Ursula Le Guin talks Sci-fi Snobbery, Adaptations, & Troublemaking
We spoke to seminal US fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin about her career, radicalism, literary influence and more…
A Wizard Of Earthsea. The Left Hand Of Darkness. The Lathe Of Heaven. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The Dispossessed. Ursula Le Guin may not thank me for listing them (“Everybody wants to go back to the older stuff, come on now! I’ve written some really good stuff recently! I don’t want to get stuck in reminiscing”) but the novels and short stories she published in the sixties and seventies are undeniable sci-fi and fantasy classics.
Le Guin has nourished imaginative literature for decades with fine, precise prose and political provocation. She’s also spent years clear-headedly defending sci-fi and fantasy against the kind of people who turn up their noses up at books with dragons on their covers and maps in their title pages.
She’ll put anyone straight on the myopic assumption that “the silliest realist was better than Tolkien”, as she will those who treat books as commodities. See her rail against the profit motive in literature in this speech given to a roomful of publishers and booksellers at the 2014 National Book Awards. They gave her a medal. She gave ‘em hell.
To mark a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary celebrating Le Guin at 85 and radio dramatisations of The Left Hand Of Darkness and the Earthsea books, we spoke to her about causing trouble, censorship, snobbery, her stories being betrayed by film and TV adaptations (“it’s at its worst in Hollywood, but believe me, it wasn’t so good in Japan either”), and the real work of her career, pushing open the doors a little wider…
Neil Gaiman, admiringly, has called you “a troublemaker”, he says you “throw out ideas like a terrorist setting off a bomb”.
[Laughs] Don’t tell my government that!
Ha! Was transgression your intention when you started publishing in the sixties?
No. I was a good girl, I wasn’t a rebel or anything of that sort, but when things are kind of awful, you have to talk about it.
Looking back now, do you think you caused enough trouble?
Well, let me think about that a moment. I did not set out to be a troublemaker. I set out to be a novelist and a poet. That does seem to involve – if you do it seriously – making people uncomfortable to some extent, upsetting the apple cart and rocking the boat and things like that. I’m not really a political person. I’m just a writer, as they say. Well, of course the personal is the political and there’s no way to get around that.
Do you see yourself as a radical? China Miéville once described you as “one of American literature’s most radical voices”.
Yeah, I do. That’s easy enough. Of course, being a radical in the United States… you can be slightly left of centre and you’re immediately called ‘radical’. I’ve always been something of a socialist in politics and so on, and that’s extremely radical over here. I think some of my writing is radical in a sort of quiet way. I don’t go in for dangerous writing and shocking people and so on. If radical means getting down to the roots of things you write, then I do see that as my job, trying to get down to the roots.
You said once about Virginia Woolf, after reading Orlando in college, that “she gave me permission, as you can say a great writer does”. To whom and for what would you say your writing has given permission?
That, I don’t know. The reader has to answer that question, I can’t.
On the topic of conservatism in the US, did you follow the recent Clean Reader App controversy?
Briefly then, it’s an application that takes away profanity and sexual language from literature e-books.
Oh my God. [Laughs] Ai ai ai!
Precisely! It made me think back to your ‘Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?’ essay about Puritanism and the US fear of fantasy. You wrote that in 1974, but that fear of dragons, and sexuality and so on is still keenly felt today. That same conservatism and Puritanism is still at the heart of America now.
It’s very strong here. It’s very strong.
And there are people who want to ban your books, and keep them out of schools?
Oh sure. My books have been banned simply because they are imaginative – science-fiction, fantasy, what have you. The imagination is considered dangerous and of course, it is. These people are right. The imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.
You’ve spoken and written very cogently for decades about the snobbery that imaginative literature – science-fiction and fantasy – has from the literary establishment. Do you think we’ll ever reach a point when those snobbish attitudes don’t exist?
Some people have to be snobs, don’t they? They can’t exist without looking down on something. There will always be such people, but tomorrow the fashion could change and then we’ll be looking down on realism!
The good thing is that in my life, we really have come quite a long way to return to sanity in admitting that imaginative literature is probably the oldest kind of storytelling and will always be with us – thank goodness – and that realism is just one kind of way of writing fiction, but not necessarily the best. Certainly not automatically the best, which is what the snobbery thing was to do with. If it was realistic it was inherently better than anything imaginative and therefore the silliest realist was better than Tolkien. Well, it just, it won’t wash, as we say.
You’re hopeful though? You see that attitude diminishing?
It’s changing. It’s changing very very fast. I think there are a lot of, particularly younger people, who just don’t pay any attention to that snobbery. To the extent that when I find myself back in the old position of fighting against the snobs and defending imaginative literature I think, oh, I should stop doing that, really, I think the battle’s won. Or to use another metaphor, that we’ve changed the scenery.
Zadie Smith’s next novel is science-fiction and inspired by your work. She’s said about it, “I don’t know if I can do it. Those books are incredibly hard to write”. Would you say that’s false modesty on Smith’s part or is good sci-fi, good imaginative literature, harder to write than “so-called realism”?
I don’t think it’s harder, but it’s a different job. It involves certain different skills and techniques. If Zadie Smith knows that, then she’s got nothing to worry about! It’s the writers who don’t know that and just think they can use some of the images and tropes and so on from science-fiction and stick them in their book and put it on another planet or in a spaceship or something… Oh golly, as a book reviewer, it’s depressing to read another of those, by people with a name in respectable fiction who are sort of slumming in science fiction and doing it really badly. You know what I mean.
Holding their noses as they do so. It happens in film too. I don’t know if you’ve seen the most recent Richard Curtis movie, which uses time-travel as a device but takes none of the responsibility or displays even the barest interest in it or its logic.
Oh dear. I really have been keeping away from science-fiction films. There have been some great ones, but…
Are publishers and marketers the ones to blame for that snobbery? Is it right that Margaret Atwood was harassed by her publishers not to use the label “science-fiction” for her work…
I gather that she was literally forbid – in so far as you can forbid Margaret Atwood anything – they said ‘don’t use that word!’ and it put her into the rather uncomfortable position she’s been in of sort of zig-zagging about, because obviously three of her books [the MaddAddam trilogy] are science-fiction. She wants to redefine science-fiction to exclude herself from it [laughing]. That’s too bad, it’s sort of a waste of her good time I think. But yes, it is very much that. Everything in publishing now has to do with marketing and appearance and what’s easiest for the PR people.
You told the PR people what for in your rallying acceptance speech for last November’s National Book Award [for Distinguished Contribution To American Letters, previously won by, among others, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Elmore Leonard, Arthur Miller…]. We’re back now to the idea of being a troublemaker. Was that speech an instance of you throwing bombs at the publishing industry?
Well, yes. The fact is, I really didn’t think anybody outside that room of 700 people would pay any attention, but everybody in that room was a publisher or a bookseller or an editor or an author and I could talk to the people who do this stuff. I thought, well, I’m 85 years old and I might as well say what I think [laughs].
Talk about speaking truth to power!
The funny thing was my son – and he very kindly didn’t tell me this until afterwards – but the next table entirely consisted of Amazon people! I didn’t mention the company by name, but it was fairly clear who I was most of all talking about.
You deserve a whole other medal for that speech as far as I’m concerned.
Thank you. I was pleased and kind of moved to see how fast it went out and how people really, it seemed like were waiting to hear it, right?
It needed saying. Literature still needs its heroes. You mentioned being 85, I wonder what perspective on your earlier work have you gained from the vantage point of this stage in your career? On the Earthsea series, for instance, which you’ve revisited at intervals of more than a decade?
I don’t know. Sometimes I get tired of talking about work that I wrote forty years ago. I’d rather talk about things I wrote within the last ten or fifteen years, which get talked about much less. Everybody wants to go back to the older stuff [laughing] come on now! I’ve written some really good stuff recently! I don’t want to get stuck in reminiscing. It’s boring.
It’s because we grew up with it.
I know. I do understand why people want to do it, but all I can do is keep pushing the other stuff.
China Miéville said in a previous Radio 4 documentary about you, “it’s been said that you can tell a lot about someone from whether they prefer The Left Hand Of Darkness or The Dispossessed.” What do you consider you can tell about people from their responses to your work?
Well, really all I can tell is about me, not them — If they like what I write it’s much easier for me to like them than if they don’t.
How much do you let yourself think about your legacy?
That’s probably wise!
So long as I can do any work, I just want to go ahead working. What becomes of it is not up to me.
You once said that at vulnerable moments the thought “who is going to keep me alive?” sometimes intrudes. Do those thoughts still intrude?
I said that specifically talking about what happens to women writers. They get disappeared very quickly, so often and so unjustly. Then there has to be this laborious attempting to bring them back, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. There is a real injustice there. It’s awful to think that you might just get sort of swept off the map simply because you were a woman writer instead of a man writer. You know, what the hell?
Who have you seen that happen to? Women writers being swept off the map, I mean.
I’m a little afraid that it’s happening to our wonderful Grace Paley. A lot of people felt she was definitely one of the best writers we had going. The trouble is, Grace wrote only short pieces, she never wrote a novel, and she spent an awful lot of her time in pure politics. Her stories are absolutely wonderful and it looks like they’re just dropping out of the canon.
I suppose if Peter Jackson doesn’t make a trilogy of films about them…
[Laughing] There’s an idea.
That can bring writers out of obscurity though, can’t it? That kind of treatment.
Yeah, but when books depend on films to keep them in sight… The trouble is that then you find people who think they’ve read Tolkien but they haven’t, they’ve only seen the movies. The movies are not Tolkien. There are resemblances, fewer and fewer, but…
You said a few years ago that you sometimes you’ve felt like “such a booby” for saying yes to TV and film people [who want to make adaptations of her work]. Presumably you’ve said no too? You must have turned down projects.
Oh yes, indeed I have. Quite a few.
What decides for you whether you say no or yes?
That has changed as I’ve got a little bit… I had an odd experience. My very first movie was the one that was done right and done well.
The PBS version of Lathe Of Heaven (1979)?
Yeah, the old Lathe Of Heaven. That was extraordinary. I was too green to know that it was very unusual that I would be consulted, genuinely consulted, about the script, and would help rewrite it, and so on. I thought ‘oh, this is great, this is movie-making, this is wonderful’ [laughing] ha ha. I was in a very unusual situation. So I sort of naively agreed to other things. They promise you the moon, but then you find that you are completely excluded and very, very firmly excluded from the process of making the movie. This naïve writer said [adopts ingénue voice] ‘oh my goodness, but you said I could help you?’ [adopts gruff voice] ‘we don’t want your help’.
You’re just the writer, chopped liver.
Absolutely. Of course, it’s at its worst in Hollywood, but believe me, it wasn’t so good in Japan either [Studio Ghibli released Tales From Earthsea in 2006]. So I’ve got very hard-nosed about this. I don’t need the money so I can just say ‘no, you can’t have my book, if you’re going to chop it up and use its name and make it into something or other of yours that has nothing to do with what I wrote’. Enough of that.
Is there less risk of that happening with a radio adaptation like these BBC Radio 4 ones for Earthsea and The Left Hand Of Darkness? Because it’s still left up to the imagination, radio can’t betray books as badly as television and movies can?
I don’t know any cases of their having done that. We don’t have radio drama over here, we lost it years, decades ago. I wrote a little of it myself back in the 80s, but it doesn’t exist here anymore. It’s just beginning to creep back as a sort of underground thing done by young people. I miss it, I love radio drama.
I will tell you I was rather cautious and rather leery of the BBC, and I asked for some assurance that I would genuinely be included in looking at the drafts of the scripts, and I was thoroughly included and in fact worked with great pleasure with the script writer [Judith Adams]. It’s wonderful to watch a real pro at work. It’s a huge job to take a long novel and turn it into a few episodes of a drama that has no visual component, except inside the hearer’s imagination. It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to hearing the result.
Do you follow Game Of Thrones on television at all?
No. We watch two things on television. Call The Midwife and something called Oregon Field Guide, which has marvellous photographs of where I live. That’s all we see on television.I wondered if HBO were to approach you about adapting Earthsea or the Hainish Cycle…
I’ve been approached by people who want to dramatise a book of mine for HBO for television, because that’s where an awful lot of the movies are going now, of course. Does HBO actually make the movies or just buy them from makers? I don’t know.
They’re certainly the money…
Do you worry about what might be done years and years in the future with your work? Are there things in place to stop bastardised versions coming out in the cinema and on TV?
[Laughs] I have a very strong-minded son who is working with me now and handling my literary business. He will manage the estate. He’s a businessman and very canny and he knows what’s right and what isn’t.
To go back to another Neil Gaiman quote if you don’t mind, he told a BBC Radio 4 interviewer that he remembers showing you a passage from his novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, and said he’d stolen it from you. You were very gracious, as he tells it, brushing it off by saying, “Oh, I stole it. I just stole it and passed it on.”
I’m trying to remember what the passage was?
It was one of the Hempstocks talking about the language of making, I think. It was very Earthsea-ish magic, the true names for things and…
Oh, the true names. I didn’t specifically steal it, but naming magic is a well-known form of magic all over the world. I’m an anthropologist’s daughter, I read Frazer [James, Scottish social anthropologist] when I was a kid, I learned about that kind of thing. One of the ways you do magic is you find out what the thing’s name is, and since I’m a writer who makes things out of words, it came natural to me to use that as my form of magic in those stories. It’s one of those ideas that a lot of people have had. So Neil didn’t steal it from me at all, he just stole it out of the air!
The idea of stealing things and passing them on, do you see yourself as part of an unending chain of influence in that way?
Oh sure, yeah. A writer who didn’t read would be a weird creature wouldn’t it? [laughs] That’s the trouble with the question people always ask you when you’re in front of an audience. They say ‘Tell us about the book that influenced you most’. Everything I ever read! It all goes into me, it’s like food. Tell me about the meal that nourished you most? [laughs] I can’t do it! I eat books and so of course they become part of me.
My question then is, do the books that you eat now nourish you as much as the ones you ate when you were a child and a teenager?
Oh, no no. That’s such a good question. Things that kids read and the thing that hits the kid as a kid gets into their bones. The things I read now get into my head, sure enough. I think about them. I might read something and it’ll turn into a poem next month or something, but that early stuff, that becomes a part of your whole being in a different way, and you can’t get rid of it.
You once told an anecdote about a story you published in Playboy Magazine in the sixties, in which you were credited as UK Le Guin, not Ursula [because it was thought that Playboy’s male readers would be scared of a woman writer]. You said it was eventually published with the line “The stories of UK Le Guin are not written by UK Le Guin but by another person of the same name”. That strikes me as a truthful thing to say, especially about an author with an interest in naming magic, that the stories of Ursula Le Guin are not written by Ursula Le Guin but by another person of the same name. Authors’ names have to be personas in a sense? Stop me if I’m being terribly ponderous!
I know exactly what you’re saying. It’s a little bit like the French author [Jean-Paul Sartre] who turned down the Nobel Prize because he said that he didn’t want to be “Nobel Prize-winner so-and-so”. When a name becomes an icon or famous, it may not describe the person who still bears that name at all. You’re getting at something very true and very complicated, I think.
To speak in Earthsea terms, is Ursula Le Guin your use-name?
Ursula K Le Guin is my use-name, that is my professional writing name, and I want the K there because I want to honour my maiden name, Kroeber, but I have lots of other names.
As do we all.
(Photo by Jack Liu)
You’ve talked about Portland as a nice city for a writer who doesn’t want to lead a public life. As a SFF devotee, I realise that as readers and fans, we tend to want a piece of our heroes, perhaps more than other audiences. We demand access. People like Neil Gaiman provide that via Twitter, and George R.R. Martin on his ‘Not A Blog’ website. Do you feel that you have to protect your privacy more as an SFF author, because we tend to want a piece of our heroes more than perhaps other fandoms?
I have not had a problem protecting my privacy, touch wood, because these are strange days for privacy over here. In the science-fiction and fantasy world, if you want to go to the meetings and conventions and so on, you can be just as public as you please and get a lot of feedback from fans, and of course, meet other authors. When I was younger, I needed that and I did it to some extent at least.
Of course I haven’t hit the kind of tremendous popularity of George Martin or Neil Gaiman. I’m not in that league at all. People have been very respectful and kind. I’ve got a website which is not interactive. I do not respond to people on it at all, and people seem okay with that. Maybe they’ll write me a letter – that’s nice – but they know I really can’t answer most letters any more. I feel that people haven’t done this sort of mobbing thing, which must be rather terrifying.
Finally, as we’re running out of time, a question about gender, something you’ve written and discussed and – I’m sure – been asked about a lot…
[Laughs] Well I did bring up the subject, didn’t I?
In 1990’s Tehanu [the fourth in the Earthsea series], you gave Tenar a question she put to Ged, “Why are men afraid of women?”, which felt like the real kernel of this novel about male violence. In the intervening years, have you been able to answer it? Or is that what the books and poems are for?
Is there an answer to that question? In a sense, it’s a rhetorical question. It simply brings it up, it just says it: men are afraid of women. Will they be able to stop being afraid of women is, in a sense, the real question. If they realise that they’re afraid of women and begin to handle the fear and accept it as such… I think some of that’s happened. Some of the changes we’ve seen in the relationships between men and women, and also in the whole definition of gender, that we’re not so afraid of the Other and we don’t define the Other so harshly and narrowly and strictly. The doors are opening wider in that, because there’s less fear. We’ve found out, well, what were we afraid of after all? What’s so terrifying?
Your writing has played a huge part in pushing open those doors for so many people.
If it has played a part, I’m very glad of it.
Ursula Le Guin, thank you very much.
Ursula Le Guin At 85, a documentary presented by Naomi Alderman and featuring contributions from authors Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell, airs on Thursday the 9th of April at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4. The Left Hand Of Darkness radio drama, featuring Lesley Sharp, Toby Jones and Louise Brealey, airs on Sunday the 12th of April at 3pm. The BBC Radio 4 Extra Earthsea radio adaptation airs on Monday the 27th of April at 6pm.