Ursula Le Guin’s legacy is progress, not perfection

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Recently I woke up to a Google alert pinging my name in connection with an article in the Washington Post about Ursula Le Guin.

My quote, pulled from an article I wrote for LitHub, was basically intended to serve in this essay as an example of the over-the-top adoration that has made Le Guin a sort of “secular saint.” 

The author of this article, B.D. McClay, goes on to unpack all the ways that Le Guin is more interesting than all that hero-worship would imply—as exemplified by the reissue of Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Writing, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

Specifically, McClay finds interest in the way that Le Guin goes back and argues with herself over her earlier position and thoughts on, say, the use of the pronoun “he” for the androgynous denizens of Gethen, and on why there are no female wizards in Earthsea.

I read this essay with interest, but I’ll admit I found the tone—even the stance—off-putting.

Yes, Le Guin argues with herself. Yes, Le Guin changes her mind.

In The Language of the Night, Le Guin goes back and takes issue with her position on pronouns and gender in The Left Hand of Darkness

And the author did so much serious rethinking of gender in Earthsea that she wrote a whole second trilogy to address why people in this fantasy archipelago had been led to believe the lie encapsulated by the phrase “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic.”

In truth, all this “breathless” adoration Le Guin enjoys from rubes like me and…Ken Liu? It’s not because we think Le Guin was infallible.

We love her because she took big risks and didn’t always land them.

We love her because she tried to create work that was true to her ideals, like so many of us—but unlike most of us, she had the temerity to own those mistakes publicly, and then do her best to address them. 

That’s why Le Guin is a secular saint.

Not because she was perfect, but because she evolved. (Which is in fact addressed by the rest of that essay I wrote for LitHub—but perhaps that part didn’t help this particular author set up their argument in the desired fashion?)

A perfect agreement between our ideals and our creative work strikes me along the lines of world peace, in terms of a goal, as per an anecdote one of my clients, Scott Snibbe, shared in his recently published book How to Train a Happy Mind: A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

Scott notes that someone once asked the Dalai Lama, “Is world peace actually possible?” And the Dalai Lama basically said, practically speaking, no—there will always be some kind of conflict somewhere. 

But is working toward the goal of world peace important? Yes, because doing so will improve the quality of life on earth for the vast majority of people. 

Doing so will change the world.

Le Guin was all for world changing, but she didn’t write utopias, because she understood the idea of perfection—the idea of a perfect world–was a lie. And a dangerous one at that.

But progress? She believed in that—and most importantly, she modeled for us what that looks like, as people, thinkers, and artists.

That’s why she remains one of the guiding lights of my work. The anthology I edited, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, is full of fabulous SFF and literary writers paying tribute to Le Guin’s legacy in their own creative work. You can check it out here.

Never miss a post! Subscribe to my newsletter.

Leave a Reply