“She was a sword-swinging, battle-hardened, blast-brained badass. She was like no one else, and I want everyone else to be a great deal more in her vein,” is what I typed yesterday morning to a friend, with whom I was having a fiery discussion about the way the world insists upon referring to old women as dear, as sweet, as lovely—as significantly less than the sum of their knowledge, art, labor, and accumulated, glittering wrath.
We were, of course, talking about Ursula K. Le Guin, who can be talked about in many ways, because she did many things, all at once. She was a literary giant, who managed to march through a career that stretched from the 1930s (she submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction when she was 11, and in my opinion, that counts) to 2018, writing books and stories and poems that almost always cracked the world open for readers, creating a blistering new understanding of, well, everything. She did this with generosity, with crackling humor, with prickly judgment, with a constant clicking analysis of her own failings and her own ability to grow. She did not stop. In the last few months of her life she wrote reviews and a new story, did interviews to promote her essay collection—when asked by Entertainment Weekly last month if there was a book that had changed her life, she responded: “Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.”
She was tired in recent years, but she didn’t stop trying to change the world until she left it.
My friend was aggravated about the designation grande dame, specifically, about which I said, “She’s being described as something in an enormous skirt.”
Neither of us wished to see Ursula K. Le Guin described as something in an enormous skirt, a sort of Mother Ginger figure rolling across the scene, petticoats filled with baby writers, who she, as a woman, would mother and mentor into viability. Not that she didn’t mentor a ton of people. She gave critiques, redlined articles, and explained her own archives. She was open for communication, and corresponded with dozens of writers. She reviewed books and helped to launch careers at a moment when most writers would have been sitting back on their literal heap of laurels.
It is tempting, when talking about women, particularly women whose lives have encompassed not only art but also motherhood and grandmotherhood and wifehood, to discuss them as Mothers of All, to credit them with a maternal impulse toward not only their own children but an entire field, but to do that is to deny the grit and intensity of their solo ambition. Le Guin once said, when asked which she’d rather have, a National Book Award or a Hugo, “Oh, a Nobel, of course.” Her interviewer said that they didn’t give out the Nobel for fantasy and Le Guin said that maybe she’d do something for peace, then.
Anyone who found themselves in her company was likely to come out of the meeting galvanized. The one time I met her, in 2014, I sat beside her with an embarrassingly dropped jaw, suffering from intense starstruck shyness. She, for her part, reported that she was suffering from slight nerves about the speech she was about to deliver. She was being presented with the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Like some sort of fool, I assumed that she was going to give a normal thank you speech. Instead, she delivered a scathing indictment of corporate publishing, and a reminder of the power of art to preserve the understanding of freedom. It was the sort of speech that causes a room full of people in uncomfortable tux pants to rise, even knowing that they were themselves being critiqued.
So yes, I want to see Ursula Le Guin described for future generations, and for ourselves, as a destroyer of common myths, as a fighter against hierarchical horseshit, as a radical, as a maker of worlds, as an inventor. As an anarchic destabilizer of established power structures and a ferocious critic of racist and sexist narratives, not as a remarkable old dame.
It is not remarkable that a woman might spend a life of nearly 90 years working tremendously hard, and still be really… cool. Women do this all the time. It is not remarkable to arrive at a stage in a long and ferocious life in which one manages somehow to be elderly, female, and still unflinchingly intelligent, rather than simply cozy. Many of the women I know—and especially many of the writing women I know of Le Guin’s generation, worked for decades to raise children, and to support themselves, writing in the dead of night. They are remarkable for continuing to nurture their own wild, fiery precise imagination, refusing to let the world wring it from them. Inventing better universes is an intense business, and they spent their lives doing it.
They are, I suppose I’m saying, neither Grand nor Old nor Dames first. They’re brave damn writers who have spent their time on Earth doing brave damn work.
Ursula K. Le Guin was never awarded that Nobel. She did do “something for peace,” though. Her work stabbed at assumptions, insisted on analysis of accepted narratives, and demanded justice for everyone, not just for the pale and the powerful.
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin reshaped American literature by insisting that stories about invented cultures could tell us everything we had been conveniently denying about our own, and, if we listened, teach us how to change our lives.