Le Guin takes off on yet another writing journey
- Eric Bartels
- Portland Tribune - Features
Waiting in an airport is boring for most Ñ but not this author
Ursula K. Le Guin is not inclined to call her latest work of fiction, 'Changing Planes,' a departure.
Apart from the bad pun, there's the matter of Le Guin's vast bibliography as a genre-crossing novelist, essayist, poet and nonfiction writer.
'I do so many different things,' says the venerated author. 'Everything tends to be a departure.'
Le Guin concedes that 'Changing Planes' involves a new trick, 16 fanciful stories spun from one numbingly familiar starting point: waiting for a flight in an airport.
'I may have even got the idea on an airplane,' she says. 'They're just sketches. I thought it was kind of funny. I hardly conceived it as a book.'
Surely it is a sign of Le Guin's eminence that so lighthearted a work has left critics rhapsodic. 'Le Guin's mythmaking power is brilliantly displayed,' says Kirkus Reviews. Publishers Weekly calls it 'a delight.'
'It was a lot of fun to write,' says the 72-year-old Le Guin, who lives in Northwest Portland.
She says the book allowed her 'to indulge my sense of humor.'
'People are surprised to know I have one,' she continues. 'I sneak it in, and people just miss it. I thought 'Lathe of Heaven' (1971) was a comedy, but people don't always take me that way. '
In 'Porridge on Islac,' the second story in 'Changing Planes,' an interplanar traveler lands in a world of genetic engineering gone mad. Over lunch, a native warns the visitor about the boorishness of the planet's many talking dogs. The rant is profane and robustly funny.
Audiences at her speaking engagements don't always expect to see her lighter side, Le Guin says.
'I've learned to say before I read something, 'I find this very funny.' Sort of give them permission to laugh sometimes,' she says.
Le Guin is known to be surprisingly approachable for an artist who's won a National Book Award, five Hugo awards, five Nebula awards and a Pushcart Prize, among others. A finalist for both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, she has written scores of novels, poems, essays and more than 100 short stories.
'She's an absolute charm. Audiences love her,' says Michael Drannen, marketing manager at Powell's City of Books, where Le Guin is scheduled to speak.
The author last appeared at the store in 2001 while touring to promote her book 'The Other Wind,' according to Drannen. 'Because of how accessible she is, it endears her to her readers all the more,' he says.
In defense of fantasy
Le Guin calls herself a 'slipstreamer,' a writer not strictly confined to the science fiction and fantasy realm. But she defends the genre ardently.
'I chose to write science fiction and fantasy,' she says. 'At the time that I began, it was a wonderful place to begin. You were welcome.
'What I get touchy about it is when people say, 'I never read science fiction.' I always wonder, 'What do they expect me to say?' There's a great deal of prejudice toward genre fiction.
'I know it's not going to go away,' she says of the criticism, but she's no longer inclined to accept ignorance and condescension. 'I'm not going to take it lying down. It's wrong. I tend to hit back.'
On the other hand, she says, fans of the genre are unusually loyal. 'Readers feel very participatory,' she says. 'They tend to get in touch with you and give you feedback.'
And they are everywhere: 'Even in a group that doesn't know who the hell I am, there's another freak of my kind.'
Le Guin thinks that Americans are losing their appreciation for literature.
'Reading is as much a skill in some ways as writing,' she says. 'And I don't think it's been taught respectfully. Part of our loss of community in America is right there. We don't have the words in common.'
She says opportunities are shrinking for writers. 'When I started, there were magazines up the wazoo. They'd publish short fiction,' she says. 'Where do you go now to publish short fiction? So many publishers have been taken over by corporations. Editors have very little power, and accountants have a great deal. That's stupid.'
She has mixed feelings about the success of the Harry Potter franchise, questioning the message imparted by author J.K. Rowling early in the series: 'It's an English public school story, where there are privileged kids set apart, living in their private world. The snobbery is regrettable.
'They have all this power Ñ which they not only don't share with the common people, they don't use them for good. They use them to fight each other. This seems a very narrow, arid moral world.'
Still, she adds, 'the success of any book is good for books.'
Le Guin, who moved to Portland in 1958, says she enjoys local appearances.
'It's convenient, that's what it is,' she says. 'I can take the bus down to Powell's.'