Words Are My Matter

Writings on Life and Books

In this late volume, Le Guin reflects on many of the things that animated her thinking throughout her life: the ways in which genre matters (and the gendered elitism inherent in those who sneer at it), how writing works, the ills of the publishing industry, and the knowledge of women. A few pieces offer glimpses into her own life: a tour through the unique architecture of her childhood home, and an address to NARAL in which she reflects on her own abortion. Included also is her internet-famous speech to the National Book Foundation in which she dealt a death blow to capitalism, imbuing so many of us with the hope of its demise. In the first essay, she notes that while “you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind” (6). Few minds are as delightful to spend time with then hers.

Reading notes

All prose is fiction

Here’s Le Guin, responding to criticism of The Dispossessed:

So The Dispossessed, a science-fiction novel not only concerned with politics, society, and ethics but approaching them via a definite political theory, has given me a lot of grief. It is generally, not always but often, been discussed as a treatise, not as a novel. This is its own damn fault, of course—what did it expect, announcing itself as a utopia, even if an ambiguous one? Everybody knows utopias are to be read not as novels but as blueprints for social theory or practice.

But the fact is that, starting with Plato’s Republic in Philosophy 1-A when I was seventeen, I read utopias as novels. Actually, I still read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper. I think Borges is quite correct, all prose is fiction. So when I came to write a utopia of course I wrote a novel.

I wasn’t surprised that it was treated as a treatise, but I wondered if the people who read it as a treatise ever wondered why I had written it as a novel. Were they as indifferent as they seemed to be to what made it a novel—the inherent self-contradictions of novelistic narrative that prevent simplistic, single-theme interpretation, the novelistic “thickness of description” (Geertz’s term) that resists reduction to abstracts and binaries, the embodiment of ethical dilemma in a drama of character that evades allegorical interpretation, the presence of symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought?

Le Guin, Words Are My Matter, page 22

It occurs to me that to read everything, including the news, like a novel—to be cognizant and accepting of discontinuities and conflicts, of multiple interpretations, of symbol that sits alongside more objective truths—is maybe the skill we most need to employ in navigating the world of news today, when there is so much news, and so few ways of making it all cohere.