I may have read as much about Ursula K. Le Guin as I've read of Ursula K. Le Guin. But of what I've read—three novels, a short story or two, more than a dozen essays—it has all been excellent, some of it superb. Her work bespoke a deep intelligence, a wry wit, a delight in invention, and long practice. But what has mattered more to me is her quiet but steely courage and integrity. No one stared her down. No one backed her off.
The last two days, of course, there has been much reading about her after word of her passing came out of Portland, Oregon. Much of what's being said is commonplace, because we have a common humane response when an exemplar dies. But some fine things have appeared, and even the pedestrian pieces rise when they carry Le Guin gems like this:
Interviewer: Which would you rather have, a National Book Award or a Hugo?
Le Guin: Oh, a Nobel, of course.
Interviewer: They don't give Nobel Prizes for fantasy.
Le Guin: Maybe I can do something for peace.
Read an interview with Le Guin—she was generous with her time when queried—and you'll be afforded glimpses of mischief. When Julie Phillips first contacted her for a profile in The New Yorker, Le Guin was mad about the occupation of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge by the Bundy brothers, but noted that she'd lightened her mood by following the Twitter feed #BundyEroticFanFic.
Le Guin never apologized for writing genre fiction. In a piece she wrote for The New Yorker four years before Phillips' profile, Le Guin said:
For a long time, critics and English professors declared that science fiction wasn’t literature. Most of them spoke from the modernist-realist basis of never having read any science fiction since they were twelve. They were comfortable with a judgment that allowed them to remain both superior and ignorant, and quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety.
What a fine bit of fierceness that is. Michael Cunningham got this for Electric Lit:
Honestly, orthodoxy concerns me about as much as it concerns your average jackrabbit. I only follow rules that take me where I want to go. If there aren’t any rules, I make up my own (and follow them strictly).
And then there's this oft-quoted piece of her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards:
I rejoice in accepting [this award] for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from "literature" for so long—my fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination who over the past 50 years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called "realists." I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now I think we need writers who understand the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of art.
Scientific American was correct when it labeled her "a complete person of letters and an important public intellectual." I can think of no better example of her leaning into the current and holding fast than her Mills College commencement address in 1983. Excerpting it does not do it justice, but savor these sentences:
Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy—that’s their game. Not against men, either—that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?