Writing Craft

Ursula K Le Guin & the Crusading Novelist

I’m working my way through the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. I guess at the moment I am only snatching at short pieces to use in talking to you, Franz—to do this work—and until I give more time to this project then this is how it will be. Until then… Until, until. But the most important thing is to write, and this, focused at least on communication to you, and on learning through literature, not rumination.

WFWIF Le GuinOne of the things I am looking at in Le Guin’s work is this question of species, the animal, how there are always different forms of species, both who think they are “human” or “men” and both of whom, if the historical record of Le Guin’s worlds is correct, are descended from the same Hainish ancestors. In that, Le Guin is setting up for us this question of familial and genetic personhood in terms of species encounter, as well as, more easily-read through an anthropocentric lens, questions of race. This is easily surmised from The Word for World is Forest from its context, written in response to the Vietnam War (or American War, as they call it in Vietnam).

The humans or “yumens” from Terra (clearly our deforested and deracinated Earth) has colonized Athshe, or New Tahiti, where another species, the Athsheans, or “creechies” as “we” call them, are being enslaved, brutalized, and logged and burnt out of their world/home, the forest. There is no word for forest here—it is world—and the Agent Orange and incendiaries of the US invasion of Vietnam in the book’s world is “firejelly”, and the “creechies” are regularly burnt alive in their warrens and orchards by the “evil” (Le Guin’s word) Captain Davidson.

In her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” the writer Eudora Welty shows us quite clearly (and vehemently) that the crusader novelist loses a sense of what literature does and is—that it reveals truth in a way that is not an argument, nor is it a propagandist wave towards what is wrong in the world. Le Guin’s other novels such as The Dispossessed are successful in drawing our attention to a picture, a truth, of the way our world works—as do your books Franz, especially The Castle and The Trial. Another book that comes to mind here is Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, which owes much to your works just mentioned. In Coetzee’s novel, the character Michael K leaves this city with his mother in a wheelbarrow as the civilisation around them collapses into military chaos. Michael is interned in a camp and, with no small allegiance to your ‘The Hunger Artist’ begins to waste away by imposing his own limits on his life: his eating, his drinking, his association with others.

Each of these books has an allegorical feel, but they are full of real people. And it is in people that reality is found. Reality is not necessarily an easy or taken-for-granted fact of life. As you tell Gustav Janouch in one of his visits to your office at the Accident Insurance Company, or on one of the many long afternoon walks around Prague or on your way home to the Altstädter Ring,

“The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travellers. We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.”

And yet reality is where the truths of literature are found too—we read the fantasies of Le Guin for what they tell us about our world.

In The Word for World is Forest, however, Le Guin admits that the characters do not attain truth—Davidson is “pure evil” (her words) although she says “I do not believe in evil people.” That is, Le Guin did not work hard enough, or perhaps patiently enough, in this book to reveal the truth of the character or his (inter)actions, his motivations beyond the parody of what political motivations were unfolding in Vietnam. Le Guin was too busy “crusading” against the real war being waged to allow herself to write as she normally does—with more attention to literature’s place in revealing to us the truths of a relationship or situation.

This was the most painful book Le Guin has written, she says. She says she “succumbed, in part, to the lure of the pulpit” and began to preach, and fell into the trap of “confusing ideas with opinions”. This happened, she says, perhaps because she was living in London at the time when she wrote the book, in 1968, away from the US peace movement of which she was a part, and where she “had a channel of action and expression for my ethical and political opinions totally separate from my writing.”

That is, without this other outlet, a writer’s “writing” which perhaps means a writer’s writing of truths, or simply, more prosaically, her writing of ideas, must be kept separate form the writing or expression of her opinions if the pieces of work are to “be” or “succeed as” writing, that is, literature. The Word for World is Forest still won the Hugo Award, although awards and blurbs have come to own little relation to the actual work.

So, if a writer has ethical and political opinions, they’d better find an outlet for them as opinions “totally separate” form their writing of ideas, lest they become a crusader, too, and their work a delivery from the pulpit.

You can see why this is important to me, Franz. As a committed animal advocate, my very strong ethical and political opinions need expression. And so being part of a movement—the vegan and animal advocacy movement—is perhaps essential for my own creative writing. At least according to both Welty and Le Guin. Which, for me, seals the deal.

It isn’t that one cannot write about ones ethical and political ideas. Look, for example, at Le Guin’s successful novels, or Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, which is, according to Bob McKay, a wonderful scholar in Sheffield, our greatest “literary performance of animal ethics” and answers, in the positive, the question that many of us, especially we writers, ask: “how do we use literature to think our ethical relation to the animal in a way that responds to the animal’s otherness?”

The answer perhaps is that, for we writers, for the craft, there must be a divide, or perhaps two separate outlets, or perhaps a belief or respect above all for literature as a space for the unravelling of ideas, in whichever direction they may lead us. That is, the question of the realities of literature come first for literature, or it stops being literature, and becomes only opinion, propaganda, crusading tract.

None of which can be associated with Kafka’s work, of course.