20 June 2017

Hugos 2017: Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

Before we get started: I have a review up of Big Finish's most recent Torchwood special, the prequel story Torchwood One: Before the Fall, at Unreality SF.

Hardcover, 316 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 1997-2016)

Acquired and read May 2017
Words Are My Matter: Writing About Life and Books, 2000-2016
with A Journal of a Writer's Week
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This volume collects various bits and bobs of Ursula K. Le Guin's nonfiction writing from the last sixteen years, divided into four different sections: talks and essays of various sorts, introductions to republications of books, book reviews, and a journal from a week Le Guin spent at a rural writer's retreat.

The speeches and other essays are good, if an odd and inconsistent miscellany, ranging from two quick pages on Le Guin's experience getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade, to six pages about invented languages in fiction, to seven pages about genre fiction, to fifteen pages about the architect of the house she grew up in. What you get out of these will probably depend on your interest in the topics: I found that fifteen pages about an architect was more than I cared to read, for example, but loved Le Guin's various thoughts on genre. She's not a big fan of literary writers who borrow from speculative fiction at the same time they condescend about it, and this parody of their discourse was probably one of my favorite bits of the book:
my book Searoad [...] makes ironic use of some realist tropes—but of course I don't write Re-Fi [...]. Realism is for lazy-minded, semi-educated people whose atrophied imagination allows them only the most limited and conventional subject matter. Re-Fi is a repetitive genre written by unimaginative hacks who rely on mere mimesis. If they had any self-respect they'd be writing memoir, but they're too lazy to fact-check. Of course I never read Re-Fi. But the kids keep bringing home these garish realistic novels and talking about them, so I know that it's an incredibly narrow genre, completely centered on one species, full of worn-out clichés and predictable situations—the quest for the father, mother-bashing, obsessive male lust, dysfunctional suburban families, etc., etc. All it's good for is being made into mass-market movies.
The forewords, on the other hand, were tough going at times; if I've learned anything from reading this book and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats, it's that forewords stand on their own somewhat awkwardly, being designed to prime you to read a book you're not actually about to read. Some were interesting enough that I marked the books down to check out later, but I was relieved when I made it through them all.

The book reviews, though, made the whole book worth it. Le Guin is an incisive and intelligent reviewer, and I'd read one or two of these in The Guardian on-line, but most of them were new to me. Le Guin is skilled at identifying what kind of genre a work is operating in, and using that to say something interesting about the book. A good review should not only give you a sense of the work, but it should also say something that goes beyond the book-- without going so far beyond the book as to leave it behind-- and Le Guin achieves all that in these excellent little bits of criticism. She left me with a number of books I wanted to read because she made them sound good, ones she made me know I did not want to read, and ones I wanted to read because it sounded like they failed in interesting ways.

The journal was cute if somewhat insubstantial; despite being "of a writer's week" it's less about writing and more about bits of nature Le Guin notices at the retreat. I did like her observations about the trails at the retreat, and the behavior of rabbits.

Next Week: Relationships and drama and alien encounters on A Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet!

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