Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Ugliness of Ursula Le Guin

Reader Jane Sand can’t believe I didn’t care for Ursula Le Guin’s story that appeared in Playboy:

Really, WHY are you flipping through this story with your fingers covering your eyes, peeking through only long enough to find a paragraph that offends you, instead of reading the story straight through and giving it your positive or negative review as a whole, like an ordinary reviewer would? Are you prudishly frightened that a story published in Playboy might offend your delicate sensibilities? Or maybe what you’re REALLY frightened of is that if you read the story, you might *gasp* LIKE it, or at least find some virtue in it that you would hate to publicly admit? Think it over, dude.

I don’t think this is fair at all.

Of course I read the story before commenting on it. And no, I really did not like it. This really shouldn’t be that hard to believe.

Consider:

  1. Ursula Le Guin had no interest in writing for men at all.
  2. She was concerned less with quality writing and more with the sex of the person that wrote it.
  3. She explicitly tore down the exemplars of the fantasy and science fiction canon.

Judging from the comments on Twitter in the week following her death, it appears that her fan base is more excited by her antisocial behavior and her overall destructive impact on the field of science fiction and fantasy than anything she wrote.

But if you’d like one more reason why I have no use for her, consider this passage from her story, “Nine Lives”:

“Do you come from Ireland, Owen?”

“Nobody comes from Ireland, Zayin.”

“There are lots of Irish-Americans.”

“To be sure, but no more Irish. A couple of thousand in all the island, the last I knew. They didn’t go in for birth control, you know, so the food ran out. By the Third Famine there were no Irish left at all but the priesthood, and they all celibate, or nearly all.”

Zayin and Kaph smiled stiffly. They had no experience of either bigotry or irony.

This is not the first time I’ve come across a science fiction story from this period that depicts Christians as being responsible for the apocalypse or some such. But it really is impressive how crass Le Guin manages to be here.

Really, it’s just plain ugly.

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12 responses to “The Ugliness of Ursula Le Guin

  1. Michael February 7, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Your argument here is confusing. Your disdain for Le Guin is ideological and based in your opinion of her work. Yet, here, you cite her own dislike for Lovecraft (an opinion of hers) as part of your dislike for her.

    Much like any other false-choice set up, there is no one-true-way with fantasy. Le Guin can exist alongside Howard and Dunsany (who she seems to at least like a little in her statement above).

    Reading Earthsea again after her death, I was honestly struck by the fact that I’d compare her writing to Dunsany for the way she builds a world and uses dialogue sparingly as compared to description.

    I can also sympathize with your reader’s view that you may not have actually read the stories you preach against because your earlier (on this blog) critique of Earthsea didn’t seem to be in touch at all with the actual stories.

    You’ll notice as well that she quite praises Christopher Priest for his interesting take on what Victorianism. I think her invective is for the commodification of fantasy – just as when a movie like, say, American Pie comes out that captures a particular dynamic – suddenly the theaters are filled with a series of increasingly sad “gross-out-teen-comedies” that miss the fact that the initial movie was so successful not because the main character had sex with a pie – but because the characters were charming and heartfelt and you went on their journey with them rather than being subjected to it.

    Again – you seem to actively despise Le Guin, going so far as to assert that she’s a terrible writer and a crass, ugly human being. You have insulted her looks, you have insulted her character, you have insulted her opinions about other writers because those opinions are not ones that you share…

    How is your invective against her any different? Why is it any different? And finally, what motivates it? She did not take fantasy away from you. She did not destroy fantasy. She inspired so many writers – though I’m sure there are others who didn’t care for her work – and those other writers went on to create fantasy of their own. Her politics don’t have to be your politics to share an appreciation for her craft. Lovecraft is unabashedly racist – but I can still respect his work for its good qualities… just as I can appreciate Le Guin’s despite the fact that she thinks Lovecraft has a tin ear.

    So really, why the screeds? She was a fine writer. You don’t have to agree, that is only my opinion. She shares a rich tradition of storytelling that just happens to have a main character with dark skin instead of light (a point that never actually matters in the story – it’s just a fact of her world) and she had some opinions you disagree with. None of those things seem to be of a scale that you should spend pages and pages ranting at her as you have since her death.

  2. jaynsand February 7, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    You proved you did not read the story by making a simple but glaring error of fact: saying that the story “is about a future in which all the unattainable good looking men have simply ceased to exist,” when in fact there appears an unattainable good looking man on the freakin’ FIRST PAGE of the story (and more within, and good looking women too), with some of the plot bearing on the unattainable attractiveness of those people.

    As I said before, I fully expected you to trash the story, seeing how set you were against the author going in – but you DID surprise me by doing it without reading it; I thought as a critic you’d have made at least that much of a gesture at professionalism. Instead you just grabbed at the first paragraph you saw that you could force an offensive interpretation onto, disregarding that your interpretation was totally contradicted by the story.

    Honestly, I STILL don’t think you have read the story, because despite all your verbiage on the subject, you still haven’t managed to do the ONE thing I politely requested you do all these many days ago, after you called me ‘subliterate’: “Since tastes differ, you may not enjoy it, naturally, but if you’re going to criticize it, try to do it from the point of view of how it works (or doesn’t work) for you as a story, not on whether it raises your political hackles.”

    What was this story about? Why didn’t it work for you as a whole? All I’m asking. But instead of critiquing plot, language, characterization, technological plausibility or some other appropriate target for a mature critic, you pick at the author’s photo and two isolated paragraphs, like a four-year plucking raisins out of his oatmeal ‘cuz they’re gross. (Do you really think that a passing mention of the lack of birth control as a factor in famine is a qualification of a bad writer? If so, you would have to disqualify Asimov, Heinlein, Aldiss, Silverberg, Kornbluth, and Harry Harrison, all of whom wrote overpopulation dystopias – it was a universal theme in SF at the time).

    If you don’t want to read her because she was avowedly irreligious, or left wing, fine. That’s your your privilege. But don’t say she’s a bad writer because of those characteristics, unless you’re simple-minded enough to say the same applies to, say, George Orwell (who kept his left-wing sympathies to the end). If you want to call her a bad writer – you have to read her. Don’t be lazy. Show your work.

    For your readers, a link to the story (on Baen, a name to be trusted): https://www.baen.com/Chapters/9781625791405/9781625791405___2.htm

    Oh, one more thing; what you said here: “The people that are killing it on Amazon have far more in common with Robert E. Howard than they do Philip K. Dick…Or Ursula Le Guin for that matter.”

    Dude, you dedicated 7 of your columns within the last THIRTEEN DAYS to Ursula K. Le Guin. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if it takes you seven columns in thirteen days to prove she’s destined to be forgotten, then there’s no difference between fame and obscurity. ;)

  3. gordonclandis February 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    Hey, I don’t know if it’s worth posting what amounts to “I disagree” again and again, but …

    I’m really mystified how that LeGuin quote could possibly be read to support your 1). I refuse to accept that “Yay, Women!” = “Ignore Men!” I agree with her that it’s worth reading about areas of experience I don’t share, and don’t read her as ONLY writing about that, or claiming only THAT writing has value.

    Your 2) … Seems like a crazy conclusion, easily refuted by pointing at ANY male writer she ever praised. I’m not willing to use one letter (no doubt embedded in many experiences for all involved) as strong evidence of … anything, but in isolation – eh, she can be prickly! She’s hardly the only person like that on the planet. Or in SF/F.

    3) There’s some kind of spectrum involving “criticism” and “tearing down”, and LeGuin may have gotten deeper into tearing down than I’d like there with Lovecraft. Which is to say, I don’t know that I agree with all the flaws she calls out, or the dismissiveness she arrives at, but … being part of the canon doesn’t make you immune to flaws, and most of what she points at is at least arguably accurate.

    I read the passage you quote from “Nine Lives” very differently – I’m left with an immeasurable sadness at the grim consequences for people who tried to live as they believed proper in the face of an unimaginable tragedy. Gallows humor, sure, but crass? I don’t understand that assessment in the face of “no experience of either bigotry or irony.”

    All that said – I don’t see why/how you could use those things as reasons why didn’t like a/the story, but I’m NEVER going to say that you “should” like it. I’d rather be puzzled about why you don’t like it than imagine that removing all your given reasons would make you go “gosh, you’re right, that is a great story after all!”

  4. Constantin February 8, 2018 at 5:33 am

    You know, the way you criticize Le Guin reminds me of how she herself “criticized” Lovecraft, in that she didn’t really talk about his stories, but made personal attacks against the man. So why are you doing the sam-
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    …oh, wait…

    I see what you did there. Well played.

    • Michael February 8, 2018 at 8:39 am

      There is absolutely nothing clever or well-played about it… The quote above concerning Lovecraft almost entirely focuses on his work. Her critique is that he is derivative and his writing uninteresting. She does mention a “tin ear” but even that is in relation to his work. Even her mention of his racism is entirely within the context of his work. And yes – without a doubt – she speaks harshly of his fandom. No argument there. But Jeffro’s critique of Le Guin goes far afield in denigrating her looks, her character, her fiction as an attack on all that is “good and right’ in fantasy. He literally states that her publication has more to do with her bona-fides as a proto-SJW more than her writing. He cherry picks quotes and uses them to concoct a vision of the world that is largely untrue.

      If he doesn’t like her writing; that’s fine. I won’t argue that we all have different tastes. I for one can’t stand Kubrick films and think he’s horribly overrated by the critical community, for example. No shame in that.

      But you cannot pretend that Jeffro’s relentless assault against Le Guin is – in any way – a clever, subtle attack that “proves” something. His animus towards her is nearly pathological in the way he’s gone about it and he seems to be desperately striving to convince the world of something – something about her – that just isn’t true… that she was a terrible, irrelevant writer who only sought to denigrate “men” and ruin fantasy. That’s just BS.

  5. Adam Simpson February 8, 2018 at 11:07 am

    Thanks for the posts on Le Guin. I had wondered for a long time why she was so well known yet Wrinkle in Time was the only thing she wrote in which I could take any interest. The 2 sequels for Wrinkle in Time were so dull it was hard for me to figure out how she got famous. I can see it’s her politics and not her writing that got her noticed.
    Seeing her insult the talented and popular writers that came before her makes her look very “ugly” indeed. Lovecraft’s fiction was some of the best stuff I’ve read in fantasy/sci-fi/horror. It’s hard for me to imagine starting out a writing career trying to annoy a large percentage of the reading public. Is it just me that would want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible?

    • jaynsand February 8, 2018 at 12:35 pm

      A Wrinkle in Time was written by Madeleine L’Engle.. If you want to read Le Guin and judge her for herself as a storyteller, you may follow the link I posted above.

      • Michael February 8, 2018 at 12:44 pm

        Jaynsand beat me to it – but yes, you have the wrong female author. Also, it’s probably worth pointing out that just that you (personally) found the sequels to A Wrinkle In Time less than thrilling… does not make them “bad.”

        I’m certain that her politics got her published – and have kept her a beloved author all these years. That’s far more likely than the decades of hard work she’s put into her craft.

  6. Michael February 8, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Replying to Constantin’s “quip” above. Seriously man… stop and take a look at what you are defending. I mean, drinking the Cool-Aid is your choice… but it ended really badly for those poor folks at Jonestown… so it feels like a bad idea. You can look at this objectively or through this “put upon” lens you and Jeffro espouse as true. But at the end of the day – you have an influential writer who created beloved works of fantasy and science fiction; who didn’t like Lovecraft’s work (and possibly the man himself); and was interested in a little representation in her stories. And Jeffro writes for days about her, demeaning her across all the categories he can… but you’re right there for the dog-and-pony show. That’s just sad, dude. And I’m fairly certain you and I would not be ‘buddies’ based on your defense of this diatribe.

  7. Michael February 8, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    Jaynsand – I’m sorry – I think you’re on your own from here on out. This is a fruitless discussion. Me getting upset with Constantin for his inability to engage with reasonable thoughts just proves that I’ve said all I can say and I’m going to step out. We’ll just have to keep trying to represent the other point of view in our own forums. Good Luck!

  8. Pingback: A Mythology for No One and a Future for Anybody But You | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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