Telling Stories Truly

Ursula K. Le Guin to speak at CSWS anniversary

She writes about politics, religion, sexuality and gender — all in unreal worlds through the controversial genre of science fiction — and contests the conventional rules of grammar. Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinct style has been recognized and awarded for decades, she and will speak from 6:30 to 9 pm Friday, Nov. 8, at UO’s EMU Ballroom for the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Center for the Study of Women in Society, the organization that has funded and supported feminist scholarship at UO. The CSWS celebration kicks off Thursday, Nov. 7, with a screening of Agents of Change, a documentary about the center, and continues Friday with the “Women’s Stories, Women’s Lives” symposium and Saturday with the “Worlds Beyond World” symposium (more details at

CSWS was born out of an endowment from Fortune magazine editor William Harris in 1983 in memory of his wife, Jane Grant, a feminist and co-founder of The New Yorker, and has flourished over the years, providing grants and scholarships to faculty and graduate students and promoting the study of women, girls and their communities. For its 40th anniversary, the center will found the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. EW caught up with Le Guin to ask about writing and reading.

With all the debate over which authors are truly writing science fiction and which aren’t, how would you personally define this genre? Why do you think some authors deny their work follows this style?

Defining science fiction is a quicksand in which many brave cowboys have perished along with their horses. I ain’t going there. The reason some people write fiction that does things science fiction does — mutants, time travel, other planets, post-holocaust Earth, etc. — and then deny that it’s science fiction, is that they want to be reviewed by critics and given prizes by judges. A lot of critics and judges still insist that Realism is the only kind of fiction that should be called literature — usually because they have never read anything else, poor things.

In an interview with Wired last year, you said there was increasing pressure from the publishing industry to make your work more like Harry Potter. In what ways? How have you responded to that pressure?

The pressure wasn’t only on me. It was on many writers, from editors of young adult books, who were themselves under pressure from the sales department of their corporation-owned publisher, insisting that any book they accepted for publication had to sell 60 billion copies by next Thursday, just like Harry P. did. To corporations, books are commodities, writers are robots and nothing matters but dollars. I’m a freelancer, and expect to work with my editors, not give orders to them or obey orders from them. In this case I was lucky — the editor who was giving me that kind of pressure suddenly quit and went to another job, and then vanished altogether; maybe he went to Hogwarts, I don’t know.

In that same interview, you talked about the use of ‘they’ as the gender-neutral pronoun. What do you think about introducing ‘ze’ or ‘zhe’ as the gender-neutral pronoun in writing these days? 

Just what I thought about it 40 years ago when I was writing about genderless people in The Left Hand of Darkness. Invented pronouns don’t work. They can work in an experiment or a lesson, but not in a novel. Pronouns go too deep in the structure of the language. “They” as a singular is much older than the “rules” forbidding us to use “they” as a singular, and has always been used in spoken English. It sounds perfectly natural to anybody who hasn’t had their brain washed by a pedant.

Also, you’ve said you get a lot of moral guidance from reading novels and expect to offer some as well. What kind of guidance would you hope that is? What kind of messages would you like for your readers to take away from your works?

Did I say I hoped to offer moral guidance? I did? What was I thinking!? I never hoped anything of the sort that I know of. I have no messages. I tell stories. Of course I’ve gotten moral guidance from novels, everybody who reads good novels does. (I have to say “good novels,” meaning fiction that doesn’t merely cater to the author’s or the reader’s immediate wish-fulfillment.) I worry about people who don’t read novels. Where do they find out about how good people act, or what it feels like to try to do right? Not from history, or politics or the stock market report, that’s for sure.

I was once told that the key to becoming a good journalist was learning how to write poetry. Does this idea resonate with you as a fiction writer? What role has poetry played in your life?

It seems to me there’s very little overlap between poetry and prose, but there’s always subtle interchange and dialogue between them. I wrote poems as a kid, before I tried to write stories. I love to write them both and to read them both. I’m glad to be able to play two different, beautiful instruments.

As someone who creates new fictional people, stories and worlds entirely, what is your view on journalism and the media (professions that are typically expected to stick to the truth and cold, hard facts) these days? Is it possible to write about the truth and reality?

I don’t know. People keep calling me a science fiction writer, so their expectations of my writing about truth and reality are very low. My own expectations of myself for at least trying to speak truly about real things are much higher. But isn’t “the truth” one thing and cold hard facts quite another? (Why doesn’t anybody ever talk about warm, tender facts — which are really a lot harder to write about than the cold, hard ones, and fully as interesting?) Nonfiction and fiction use different means for the same goal: trying to tell a story truly. I don’t suppose any of us ever completely succeeds.

What do you think happens after death? Do these thoughts/ideas inspire your writing?

What happens after death? My death, you mean? Well, everything else will go very on much the same. My form of participation in it, however, will be different. A poet said, “Poetry is about death, and commas.” I agree with her. And fiction, maybe, is about life and death. And commas.