Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

I met Ursula Le Guin in Atlanta. I was 31. Ammonite, my first novel, had been accepted for publication as a cheap mass-market paperback and I was trying to figure out how to get it some attention. So I went to Ursula's reading and book signing at a local bookshop and afterwards joined the line that inched closer and closer to her table, clutching one of her books.

Even then I knew that asking a writer on tour to read your book was a bad idea, but also knew that if you don't ask, you don't get. This was before email, before social media, before you could reach out via someone's website; it might be my only chance. There would be no time to articulate how I felt about her work, no opportunity to explain how important it was to me that she was here, that she might read something I had written, something that could not have existed without her and writers like Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre, Suzy Charnas and Octavia Butler, who were the latest in a long, long tradition of women levering out the bricks of the wall built to keep us out of the genre garden.

I got to the head of the line. I hesitated. Ursula crackled with impatience.

"I wrote a book," I blurted. "Will you give me a blurb?"

She studied me. "I only consider first novels by women."

"But that's me!" I beamed with reckless hope. "I have a contract from HarperCollins UK and Del Rey!"

She glanced over my shoulder at the line. "Fine. Send it through your editor," and signed the book.

So I persuaded my editor (brand new to the profession, like me — Ammonite was her first acquisition) to photocopy the manuscript on the sly and slip it into the company mail. And then I waited. Ursula sent back a lovely blurb — along with a lecture about the ridiculousness of unpronounceable Irish names. I wrote a thank you, and agreed about the names, which were intended as placeholders until, unhelpfully, the characters had grown into them. That this is who they were now, it was done.

In the last 25 years we've had dinner and lunch, drinks and conversations and a few disagreements. I've seen her cranky and delighted, tired and energetic, vulnerable and carved of adamant. I had always admired the writer, but I seriously like the woman.

I heard the news of Ursula's death on the anniversary of saying goodbye to my dying sister. I was already sad, but my response to Ursula's death shocked me with its strength. I wept helplessly. I wept until I couldn't breathe. And after a pause, I wept more. Ursula was not a close friend yet tears are running down my face as I write this. Why? Because I would not be who and where I am without her.

Ursula would not, in my opinion, have felt flattered to be the SF version of Virginia Woolf: the single woman who can not be erased from the school curriculum, the undergraduate survey course, or retrospective Masters anthology of SF or Modernism. To be seen as inherently different from other women, and for women to be strange unicorns in the wood of a male genre, would have meant that she had failed. She was not the first feminist SFF writer, nor the first to write about gendered worlds. She never claimed to be a trail-blazer or a path-breaker in this sense.

Ursula Le Guin's importance is as a deepener and clarifier of possibility. Her fiction combines cool prose with a burning sense of justice, and bends them in service of a powerful moral imagination to the examination of the human condition. In this examination, her fiction does not flinch. I can't speak to whether she was ever tempted to offer easy answers to difficult questions, but her fiction always refuses the easy choice. Rather, her stories excel at holding strong and opposing ideas in balance. Her fiction is ambiguous without being frustrating. That is her gift and talent.

In person, and in her nonfiction, Ursula was not ambiguous. She was clear, direct, and definite; she did not hesitate to let an interlocutor know when, in her not particularly humble opinion, their ideas were shallow, half-baked, or illogical. Unlike many other women she was not afraid to state her opinions. And unlike many other women, she was not punished for it.

Perhaps this was because her early fiction was dressed in a male persona and so did not hold the righteous rage of her era's other feminist SF; perhaps because she appeared safe — a white, straight-presenting, married upper middle-class mother — and she did not make the male gatekeepers of literary reputation defensive. But perhaps it was because she was so damn good at what she did. Her reputation now is as a colossus. She is a colossus made so partly by her talent, but also by her generosity. Since she gave me that first blurb, she has not only given me another but, more importantly, asked me for one. She didn't need a blurb from me or any other newer writer; it was her way of hauling us up onto the plinth beside her inside that walled garden. And now we are here and have a platform, we in turn are talking about Ursula, and her reputation grows. She deserves every bit of it.

Ursula did not lack a sense of self-esteem. She would have enjoyed many of the accolades being heaped upon her in these eulogies. But what might make her sad as she reads is that today three of those five writers I mention at the beginning do not yet have the reputation they deserve. For centuries the gatekeepers have been building that wall, designed with a single aperture to let through one woman writer at a time. I like to imagine Ursula would snort at this giant game of Highlander, in which There Can Be Only One, and call for us to tear that wall down. To paraphrase her speech at the National Book Awards in 2014: We live in patriarchy, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Resistance and change often begin in art, the art of words.

If you want to honor the memory of Ursula Le Guin, the next time you're asked what you're reading or whose work you love, talk about those the gatekeepers tend to turn away. And get writing.