Today is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 86th birthday, and what better day to celebrate this icon of American fiction? Most often associated with the fantasy and science fiction genres, she has won numerous Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. Yet her works, especially those geared for younger readers, have defied labels to become some of the best known and best loved stories in modern literature.
She had a happy childhood, with an anthropologist father and writer mother, and three older brothers to watch over her. She wrote her first fantasy story at age nine, and by eleven had submitted a story to the venerable magazine Astounding Science Fiction (now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, or Analog, for short). Although that story was rejected, she continued writing.
She received her B.A. in Renaissance French and Italian literature from Radcliffe College in 1951, and an M.A. in French and Italian literature from Columbia University in 1952. From 1953 – 1954, she worked in France on her PhD. with the help of a Fulbright grant. It was while traveling to France that she met the man who was to become her husband, historian Charles Le Guin. The couple returned to the United States, and in 1959 moved to Portland, which has been their home for the past 50 years.
Ms. Le Guin began writing novels in 1951, but it was not until the 1960s that she began to have success in seeing her works published. In 1970, her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (one of the first books to be set in a gender fluid world) won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award; her 1974 novel, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, set in the same fictional universe, won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus Award and was nominated for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her Earthsea series, made up of six books and eight short stories, have spurred many a child’s imagination, and her writing has been the avowed inspiration for such modern luminaries as Margaret Atwood, George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman.
But she also is beloved for her works on writing, and her unabashed attitudes towards the literary and publishing industries. In a 2013 interview for The Paris Review, when asked of her thoughts of being categorized a science fiction writer, she responded:
I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.
And in a 2015 essay written for the Book View Cafe, she answered the question of “How do you make something good?” with a caveat for the aspiring writer:
Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!
Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.
But it was perhaps the speech she gave when accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014 that she touched many hearts with her impassioned words regarding antagonism in the publishing industry that was affecting authors and readers alike:
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
If you haven’t seen her deliver her speech yet, it would be well worth your while to check it out – or to revisit it again.
So please join us here at LitStack in wishing Ursula K. Le Guin our heartiest congratulations on attaining her 86th birthday! Thank you for all you have given us, and all that is yet to come!