No Time to Spare
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
When Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, some obituaries referred to her as a “leading fantasy” writer, but some were smart enough to simply call her what she was: one of our greatest writers. As the literary world expands and work joins that canon that would have been written off by critics and academics a few years ago with a sneer as merely “genre,” it’s important to reiterate the enormous influence of Le Guin’s work. Like many Americans, I grew up reading Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971), and The Dispossessed (1974) were all required reading at school (and often still are). But the work that made the earliest and deepest impression on me was The Earthsea Trilogy (1964-1972). Although Earthsea later expanded beyond the trilogy, it is those first three books that have stayed with me over the decades. Through these books I had my first introductions to themes that many assume are present only in her more advanced or adult fiction, such as the inclusion of non-white protagonists, the inherent fluidity of gender, respect for women and nature as essential to existence, and the fundamental interconnectedness of all things—and she did it without ever seeming the least bit didactic; Le Guin was always a master of dishing out important life lessons while also telling a great story.
Le Guin’s most recent collection is a selection culled from her long-running blog, and while blog posts may seem lighter fare than her other nonfiction and critical essays focusing on craft, gender, politics, or environmentalism, these are not mere internet fluff. She states from the outset that she was inspired to blog after reading José Saramago’s blog-turned-book The Notebook. As Le Guin says, seeing how Saramago approached the form was revelatory; her response: “Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?” was foundational to the creation of her blog. Although Le Guin claims that her blog is “more trivially personal” than Saramago’s, this is a vast underestimation. There is something weighty about reading the words of an eighty-plus literary force in the wake of her death. There is hope here and also despair, musing on aging and language, and richly rewarding explorations of the importance of a single word.
Divided into four sections interspersed with “The Annals of Pard” (yes, Le Guin blogged about her cat), this collection can easily be read in any order, although consecutively one can experience the editor’s attention to developing themes, including Le Guin’s awareness of her own advancing age and her response to the increasingly negative political situation. The blog entries are not presented chronologically, and yet there is a sense of the passing of time. Those critics who complain about “the cat stories” simply don’t understand what Le Guin is doing here. The world is more than humans and our wars, our language, our words, and our opinions. While there are some false notes—her attempt at vegan mockery using Swift’s “Modest Proposal” as a trope seems particularly out of pace with her views on animals and respecting the planet—most of these mini-essays are illuminating for those who may want to know more about Le Guin and also as practices in craft.
Le Guin was a master of the craft of writing, and in her blog posts (what one critic refers to as a “lowly” form), this is apparent. She moves effortlessly from a deep dive into Homer’s depiction of war in “Papa H” to an exploration of her own reaction to the predator-prey relationship playing out between her cat and a mouse in her own kitchen (this is funnier than it sounds!). Many of these pieces are polemical, which isn’t surprising considering Le Guin’s long-time reputation as a public intellectual and polemicist. Her very public takedown of The Oregonian’s skewed coverage of the armed militia takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is but one recent example: “Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t the Oregonian talk to the people who live there?” Another very public instance took place during her acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation wherein she lambasted the commodification of books by Amazon while standing in front of a tableful of Amazon execs. But while she could be passionately polemical, Le Guin also reflects on anger—her own and others—stating in one blog entry that anger is a “useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice” but that it is also “a weapon—a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.” In her blog entry “About Anger,” Le Guin ends with a question: “What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt?”
It is this ongoing work of critical thinking, of observing the world and writing about the questions that arise through deep and passionate engagement with the world that are at the core of No Time to Spare. That Le Guin was one of our greatest writers is not an overstatement. One can argue that her greatness derives from her sharp attention to detail or her keen awareness of the rules of story, of language, or perhaps her ability to write an entire philosophical essay around the use/misuse of one word (“Belief in Belief”). But I would argue that it is her ability to draw a reader in, to nudge without pushing, to describe without forcing definitions, to present a full and complete moment in language that does not overwhelm but instead opens doors to deeper contemplation, to a desire not only to read more but to live in the present world more deeply, more thoughtfully.
Years ago I had a particularly patriarchal male college literature teacher who referred to feminist writing and theory as “that modern claptrap” and hoped I wasn’t reading nonsense like The Mists of Avalon or “that Le Guin woman.” I lied and said I preferred the Chaucer he’d assigned in his class. On revisiting Le Guin throughout my life I wonder just what it is about her work that had frightened him so much. On reading obituaries written by men who feel a need to discount or somehow downgrade her work by calling Le Guin merely a “fantasy” writer (as if that were a small thing!) I wonder what it is about her work that frightens these critics so much. To quote Le Guin, fantasy literature’s central theme is, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” She is referencing both fantasy as playful (which her writing can be) and as fundamentally subversive (which her writing always is). Le Guin’s work has always been about subversion, resistance, and the writing of compelling stories that ask what if it could be different and not just what if there were dragons (although that would be pretty cool). To describe Le Guin as anything other than a major American writer is to misunderstand her importance and her influence; and, further, to describe her fantasy writing as “escapism” is ultimately to reveal one’s own imprisonment. Because for the rest of us, escape means freedom, and what’s so bad about freedom?