Words are My Matter, Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a collection of nonfiction by Le Guin, a combination of essays (mostly texts from speeches and presentations) and book forewords and reviews, with a diary excerpt finale, all written between 2000 and 2016. I found everything but the diary interesting.

There’s two main themes I found running through this book, both of them aimed directly at those who would guard the gates of literature. Unlike some others who began their career writing imaginative literature, Le Guin never apologized for it, tried to hide it or call it something else, and continued to write it, and publish under that label, even after she had acquired enough fame that she could basically write what she wanted to. As a writer who grew up in California and made her home in Oregon, she also decried the literati who thought Western literature was all horse opera.

I can’t disagree with either sentiment, but the problem with a collection like this that pulls all of these diversely published (in places, for the essays, and in time, for the review, which mostly appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper) pieces is that these complaints, repeated at the beginning of most of these, or even the main subject of some, becomes somewhat tiresome. Le Guin shines when she finally gets to actually discussing the book or subject in question, and is genuinely effusive and generous about many other writers. When she does decide to deride a book, she provides a caveat about how it might just not be to her taste, while others may enjoy it (in one case, a review of Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, wherein she ends the review by saying, “Readers who find anachronism and implausibility easy to swallow will enjoy the story and perhaps find in it the fresh vision, the new take on dreary old Dystopia, that I could not.”).

A couple of the essays have some controversy attached to them. “On Serious Literature” was a quick response she wrote in regard to a review on Slate in 2007 in which the reviewer described genre fiction as a “decaying corpse” that “writers of serious literature” and abandoned in a “shallow grave.” The piece, which Le Guin posted on her own website, portrayed genre fiction coming to visit that reviewer like a zombie, and is quite funny. So funny, that one of the editors of the blog boingboing reproduced it there without her permission, and were roundly thrashed by the e-literati once she complained about it, not the first time that that publication was hoisted by its own petard.  “Freedom,” the speech it took her a year to write and which she agonized over the most, was given in acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in November 2014. It was a shot fired across the bow of contemporary publishing, notably the rise of Amazon, and laments the control of sales over editorial following Amazon’s feud with the publisher Hachette over the pricing of ebooks. It is a manifesto for writers who see themselves as artists, not merely creators of a commodity to be hawked.

The one truly surprising essay to me, and the one that I still think on, was “What It Was Like,” a talk given at a meeting of the Oregon NARAL in January 2004. In it, Le Guin revealed that she had gotten pregnant in 1950, when she was twenty, and what that was like before Roe vs. Wade. Looking back, 54 years later, she described how her entire life would have been different, had she not had that abortion; how she would have had to drop out of college, depend on her parents through the pregnancy, birth, and infancy of that child until she could obtain work and gain some kind of independence for herself and the child. And, in doing so, she wouldn’t have been a Fulbright student heading to France on the Queen Mary in 1953, she wouldn’t have met her husband on that voyage, and she wouldn’t have born the three children she had with him. As she puts it, “If I had not broken the law [against abortion in 1950] and aborted that life nobody wanted, [her current three children] would have been aborted by a cruel, bigoted, and senseless law. They would never have been born.” It’s a tough argument, one that balances unborn life against unborn life, and one that I’m still trying to digest. But that’s the kind of thing Le Guin was good at: putting you in a position to question your beliefs and biases and confront the difficult choices in life.

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