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Ursula Le Guin: 'We make such a cult of the artist's personality'

Ursula Le Guin. Photo/Euan Monaghan/Structo

Writer Ursula Le Guin doesn’t tell readers much about her life, but revealing nuggets are starting to appear.

"Some writers can handle lava with bare hands,” writes Ursula Le Guin in the introduction to The Complete Orsinia, one of four major new ­collections of her work, “but I’m not so tough, my skin is not asbestos.” She’s referring to the way bits and pieces of her life turn up in her stories – one of the short stories included in The Complete Orsinia is “about as autobiographical as I ever got” – without actually telling readers much about her life.

“I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.”

Le Guin was born in California in 1929; she turned 87 last October. The Complete Orsinia includes a full diary-style chronology of her life, containing the entry, “1932: Is taught to write by her brother Ted and goes on doing it.” The volume also includes her first published work, a poem from 1959; her first published story, “An Die Musik” (1961); and the novel ­Malafrena, which she wrote at 22. It was her second novel and the earliest long work to get published, although the ­published version was so heavily revised that it amounted to a collaboration between her novice-writer self and the more seasoned author of The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea.

The Complete Orsinia is the first volume of a full Le Guin edition from Library of America, a non-profit publisher devoted to American classics. (Its 2016 line-up also included Henry James, Abigail Adams, Jack Kerouac and Kurt ­Vonnegut.) Meanwhile, two 700-plus-page ­hardback compilations of her shorter fiction appeared in 2016 from Saga Press: The Found and the Lost collects all 13 of her novellas, and The Unreal and the Real is Le Guin’s own selection of her 39 best short stories. And Small Beer Press has just released Words Are My Matter, her latest collection of essays, talks and book reviews.

Any of these books makes an ­excellent entry point to a body of work that includes realism, science fiction, fantasy, poetry, children’s picture books, young adult fiction, translations, screenplays, criticism, satire and things harder to define. “I have been allowed to use my life well, in work that was worth the time spent on it,” Le Guin writes in Words Are My Matter. It’s hard to argue.

Two things she has not written: the molten lava of autobiographical or confessional fiction, and the thing on the far side of that, memoir. “I don’t write memoir, because I either can’t or don’t want to,” she told the Listener by email. “I don’t know which comes first. We make such a cult of the artist’s personality and opinions on current events and all. And I do that myself. I’ve read not only all the biographies of Virginia Woolf, but also her diaries and letters, and I love and admire the person I find there and am grateful for her generosity.

“But then I look at Shakespeare and think oh, that’s best of all. He gives us himself – and nothing about himself. Despite the hundreds of books about him, we hardly know more about him than we do about Homer. What we have of them is the work. And I think that’s what matters in the end. Authors’ travels, their love affairs, their opinions, what they keep on their writing desk (a frequent ­question from audiences) – it’s interesting and entertaining, but how much does it lead us right away from the thing they did that matters, their art?”

And yet the writing desk, the love affairs, the opinions: as she says, one wants to know. The opinions, at least, are knowable. In one of the most compelling essays in Words Are My Matter, “Teasing Myself Out of Thought”, Le Guin writes about the meaning of art, and the ­distinction between moralising in fiction and expressing complex ideas. “No matter how humble the spirit it’s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression.” It’s a point she needs to emphasise for her own sake, she told me.

“When I argue, I overstate. Ask people who know me – I’m always going off like a firecracker. This can be forgiven in ­conversation, but when it’s written down, the effect is different: hectoring, preachy.”

Words Are My Matter demonstrates, among other things, the difference between a hectoring sermon and a ­memorable oration – notably in the text of her instantly viral 2014 speech on freedom, in which she lambasts profit-driven corporate publishing. “Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”

Ursula Le Guin in 1973.

The most remarkable essay in the book is almost impossible to summarise, or even to describe without ­misrepresentation, because every word matters: it’s a long, quiet piece about the house Le Guin grew up in, and the power of architecture to convey moral ideas. She had been vaguely thinking for years that she wanted to write something about that house, and then she was asked to contribute an essay to an academic journal, featuring different perspectives on her work.

“I had no idea what to write until I thought of how I had wanted to write about the house, but didn’t know how-when-why. Here was a chance to find out. I didn’t plan the essay. I wrote it straight forward to the end … The final sentence, in which I suggest my novels contain an element of rebuilding, or of ‘always coming home’ to that house, came as a discovery to me as I wrote it. ‘Oh – is that what I’ve been getting at? All right! Good.’”

The essay is one of ­several in the book to open a window on Le Guin’s life; the nuggets of ­revelation would be precious to her long-time ­readers, even if they were not intrinsic to the essay’s larger goals. But as it turns out, more direct biographical information will be forthcoming soon. Film-maker Arwen Curry has been working on a documentary about Le Guin’s life and work for years, and it will be out this year – “the good Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise”.

And there is a major biography in the works.

“I asked Julie Phillips if she’d consider doing a biography of me. Some of the biographical stuff published about me had been inaccurate and misguided. Julie had written a biography, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon [aka James Tiptree Jr], that I admire greatly for its accuracy, its tact, its honesty and much else. I had got to know her a bit while she was working on it, since Tiptree and I had a long correspondence. So I asked her about a biography, and we made an informal agreement that ‘I was hers’ – a sort of option on each other. She has done a great deal of research for the book over the years since, and since her New Yorker profile of me [published in October], I guess the option has become a deal. I feel lucky.”

WORDS ARE MY MATTER: WRITINGS ABOUT LIFE AND BOOKS, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, $47.99)

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.