Ursula Le Guin is one of the great writers of our time. I've been avidly reading her work for most of my life, I've grown up to become the woman, the feminist, the lover of books that I am today with my mind and passions fueled by the wide-ranging Hainish stories, the wonders of Earthsea, the unforgettable vision of the child in the cellar of Omelas, the challenge to established notions of gender posed by the people of Gethen (Winter), the ambiguous utopia of Anarres, the fascinating future of the Kesh, the recovered life of Lavinia, the annals of the Western Shore, and so many more worlds that Le Guin held open for us.
I love reading her work, and I love reading about her work and the life and mind behind that work. Recently, I've read two books that encouraged me to look at Le Guin's writing, and my relationship to it, in terms of its progression and change over time. First, a collection of interviews with Le Guin, gleaned from the past and covering most of her life as a published author, and second, an analysis of Le Guin's work from a feminist perspective, which examines how her work changes as she engages with feminist theory, and expressed her own developing feminist awareness.
Carl Freedman (ed.), Conversations with Ursula K. Leguin
This collection of ten interviews conducted with Ursula Le Guin by various people between 1980 and 2006, including one by the editor himself, gives the reader insight into Le Guin's thinking about writing - both her own and the craft itself - and many other subjects relevant to her life and work. I found these interviews quite fascinating to read, not just because they illuminate key aspects of a remarkable author's career, but also because Le Guin gives very good interviews. As editor Carl Freedman notes:
Le Guin takes every interview not as an opportunity to recapitulate long-held views but as an occasion for authentic intellectual discourse, with all the unpredictability that this implies and all the attendant dialectical give-and-take. She never hesitates to challenge an interviewer's assumptions when they seem to her to be inadequate to the issues at hand, and at least some interviewers return the compliment - that of conceptual seriousness - by issuing challenges of their own. The fundamental project of a Le Guin interview is learning, on the part of both parties to the interview and, of course, of the reader as well; and the topics about which one can learn are varied indeed, from U.S. foreign policy to the history of architecture, and much else besides.
this volume is, I think, an important piece for anyone interested not only in Le Guin's writings, but in what lies behind - and beyond - them.
Amy Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin's Journey to Post-Feminism
Amy Clarke has produced in this volume the first full-length examination of Le Guin's changing understanding and expression of feminism as seen through her work. As reviewer Sandra J. Lidnow comments in Science Fiction Studies,
This succinctly written book represents a thorough reading of Le Guin’s work and traces the evolution of her feminist thought from early in her career, when she professed to her mother, Theodora Kroeber, that she did not know how to write about women, to the present when Le Guin, along with authors such as Joanna Russ and Pamela Sargent, are acclaimed as the most influential speculative writers to have explored gender. (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/review_essays/lindow112.html)
That aspect of the book is exciting and wonderful and makes it well worth reading. However, i feel a need to talk about the whole "post-feminist" element of Clarke's thesis for a bit.
Post-feminism is a tricky topic. It suggests a way of thinking that, while influenced by feminism, is no longer in need of feminist theory, analysis or praxis. It says "it's time to move beyond feminism" and leaves open to the listener the reasons why this might be so. Post-feminists, it is sometimes argued, don't want to exclude men, the way feminists did. They are pro-sex, unlike the oddly prudish second wave feminists. They are conscious of diversity and intersectionality in ways feminists never dreamed of. As Clarke says, quoting Ann Brooks's Postfeminisms:
...post-feminism is both porous and comprehensive, a "non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and post-colonial feminisms." The post-feminist embrace extends as well to theories like post-structuralism, especially in rejecting singular, master narratives and instead seeking out the individual story, accepting multiple points of view. Unlike the story-telling of the early women's movement used in consciousness-raising sessions, the goal is not collectivity by seeking sameness, but instead by accepting difference. Along those lines, post-feminism rejects the essentialism inherent in much feminist theory. Taking lessons from gender studies, post-feminism is more male-inclusive, building as it does on a belief that gender lies upon a continuum. This inclusiveness extends to matters of personal choice as well, including those of work, dress and sexual practices.
This is where my problem comes in, because unlike most post-feminists, I was there when the second wave got rolling, and it was never as homogenous as these critiques suggest. We knew we were at the beginning of a long period of analysis and theory-making, and that much of our early ad hoc thinking would evolve. Among us were women of colour, women of varied sexual inclinations, trans and passing women, proud sex workers and even (gasp) men. Many of us were sex-positive from the word go, we simply wanted to be sure that it was our sexuality we were being positive about, not a patriarchal society's self-serving master narrative about what our sexuality ought to be. Many of us questioned essentialist thinking from the beginning, and found it wanting. It sometimes seems to me that what those who make these critiques are reacting to is not second wave feminism itself, but second wave feminism as seen distorted in the lens held up by its enemies.
So.... I must ask, are we speaking of our (Le Guin's and other feminists') journey to post-feminism, or our journey to a mature and evolved feminism? My view is more the latter, and it is with that observation - and reservation - that I read, and now comment upon, Clarke's work.
Clarke's thesis, as stated in her Introduction, is that Le Guin's writing has been profoundly shaped by feminist theory, and has in turn contributed to the growing body of feminist literature.
Le Guin has also been a central figure in feminist theory. She has frequently said that her writing was utterly reshaped by a feminist awakening she experienced in the late seventies when she responded to criticisms that her work was anti-feminist by immersing herself in the feminist debate. Once having accepted feminist principles, Le Guin evolved a poetics of non-linear narrative, emphasizing "female" values and experimentation with language and syntax.
This thesis is presented through an extensive analysis of Le Guin's work, including not only her speculative fiction, but also her non-genre fiction, her poetry, and her essays (although I must add that relatively less attention is paid to Le Guin's more recent work, including Lavinia and the three-volume Annals of the Western Shore). Clarke also draws on interviews, including her own conversations with Le Guin about her work and process.
Clarke sees LeGuin's career as a writer engaged and engaging with feminist theory as divided into stages (with some overlap); in her book, she devotes one chapter to each stage. The first stage encompasses all of her early work, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and is characterised by Clarke as a highly productive period in which Le Guin seeks to maintain “good manners” while still producing work which challenges the social order, a period in which she is clearly writing within a literary tradition based on male writing, but is exploring the social position of women and subverting the traditional image of the male hero. Clarke argues, in reference to early feminist criticism of Le Guin's works in this period, that "she was never as tradition-bound and
hero-oriented as has been described. In fact, with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, she was an early feminist voice even before she aligned herself with the movement."
Clarke's analysis locates the second stage of Le Guin's journey as a period of reaction and re-evaluation, in which she produces (relatively) little original work and begins to "question her relation to gender issues and the literary tradition, to consider her art through a feminist prism."
By the middle of the 1980s, Clarke argues, Le Guin has entered a third stage in which her work becomes both more experimental and more explicitly feminist. She explores ways of storytelling that focus on non-hierarchical relationships and the patterns of women's lives, or that challenge the idea of linear narrative altogether. In this period, Le Guin incorporates into her writing the feminist literary theory of women such as Helen Cixous and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "writing the body" and "beyond the ending." Her approach to fiction altered by her deep engagement with feminist thought, Le Guin writes women and women's magic into Earthsea, explores women's varied experiences in the linked stories of Searoad, and produces the profoundly experimental and women-centred Always Coming Home. In assessing Le Guin's work of this period, Clarke notes that
In "Why Are We Huddling About the Campfire?" she suggests that we tell stories as a way of constructing reality, of making ourselves understand both that we do exist and offering explanations for why we exist. If we tell stories about men only, feminist theory has taught her, women will not exist. Her writing in this period has been in the service of women, telling their stories. What she has learned from feminism, are ways in which to narrate the lives that do not fit in men's stories.
It is following this period, which Clarke characterises as "high feminist," that she sees Le Guin moving into what she variously calls post-feminism and next-stage feminism (a conceptual tag that I prefer).
Examining the differences in both subject and style that separate Le Guin's work in the 1990s from that of her experimental period, Clarke asks
followed the feminist tide, does she now emerge as post-feminist? Can she help us define this still ambiguous term? I argue that Le Guin has in fact moved into next-stage feminism. Her return to the imaginary lands of her earlier writing is marked not by feminist essentialism and narrative experimentation, but by her seeming rapprochement with traditional forms. Her recent writings represent Le Guin at another artistic height, but they also indicate a narrative journey back to her own beginnings, her own "native"
content and style. Yet, she returns with the express aim of shifting paradigms and breaking with the literary rules of engagement, a legacy of her feminist empowerment.
According to Clarke, the hallmarks of this next-stage feminism in Le Guin's writing are greater inclusivity, an engagement with post-colonialism (though I would suggest that through her anthropological perspective, Le Guin was exploring post-colonial narratives well before they were identified as such) and post-modernism (particularly in its valuing of multiple narratives over master narratives), and a return to less experimental styles. In this period, Le Guin continues the project begun with Tehanu, writing women and other non-privileged voices into her prior creations, including the Hainish and Earthsea universes.
While Clarke attempts to equate this shift to a post-feminist stance on the part of Le Guin, she acknowledges that Le Guin herself has not embraced that label for herself and her work.
in Le Guin's world, true journey is return and her evolution into postfeminism marks a spiral trajectory, nearly coming back to origins. She does not reject her feminism but builds it into her mental architecture in a way that makes it seem second nature, so that the writing that springs from it seems more organic. But she moves on from some of the fervor of high feminism, including its experimentalism, essentialism and exclusion. Le Guin has not engaged in discussions of post-feminism. Nonetheless her work of this period shows a clear backing away from the experimental non-linear narratives of her high feminist period. She is certainly assessing the lot of men differently as well. ... There is less universalising of the male experience; more dimensionality and more recognition that men can be as constrained by social roles as women.
As much as I enjoyed Clarke's detailed analysis of Le Guin's works, and the ways in which they embody the feminist process, here is where I (and other feminist reviewers) part company with her thesis. As Sharon de Graw notes in her review, "Given Le Guin's extensive critical and fictional interactions with feminism, some weight should be given to the fact the she has not explicitly disengaged herself from the term feminist nor specifically identified herself with post-feminism in these contexts. (http://www.readperiodicals.com/201101/2560135751.html#ixzz3NIMxv4Kr
Given that Le Guin's place in literature is well-secured, the fact of her very public espousal of feminist theory and concerns in her work is an important area of criticism, and this book is a good beginning to that project; I hope to see more feminist analysis of her work in the future.