When I first began teaching writing while I was at Chapman, eager to launch my “new career,” I got Ursula LeGuin’s book Steering the Craft and was powerfully impressed by what I learned from it along with my reading as an MFA candidate, which included many non-US authors and historic literature. I set my syllabus for my first sci fi writing class and wrote Ursula, asking if she had any suggestions for how I might best incorporate her text into the class.
Twenty years later, I know my letter to be academic courtesy and something I think nearly every textbook editor and author would appreciate. I received a letter from Ursula in response of which the gist was, “You’re awfully cheeky for thinking you can teach writing.” I think this topic was of the utmost importance to her and I do recall over the years seeing her urge many ways to write well in the deepest way. Most recently, she answered writers’ questions via Book View Cafe’s blog in a monthly feature with the assistance of Vonda McIntyre, another brilliant visionary. Ursula was one of the greatest inspirations for, and a co-founder, of Book View Cafe, which is one of the longest-standing and most successful author publishing cooperatives.
The group arose from a private, all-female email discussion group of science fiction and fantasy writers. The New York Times’ headline for her obituary identifies Ursula as a fantasy writer. She was that to be certain, but of far greater impact, she was a science fiction visionary whose work influenced our world for the better, from The Left Hand of Darkness to The Dispossessed, and her famous story included in every freshman literature anthology to this day: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Salem, OR).
Over the years I heard of the appalling discrimination she faced, from horrific physical comments (upon being introduced, Heinlein reportedly complimented her husband on selecting a wife with such a nice bustline) as the first, and — by the end of her life — pre-eminent sci-fi writer and thinker of the 20th century. She was above it, as anyone who achieved what she has must be.
Her mind ranged vastly, so far and so far more originally, than her much more “famous” (even today) male counterparts such as Heinlein. Asimov. Ursula was a blueblood from a family of brilliant intellectuals. She brought her breeding and keen intellect to the discussion of the betterment of humanity, and for a better understanding of what it is, and what it could be — to be human.
A few years ago, thinking about the importance of her writing, I reached out to a man I now call friend, Dana Gioia, as one of the preeminent American academics and former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana, like me, turned out to be a huge admirer of Ursula’s work in all ways. He and I worked for the better part of a year to get Ursula Le Guin a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The prize must be nominated by a select group of academics in each nation, and of these Dana was one — but it took more than one to sway the prize committee. Now, I understand such prizes to hold little meaning.
Ursula was beyond deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature and any other such prize, and thankfully, did receive a small measure of the world’s gratitude she so deserved in recent years, through the National Book Award and many others. She brought real literature to the benighted, debased sci fi field. She spoke, always, on behalf of humanity and humane values, and she gravely disapproved of the cultural and social malaise that has befallen us in the past two decades.
She by far met and exceeded the goal I believe to be the highest purpose for a human life: to leave the world a better place than she found it. It may not feel like this is true most of the time, but in any measurable way — it is. Now it is up to the rest of us to continue.
Goodbye Ursula. I choose to believe your soul has kissed the star.