Screening Room: ‘Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin’

My review of the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was published at PopMatters:

Hard times are coming,” author Ursula K. Le Guin said in her fiery 2014 speech accepting the National Book Foundation award. Her tone was somehow somber, yet also chipper, as though she had already acknowledged the worst and now was girding for battle. She was fixing her bayonet in bright spirits and about to go over the top…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: No Labels

One of our great writers of not just science fiction and fantasy but literature period is no longer with us. Ursula K. Le Guin passed away last week–read Margaret Atwood’s obituary here–and the world of letters is less for it.

She told John Wray a few years back that she got a little prickly when boxed in as just a “sci-fi writer”:

Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

Listen to what Le Guin said. Send your writer’s tentacles everywhere.

Writer’s Desk: Know Your Facts

lefthanddarknessUrsula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) is one of our greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy. She’s one of only two living writers to have their work included in the Library of America; Philip Roth is the other.

Even though she’s renowned as a fabulist, though, Le Guin’s hackles went up when the troubling new political term of art “alternative facts” was compared to science fiction. Le Guin responded forcefully to the smearing of literature:

The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined — and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it ‘alternative history’ or ‘an alternate universe,’ but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are ‘alternative facts.’

This might be a decent lesson for writers in trying times. Remember that while fiction must be based in emotional and physical truth to be successful, it should never try to pass itself off as truth.

That’s not fiction. That’s propaganda.

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.