Earthsea is Earth

Slate has a respectful take on Ursula K. Le Guin‘s oeuvre by Choire Sicha up. By way of surveying her contributions to the domain of fiction the author takes issue with those who would elevate ‘literary fiction,’ a term whose boundaries seem to lack distinction or clarity, above ‘genre.’ In this case Le Guin’s career has been marked by extensive forays into the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and speculative fiction more broadly. But while we’re castigating the narrowness or particularity of the aficionados of literary fiction, it should be admitted that Le Guin herself does not always deny the value of parochialism.

Her Leftist politics pervades many of her works, implicitly and explicitly (just as one can not but help sense Jerry Pournelle’s conservatism in the texture of his narrative). But perhaps more subtly important for the character of her fiction Le Guin has emphasized her lack of interest in the details of the physical sciences which suffuses ‘hard science ficiton.’ Rather, her creations manipulate and tease apart filaments of the social assumptions and values we take as normative (e.g., how many other science fiction writers would admit to being influenced by post-structuralism?). This is not so surprising from the daughter of the ‘Dean of American Anthropologists.’ I only point this out to suggest that it is not coincidental that Ursula K. Le Guin often comes up for special praise outside of genre circles, as she is not a crafter of the prototypical science fiction or fantasy.* For a piece of literature which more reflects the garb of conventional science fiction, but written with attention to style and psychological depth, I might suggest Gregory Benford’s depressing Great Sky River.

But Sicha’s broadside against hegemony of literary fiction proponents does make me reflect on the power of relativism and the ‘leveling’ impulse which is so strong in our era. Stories are powerful. Fiction is just one form of story which humans gravitate toward (religion, music, and poetry are others). It is no surprise that we are preoccupied by magical engrossing tales. Whole civilizations can be defined by a story, such as the Iliad, the Bible, or the Mahabharata. Meanwhile the doyens of literary fiction are constantly demarcating their territory, and spreading the gospel of their acolytes. This is serious stuff.  The science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, who like Le Guin often receives mainstream accolades because of his prowess as a stylist, recalled having once driven a young bookstore clerk to tears by suggesting that a new work of serious fiction should be shelved in science fiction as well (because of its content).

And yet there are differences and distinctions. The problem with much of mainstream and genre fiction driven by commercial concerns is that it is the literary equivalent of junk food; tasty, but ephemeral. The pulp science fiction of the 1930s is of curiosity mostly for historical curiosity now (the exceptions are what we remember from the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction,’ but this is a very small sliver of the total production). In contrast, H. G. Wells is relevant to this day, because of the groundbreaking nature of his work. Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel remain influential, even if few know of it, because of its role in the generation of subsequent works (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Despite the populist trappings of much of the critique of literary fiction, I suspect that one of the major issues many have is that much of it will have as much lasting power as the latest Danielle Steel novel. In other words, it is not that literary fiction is elitist, it is that it isn’t often a good story. Perhaps an analogy might be nouveau cuisine which utilizes the latest molecular gastronomy to produce incredibly novel presentation…but just doesn’t taste very interesting in regards to flavor.

A civilization needs a story, we need unifying themes. But much of contemporary literary fiction isn’t providing those themes. Rather, the themes are the concerns and existential crises of upper middle class Westerners, struggling with the atomization of contemporary life. This isn’t Odysseus. Neither is it Krishna conferring with Arjuna. What we need is some heroic high literary fiction, which breaks free of the space between the ears, and operates more vigorously in the exterior domain.

* In her Earthsea novels conventional theistic religion is only found among the barbaric and marginal Kargs. This seems strange in a fantasy world, but there it is.

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