Hailed in 2016 as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer” by The New York Times no less, and officially declared a “living legend” by the Library of Congress, Ursula K. Le Guin is among the leading writers in any genre of the past decades. By merely material calculations, she is also among the most successful, with millions of sales to her name; in terms of influence she can be counted among the greats, with writers as diverse as David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie, and Neil Gaiman acknowledging her work’s’ impact on their own. Le Guin’s interests are wide-roaming and frequently speculative, and her books grapple with contexts imbued in anthropology and psychology, tackling profound problems. As part of a long-running project, The Saint spoke to Le Guin, now 88 years old, over email, as part of a long-running project aspiring to discuss the same set of interesting topics with writers of different backgrounds.
The Saint: To what extent do you think a reader can read one of your books, or a book of any writer, and come to understand the writer as well as the book? How much of “you” goes into any piece of work?
Ursula K. Le Guin: Some writers use their work to make themselves known and understood, some use themselves to write works they hope will be known and understood. I’m the second kind. A whole lot of me goes into my writing, and the better I write the more of me is in it. But that has nothing to do with “knowing” me as a person, only as an author. Fiction and poetry are arts, so their truth isn’t factual. They can be written from the heart and with scrupulous honesty without being confessional. Their connection to the writer’s individual history and personal experience may be meaningful, helpful in understanding it, or may not. Witness Homer, witness Shakespeare. Why do people waste time on “Who was Shakespeare?” The guy who wrote those plays. Isn’t that what matters?
TS: What motivates you to write?
UKLG: I love writing.
TS: Or to put it another way, what prevents you from not writing?
UKLG: You mean, like, why don’t I have writer’s block? Well, maybe because I don’t really believe in writer’s block.
TS: What do you consider success to be — by what metric do you say whether you consider a work successful? How does your view on success and life outside of your work influence your aims within your work?
UKLG: I’m with William James: “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” The wealth and celebrity that generally define “success” at present – Well, “success” in that sense gives me a better living, and gets more people reading my work. By my own definition, the nearer something I write gets to what I want it to be the nearer it is to being a “success.” I have no metric for this judgment.
TS: Why do you work in the mediums in which you do? What draws you to them, and makes you prefer them to the others available?
UKLG: Words are what I have worked with since I learned to talk and read and write. They are my medium. My breath of life.
TS: As a writer, you have what some might call a very privileged position of access to the reader on a personal level. Do you feel like you, and writers generally, ought to use that position to advance what you consider to be the right, whether through your writing or outside it?
UKLG: I don’t want to legislate morality either in answering this question or in my writing. But I do feel strongly that a writer has a responsibility to their audience (which for instance is why I say “their” instead of “his”). Nothing gives me the right, as a writer, to exclude, or patronize, or express contempt or hatred for anybody without being aware of it and considering whether it’s going to do good or harm – taking responsibility for it. Being in the public eye intensifies my responsibility both as a writer and as a citizen, because I have to remember that what I do and say might make more difference than I think it might.
TS: To what extent do you think the reader ought to consider the author and the author’s intentions and beliefs when they read something written? Do you ever feel like your original intentions are being misconstrued in any way — and do you think it matters if they are?
UKLG: I think we consider authors and their intentions and beliefs far too much. What matters is the work. As for the work getting misconstrued, it’s inevitable. Anyhow, the richer a work of art is, the more different ways people can and will and ought to understand it.
TS: What, for you, makes a novel, poem, play – any piece of written work — a good one?
UKLG: I like it.
TS: What have you found to be the greatest challenges in making your own work good by that standard, and how have you sought to overcome them?
UKLG: By the standard of “goodness” I just gave you, the only way I can judge whether my work is good or not is by whether I like it or not. In other words, did it come out anywhere near what I hoped it would be, and do I enjoy reading it. I’m not saying that the interest and approval of readers is unimportant to me. It’s the only thing that can support and validate my own opinion of my work. It’s the reward. But I don’t think I was a writer till I could honestly judge the deficiencies and excellences of my own work. And if I didn’t like it, why should I ask anybody else to?
Challenges? Well, the challenge is the work itself. Getting it right.
TS: How would you like your legacy to be looked upon?
UKLG: By the eyes of readers. I would like it to be read.
TS: What is the work of which you are most proud — and similarly, if only one of your works could survive for posterity, which would you choose to save?
UKLG: This question stumps me. I always used to answer it, “The next one,” but now that I’m too decrepit to write novels any more, I can’t do that. Which of its peaches is a peach tree proudest of? I’d like to think Posterity might take some notice of my poetry (which I have been able to go on writing even while decrepit, and which Contemporaneity ignores). But I really think the choice is up to Posterity itself.
TS: If there was anybody from history that you would wish to be pleased by, or proud of, your books, who would it be?
UKLG: Oh golly. José Saramago, maybe?