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Words Are What Matter: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“Words are what matter,” Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “the sharing of words.” The redoubtable author, who died on January 22 at the age of 88, was as good as her, well, word, sharing legions of them with her readers over the course of a career that spanned six decades. (Her first story was published in 1961 and her first science fiction novel, Rocannon’s World, in 1966.)

She left a generous body of work: more than 20 novels, a dozen works of poetry, 13 books for young readers, seven collections of essays, and five volumes of translation. In retrospect, the word that leaps to mind when assessing this oeuvre is thoughtful. Brilliant herself, she did not suffer fools gladly (a cliché she, no doubt, would have deplored), always expecting an investment of effort from her readers.

First edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969

Best known for her fantasy and science fiction, she once observed that science fictionthe good stuff—is not for lazy minds. She insisted that speculative fiction transcended mere genre and was, in fact, literature, as she demonstrated in such classic works of her own as the Earthsea series, which served for many younger readers as the first introduction to her writing. Those books and her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (which she appositely called “a thought experiment”) are arguably the best known of her body of work, which has been translated into 40 languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide. She might have raised an eyebrow at this nod to commercial success, for she deplored publishing’s current focus on the bottom line, saying as much very publicly when she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2014, her outspoken acceptance speech becoming something of a cause célèbre. No one could argue, however, with her generous act of accepting that award on behalf of her fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, who, she remarked, had been excluded from literature for far too long while honors went, instead, to the “so-called realists.”

Young readers helped put that oversight to rest when ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association awarded Le Guin the 2004 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement in Young Adult Literature. The award committee wrote in its citation that Le Guin’s work “has inspired four generations of young adults to read beautifully constructed language, visit fantasy worlds that inform them about their own lives, and think about ideas that are neither easy nor inconsequential.” Listening to her, yes, thoughtful acceptance speech was, for her audience, an experience not soon forgotten, for there was a palpable, almost humbling sense of being in the presence of genuine excellence.

That excellence was acknowledged by a host of other awards. Her Tombs of Atuan, for example, received a Newbery Honor award in 1972. She was also a recipient of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. And, in 2003, she was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

What Le Guin said about poetry in her 2016 collection Words Are My Matter might just as well describe the whole multifaceted body of work she has left readers: “Its primary job,” she wrote, “is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape.”

Yes, indeed, “Words are what matter.”

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About the Author:

Michael Cart has been a Booklist reviewer for over 20 years and is a leading expert on YA literature. He authors the column "Carte Blanche" and has published numerous books. He is the editor of Taking Aim: Teens and Guns (HarperTeen, 2015).

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