Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday, and the world is a lesser place—a less imaginative, less radical, less challenging, less exhilarating place—without her in it.
Le Guin is best known as a writer of what we used to call genre fiction. Within the field of science fiction, she’s a giant, with at least three of her novels—The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven—absolute masterpieces, works whose obvious excellence has gone a long way toward making this previously denigrated genre a subject of scholarly interest. Her Earthsea books are simply the greatest fantasy series ever—better than Tolkein’s, better than George R. R. Martin’s, better than anyone’s. The plot is elegant, the prose is beautiful, and the magic system doubles as a philosophical analysis of the power and danger of language. The series is remarkable in every way.
Less well known, perhaps, is that Le Guin was one of the best novelist-critics we’ve ever had. Listen to her conversations with David Naimon about craft, or read her reviews for the Guardian, or hear how she describes the achievement of Virginia Woolf, and you’ll understand that we’ve lost not just a great writer of fiction but a great reader of fiction.
No critic better appreciated the importance of rhythm to the achievement of prose—how, as Le Guin puts it, all writing, and not just poetry, lives by “the deep beat to which the whole thing moves.” Le Guin’s greatest collection of non-fiction, The Wave in the Mind, gets its title from a letter Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West:
Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.
Toward the end of the book, Le Guin writes, “None of us is Virginia Woolf, but I hope every writer has had at least a moment when they rode the wave, and all the words were right.” It’s true that none of us is Virginia Woolf. But Le Guin should know, and we should recognize, that she rode that wave and got the words right perhaps more than any writer of her time. From The Left Hand of Darkness: “I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the Ice Age of an alien world.” From The Dispossessed: “It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act.”
Le Guin’s death came as a shock, despite her age (eighty-eight) and despite the fact that she’d recently given up travel. Her last few years had been so productive in so many different ways. She had stopped working on longer fiction, though not until after the 2008 publication of Lavinia, one of the best and strangest novels she ever wrote. She had just published a series of conversations on the art of writing with Naimon. A new non-fiction collection, No Time to Spare, came out in December. On her personal blog, she continued to write lovingly and humorously about her cat, Pard. And she still regularly published reviews—mini-masterpieces of criticism, really—in the Guardian, reviews that showed the acuity of her reading and the catholicity of her tastes.