No Better Spirit

The incredible stories of Ursula Le Guin make arguments about genre seem foolish.

Ursula Le Guin

Illustration by Noah Van Sciver

Nothing in the gorgeous The Unreal and the Real, this two-volume, author-picked collection of Ursula Le Guin’s short fiction, appeared in The New Yorker after the arrival of Tina Brown in 1992 and that magazine’s first installation of “a fiction and literary editor,” Bill Buford, in 1994, this being quite around the time that the amount of fiction per issue dropped and the proportion of male fiction writers to female ones rose. Previously, staff editors had taken on the fiction-dealing role in turn. Charles McGrath was described as “a” fiction editor, or as “head of the fiction department,” in a time period after Roger Angell was described as the “chief fiction editor” (somewhat like his mother before him), and also there was Daniel Menaker. The last publication of a piece of short fiction by Ursula Le Guin in The New Yorker, by the choice of either or both parties, was in 1990, after eight stories in the ‘80s, with one in 1979 bookending a nice set of 10.

Five of those 10 appear in these two volumes (according to the book’s credits). Four of them appear near the end of the books, where the favorites, the curtain-closers, the encores, go. “The first draft of ‘She Unnames Them’ was written down on a cocktail napkin during a bourbon on the rocks on an airplane flying home alone from New York to Oregon after getting an award. I was feeling good. I was feeling like rewriting the Bible,” Le Guin writes (amazingly!) in the introduction to Volume 2.

“She Unnames Them” is a short one, in a favored goofy mode of Le Guin’s, in which she turns something inside out—in this case, apparently, Eden. That and a story called “Sur” are her favorites, and the closers, of that volume.

They are not my favorites, as sweet as they are. For all the famous “quality” of a New Yorker short story—and that reputation is on the whole reasonable—Le Guin wrote stories vastly more rich, far more assured, and often far more devastating than these two, and instead they appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and also Fantastic (RIP), Crank! (RIP), Universe (RIP), The Blue Motel (IDK!?), and so on. How wonderful that these publications existed and published and even sometimes paid. I hope everyone involved had so much fun. At least from here in cold 2012, so much closer to the end of the world, it looks like a cozy sun porch on an apple farm.

Le Guin titles the first volume of this collection Where on Earth and the second Outer Space, Inner Lands. “Some people will identify the first volume as ‘mundane’ and the second as ‘science fiction,’ but they will be wrong,” she writes in the first volume. I do hate being wrong, so I will not.

The genre wars are back again, or never stopped. Arthur Krystal took up the case hard again on Oct. 24 on a (yes) New Yorker blog. He began by disputing Le Guin’s claim that “all novels”—“all written art”—are members of the tribe of literature. They are not, he thinks.

” ‘Genre’ is not a bad word,” Krystal wrote, “although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply ‘commercial.’ ” So his case entirely is that there are two kinds of books: genre books, which go with other “commercial” books, and then there is literature, a class made up of all books that have some apparently more noble ambition (and may not be meant to sell) and also do not contain mystery, space, a Western town, or monsters. None of this argument really makes sense, once he has declared all genre commercial, and particularly in light of the fact that there is no genre more stultifying and isolating and self-referential than the contemporary literary novel. I personally find its conventions revolting. The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them.

Krystal’s argument to box genre and elevate literary fiction is like some demented, literary version of heteronormativity. While of course we can and likely should divide novels into commercial and noncommercial, that dividing line, because the actual book marketplace is drowning in silly, wand-waving, superpowered teenage trampires, is certainly not to be painted down between “genre” at large and the whiny, alienated, modernist rehash that is considered the “quality novel.”

The rise of easy readin’ conventional and commercial science fiction and fantasy indicates that, now more than ever, literature—all “written art,” whether set in space or in an English country house or even, I suppose, in some oh-so-alienating Midwestern college dorm room—all belongs together, in a dreamy house with many rooms, apart from the blatantly commercial.


The first volume of The Unreal and the Real contains the mode of Le Guin that I, and likely you, know least. These are extremely dense, interior, thorny, and realistic kinds of stories, some of which take place in her invented Central European country of Orsinia. Is it genre? Who can tell! These are beautiful and a kick in the teeth at first, but once you are inside them, you are all the way in. Take “A Week in the Country,” in which a young man falls in love at the rural home of his college friend and then falls ill and stays on. His crush considers him:

He would get well, would go back a week late to the city, to the three bedsteads and five roommates, shoes on the floor and rust and hairs in the washbasin, classrooms, laboratories, after that employment as an inspector of sanitation on State farms in the north and northeast, a two-room flat in State housing on the outskirts of a town near the State foundries, a black-haired wife who taught the third grade from State-approved textbooks, one child, two legal abortions, and the hydrogen bomb. Oh was there no way out, no way? “Are you very clever?”

“I’m very good at my work.”

“It’s science, isn’t it?”

“Biology. Research.”

Then the laboratories would persist; the flat became perhaps a four-room flat in the Krasnoy suburbs; two children, no abortions, two-week vacations in summer in the mountains, then the hydrogen bomb. Or no hydrogen bomb. It made no difference. 

That is from 1976. It has a somewhat heavy hand, a dark view, but that’s the same year as her novel The Word for World is Forest, which has a lighter hand but an even darker view. (In it, humans enslave a planet, thereby teaching their slaves war. To return to the genre argument, it would be easier, and more generic and more commercial, to have written a timely novel set on Earth about environmentalism and imperialism. Setting it on another planet is exactly what allows her to “elevate” (barf?) the book to literature.)

She ambles into a different mode with her Oregon stories, like “Hand, Cup, Shell,” about a family at a beach house, which has all the shininess of To the Lighthouse.

A tongue of the tide ran up the sand between them, crosscurrents drawing lines across it, and hissed softly out again. The horizon was a blue murk, but the sunlight was hot. “Ha!” Phil said, and picked up a fine white sand dollar. He always saw the invaluable treasures, the dollars of no currency; he went on finding Japanese glass netfloats every winter on this beach, years after the Japanese had given up glass floats for plastic, years after anyone else had found one. Some of the floats he found had limpets growing on them. Bearded with moss and in garments green, they had floated for years on the great waves, tiny unburst bubbles, green, translucent earthlets in foam galaxies, moving away, drawing near. “But how much Maupassant is there in The Old Wives’ Tale?” she asked. “I mean, that kind of summing-up-women thing?” And Phil, pocketing his sea-paid salary, answered, as her father had answered her questions, and she listened to him and to the sea. 

That is from 1989. Promise me that, sometime this week, utterly inappropriately, you’ll ask “how much Maupassant” there is in something, in anything!

Once we are off the planet, the (often, not always) more recent stories, in Volume 2, become more welcoming. Over time, like most all of us, it also feels like Le Guin becomes even more secure, less flamboyant, more affecting.

In my favorites, Le Guin’s stories are being relayed by travelers and researchers, by eagerly observing anthropologists, and by the people who wish to be known themselves. Sometimes by all of those. “The Matter of Seggri,” the story of a culture with a deeply divided gender, is told by, in turn: a ship’s captain, a first-contact envoy, a memoir collected by another observer, a piece of fiction written by an inhabitant of the planet, and, at last, by one of the culture’s few and isolated men. “Solitude” is a final report delivered by the daughter of an explorer: She has taken on the culture and cannot bear to leave. There is something magic in these stories within stories, or stories as stories, and she exploits their form just so naturally and perfectly. These are untouchable as stories. Their perfection resists unpacking.

One thinks of Le Guin, obviously, as a pacifist. (Check her blog for that—she also has a great cat.) It’s then a hard reminder how much violence there can be in her work. Reading “The Wild Girls”—about a society of three distinct castes that must always intermarry—you might not realize until it’s over just how brutal it is: kidnappings, constant talk of rape, a baby shaken and thrown unceremoniously into the bushes.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Courtesy of Small Beer Press.

There is often the sense of an allegory hanging, fat and dreadful, nearby, but Le Guin always pushes it just beyond, out of mind. The Word for World is Forest is on some level obviously about Vietnam and equally obviously on some level about the environment. But neither it, nor any of the novels, nor any of the stories collected here are “problem” stories (though it is in the shortest stories where she can veer closest to allegory, or “message,” or can try something just a bit more silly or ham-fisted). Still, even at the shortest and most close to pat, none of these works are logical arguments. They never descend to lecture. They always transcend, and they are always about people, and she is not a moralist. But it is the project of a pacifist, or leftist, or however she would most happily describe herself, that many of these writings are about horror, and therefore about violence. The distress of people is displayed in the quiet, tooth-drilling way that only Le Guin can command. We must be shaken by what actual humans do for it to be distressing again. We are always having to give up on being horrified by the day to day. It takes an art to reinvigorate our feelings.

The only thing that would be more wonderful than this collection of stories would be the publication of The Complete Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, though given her affection for that form, such a book might have to be either back-breaking or digital-only. But even kept to shorts, The Unreal and the Real guns from the grim to the ecstatic, from the State to the Garden of Eden, with just one dragon between. (Every collection needs one dragon.) In every good career-spanning collection, you can observe an author growing into her authority. Here, every story, in its own way and from its own universe, told in its own mode, explains that there is no better spirit in all of American letters than that of Ursula Le Guin.

From 1994’s “Solitude”:

I settled down. Some of my time went to gathering and gardening and mending and all the dull, repetitive actions of primitive life, and some went to singing and thinking the songs and stories I had learned here at home and while scouting, and the things I had learned on the ship, also. Soon enough I found why women are glad to have children come to listen to them, for songs and stories are meant to be heard, listened to. “Listen!” I would say to the children … When they left, I went on in silence. Sometimes I joined the singing circle to give what I had learned travelling to the older girls. And that was all I did; except that I worked, always, to be aware of all I did.

By solitude the soul escapes from doing or suffering magic; it escapes from dullness, from boredom, by being aware. Nothing is boring if you are aware of it. It may be irritating, but it is not boring. If it is pleasant the pleasure will not fail so long as you are aware of it. Being aware is the hardest work the soul can do, I think.

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume 1: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press.

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands by Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the 
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.