  2. Marvelous tribute, Brian.

    I read The Dispossessed in a grad class and went on to The Left Hand of Darkness. I thought they were excellent, but didn't read much other Le Guin for years. I eventually read a few other works and thought they were excellent, too, but I particularly appreciated an essay she wrote about imagination and children.

    Naturally, I don't remember the title anymore, but it was in a collection of essays we used in my classroom. I'd love to read it again because it showed the same mix of wisdom and compassion that shines through in her other writing.

    Thanks for including her advice to struggling writers here, too. I've never seen it stated so well before. No surprise.

  3. Wonderful post, Brian.
    I fell in love and in awe with Le Guin back when I first read "The Left Hand of Darkness". It contained everything I'd ever been looking for in a novel: a great concept, a new way of looking at human beings and their interactions (especially sexuality), a completely different world (almost completely embodied in such a short work), combined with folklore, myth, and a good strong plot. Wow.
    Since then, I've read everything of hers I can get my hands on. I recommend (as in, read it NOW if you haven't before) her "Four Ways to Forgiveness", "Changing Planes", "The Birthday of the World" collection - especially "Old Music and the Slave Women" (which shattered me), and "Paradises Lost" (which is the best story about interstellar travel I've ever read). And many others.
    God, I'll miss her, miss looking forward to a new work by her...

  4. "It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it."
    I love this quote. I'll be taking it to class. And I have to add: if only those in my class would take this to heart. Too many want an instant bestseller in their hands.

  5. Great column, Brian! Not only have I always admired LeGuin, this is a wonderful and helpful lesson about writing--for all of us. As Melodie said, this kind of advice certainly needs to be passed along to students.

  6. I loved her fantasies. She had a gift for creating environment.

  7. Sadly missed already. She was one of the best.

  8. I'm late to the party but I wanted to say, thanks for this, Brian. What I loved best was Le Guin's short stories. I have said that since Borges died she was our greatest writer of parables. Decades ago I introduced a friend to "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and he added it to the curriculum for his short story course. (Le Guin lived in Oregon, by the way. Omelas is Salem O(regon) backwards.) And then there is "The Author of the Acacia Seeds," a collection of very Borgesian essays about literature written by animals. And "Direction of the Road," from the viewpoint of a tree who believes its job is to loom larger as people approach, and then to get smaller as they go away (but it is about so much more than that). Or "She Unnames Them," in which a certain well-known woman leaves a certain well-known man. I could go on...


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