Back to the Present

EVERYONE WHO KNOWS ME KNOWS I’M an old coot,” says Ursula K. Le Guin, brushing aside the notion that she might be an object of cultish adoration. Despite her status as America’s preeminent writer of science fiction, Le Guin has kept celebrity at arm’s length, living quietly in a big Victorian house in Portland, Oreg. And she’ll be happy to tell you why—railing against “eastern parochialism” in a way that might affirm her “coot” status, if you fail to catch the twinkle in her eye.

“Everybody in California is flaky, and everybody in the Pacific Northwest is noble and recycles, right?” says the California-born Le Guin, 62. “This is the basic eastern-seaboard attitude, and I am just really tired of it.”

In fact, she’s tired of all the labels that have been stuck on her in her prolific 40-year career as a writer of science fiction (or SF), young-adult fiction, children’s books and poetry. “To be labeled can be a device to push you aside and say, ‘But she’s not a real writer,’ ” says Le Guin, who this month published her first book of “completely mundane, completely here and completely now stories.” Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand is set in a mythical town somewhere on the coast of Oregon. The stories “just came to me,” she says, “and every story led me farther into this little invented town.”

Le Guin, says Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, is “one of the few science-fiction writers who have made the leap successfully to be considered an important writer, period.” She is also one of the most widely read, with several million books in print. Generally set on fictitious planets, Le Guin’s SF classics, such as the four-volume Earthsea series, rely less on high-tech gimmicks than on imaginative manipulation of gender, psychology and social relations. “I think she is a brilliant writer,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “She uses very bold metaphors and similes.”

Le Guin (who has won every major SF award as well as a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore in 1973) offers no apologies for the fact that her most popular work falls in a genre—she hates that word—that gets no respect. “This is a major American literary field,” she says. “The ignorance and bigotry of the academic establishment and the critical establishment is just shameful. They condemn it unread.”

Born in Berkeley to a prominent University of California anthropology professor, Alfred L. Kroeber, and his writer wife, Theodora, Le Guin grew up with three big brothers in a house filled with books and stimulating dinner guests. “They were classy parents,” she says. “I had a sense of freedom, of going anywhere and doing anything.” The stories that her father told of his studies among the northern California Indians molded her early ambition to be a writer.

When her father took a job at Harvard, Le Guin, already passionate about western life, grudgingly accepted the free tuition at Radcliffe. “I’ve had to unlearn a lot of what I was taught there about privilege,” she says of her Ivy League training. “It’s a very wicked thing to do to people, to make them think that they’re better than anyone else.” It is particularly treacherous, she believes, for a writer, who is “a kind of conduit” for other people’s experience. She went on to earn a master’s in literature at Columbia and was on her way to France on a Fulbright scholarship when she met Georgian Charles Le Guin on the Queen Mary. “I knew by the time we got off the ship that I really liked the guy,” she says. They were married three months later in Paris.

While Charles taught college, Ursula began to write. Her poetry was published, but her surrealistic novels collected rejection slips for a decade until she sold Rocannon’s World in 1964. She was able to juggle writing and mothering three kids (Elisabeth, 34, a cellist; Caroline, 31, a college English instructor; and Theo, 27, a social researcher) because, she says, “I married an extraordinary man.” Charles, who now teaches history at Portland State University, would often take over the household. “I didn’t have to beg, and when he was in charge, he was completely in charge,” says Le Guin.

But Le Guin, a politically active feminist, had another sexist barrier to cross: Her early SF books, like most others, centered on male characters. Then in 1978’s The Eye of the Heron, her male protagonist insisted on dying, and she discovered that his female sidekick was really the heart of the story. “Your characters do teach you,” Le Guin says.

And her fans are always ready to be taught. “All my writing career, I have switched genres, changed around, pulled the rug out from under my readers, and they have been so lovely,” says Le Guin. “They just keep coming back and saying, ‘Pull the rug out from under us again!’ ”


SUSAN HAUSER in Portland

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