By John H. Stevens
Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific writer, penning dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. She also wrote frequently about the creative process and the socio-political forces that influenced it. This topic came up frequently in her interviews, and the two books I’m reviewing today both spotlight her concerns and, with frequent repetition, articulate the foundations of those concerns.
The Last Interview is a collection of interviews given from 1977 to 2018, when Le Guin died (in fact, the final interview was still being put together when she passed away). Most of the interviews have thoughtful aspects, but also suffer from repetition, as interviewers across four decades ask many of the same questions. Le Guin’s frustration with this emerges more strongly in each interview, until it becomes an edge of weariness in her responses, a disgruntled curtness to the well-trod paths these questions lay out. Endemic invocations of The Dispossesed and The Left Hand of Darkness elicit increasingly brief, pointed responses. The ubiquitous question of “When did you first know that you were going to be a writer?” gets answers ranging from childhood recollections to “I don’t know. I sort of took it as an established fact.”
Most of her passion emerges in the discussion of creativity. In these interviews one can see the progression and reiteration of her creative process. She firmly believes in the power of art and inspiration, which mystifies the process at times, but is for her also a dynamic, emergent process. The process is one of discovery, rather than strict invention. “It is certainly related to dreaming, or to deliberate fantasy in the psychologist’s sense.” Writing is a method of extraction, a conduit between one’s imagination and a developing work of art. Art is more than form or style; it is the interactions between creative product and a viewer’s own imagination.
In The Wild Girls, Le Guin is passionate and assertive in her writing, particularly in the essay “Staying Awake While We Read.” In it she discusses the tensions in book publishing between art and commerce, between creativity and profit. For her, the tension is inevitable and harmful to the production of literature.which in turn impacts the social and personal value of reading. The argument has some sophistication, but also relies on an element of caricature in her discussion of American society and the dynamics of capitalism. This spirals back to her conception of art and its collaborative insistence, although her proclamation of “[V]iewing is often totally passive, reading is always an act” seems at odds with this idea. But Le Guin is more interested in essentials than in complexity, in getting to the heart of things.
The story “The Wild Girls” and an essay on the changing meanings and usages of the term “modest” exemplify this interest. Whether making a sharp point about justice or about the use and abuse of “modesty” and “immodesty,” these writings make their points strongly. But Le Guin accomplishes this without simplification; these are not stripped-down writings. They take their time and create a journey to their ends. In both we see how cultural practices can twist and influence moral behavior over time.
The interview in The Wild Girls is explicitly political. But, rather than codifying her beliefs, she vigorously refuses to be pigeonholed. This is a theme that runs through all of these interviews and writings: a defiance of conventions and labels. Le Guin is adamant that roles and designations create assumptions and limits that are dangerous. This danger has to be faced openly and forcefully so that one can retrieve their own meanings and perspectives in the pursuit of making, or engaging, art and life.
Categories: Book Reviews