Review: Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

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I got a chance to read Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing. It is a fast read. In just 150 short pages, interviewer David Naimon, host of the Portland-based podcast Behind the Covers, conducted the interview for broadcast by KBOO 90.7 FM in Portland Oregon. The book moves quickly through Le Guin’s thoughts on writing fiction, poetry and nonfiction. This is not as in-depth as some of her other writings about writing. You will find longer, more in-depth interviews elsewhere as well. (See her interview with Bill Moyers for example.) What you get from this book are some of Le Guin’s last thoughts on the subject. If you have never heard her speak on any subject before, there is much here.

Le Guin’s world outlook is heavily influenced by asian religion, Buddhism, the I-ching, Taoism and Naimon digs into that. On some broad level, that Asian worldview influences her work, but not visibly at the macro scale of obvious plot. In many ways, the concepts are so broad and fundamental that they influence the rhythm of EVERY part of her work. Right down to the words. Right down to the rhythm of the words in sentences. Right down to the way words convey the structure of alien thought. She argues forcefully that good prose ignores the current “fads” of writing, digging for something deeper. Good prose follows the rhythm of thought. It is an idea she credits to Virginia Woolf.

I left the book feeling I had gotten the barest taste of her thoughts and it brought back the sorrow and hollowness of her passing. At one point in this book, she discussed the inability to see sexism in the science fiction genre at a book level. Often, modern science fiction will exhibit strong female characters. But, she stresses, when you look at the broad level, the tendencies of the genre are apparent. She cites the fading of C. J. Cherryh from the canon while authors like William Gibson remain. I hope we have changed. I hope that observation isn’t prophecy for her own body of work. It would be tragic if Le Guin joined Cherryh in under-appreciated obscurity. When Ursula speaks, even beyond the grave, even in such a slender volume, we should listen.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

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