Words Are My Matter NPR coverage of Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, With a Journal of a Writer's Week by Ursula K. Le Guin. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Words Are My Matter

Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, With a Journal of a Writer's Week

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 316 pages, Small Beer Press, List Price: $24 |


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Words Are My Matter
Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, With a Journal of a Writer's Week
Ursula K. Le Guin

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A brilliant collection showcases the essays, reviews, talks, book reviews and more from the National Book Foundation Medalist author and one of our foremost public literary intellectuals.

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Excerpt: Words Are My Matter

Words Are My Matter

Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with A Journal of a Writers Week

Small Beer Press

Copyright © 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61873-134-0


Foreword, i,
Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces, 1,
The Operating Instructions, 3,
What It Was Like, 7,
Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love, 9,
"Things Not Actually Present", 16,
A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti, 21,
The Beast in the Book, 26,
Inventing Languages, 35,
How to Read a Poem: "Gray Goose and Gander", 41,
On David Hensel's Submission to the Royal Academy of Art, 44,
On Serious Literature, 45,
Teasing Myself Out of Thought, 47,
Living in a Work of Art, 51,
Staying Awake, 66,
Great Nature's Second Course, 75,
What Women Know, 81,
Disappearing Grandmothers, 88,
Learning to Write Science Fiction from Virginia Woolf, 95,
The Death of the Book, 97,
Le Guin's Hypothesis, 104,
Making Up Stories, 107,
Freedom, 113,
Book Introductions and Notes on Writers, 115,
A Very Good American Novel: H. L. Davis's Honey in the Horn, 116,
Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle, 120,
Huxley's Bad Trip, 127,
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris, 133,
George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, 137,
The Wild Winds of Possibility: Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake, 139,
Getting It Right: Charles L. McNichols's Crazy Weather, 143,
On Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, 149,
Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago, 151,
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic, 165,
Jack Vance: The Languages of Pao, 169,
H. G. Wells: The First Men in the Moon, 173,
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine, 179,
Wells's Worlds, 184,
Book Reviews, 191,
Margaret Atwood: Moral Disorder, 192,
Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood, 195,
Margaret Atwood: Stone Mattress, 200,
J. G. Ballard: Kingdom Come, 203,
Roberto Bolaño: Monsieur Pain, 206,
T. C. Boyle: When the Killing's Done, 209,
Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book, 212,
Italo Calvino: The Complete Cosmicomics, 215,
Margaret Drabble: The Sea Lady, 219,
Carol Emshwiller: Ledoyt, 222,
Alan Garner: Boneland, 227,
Kent Haruf: Benediction, 230,
Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night, 233,
Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver, 236,
Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behavior, 239,
Chang-Rae Lee: On Such a Full Sea, 243,
Doris Lessing: The Cleft, 246,
Donna Leon: Suffer the Little Children, 249,
Yann Martel: The High Mountains of Portugal, 251,
China Miéville: Embassytown, 254,
China Miéville: Three Moments of an Explosion, 257,
David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks, 260,
Jan Morris: Hav, 264,
Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic, 268,
Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence, 272,
Salman Rushdie: Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights, 276,
José Saramago: Raised from the Ground, 281,
José Saramago: Skylight, 285,
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Dorset Stories, 288,
Jo Walton: Among Others, 291,
Jeanette Winterson: The Stone Gods, 294,
Stefan Zweig: The Post Office Girl, 297,
The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer's Week, 301,


Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces

These are, really, all occasional pieces, addressed on various occasions to various audiences. Their subjects range through animals in books, invented languages, sleep, the house I grew up in, anarchism, how to read a poem, and a poem about a plinth. The most useful way to arrange them was chronologically. Many of them were revised slightly for this book; their original versions can be found in the original publication or on my website.

Only two of them are overtly political; but as we learned from Robin Morgan and others, the personal and the political are inseparable. A good many of them present a defense, sometimes a fairly belligerent defense, of certain aspects of literature — imaginative fiction, genre, women's writing, reading as distinct from experiencing media.

All through the past fifteen years there's been a steady and increasing shift of critical interest and understanding towards imaginative fiction and away from a rigid view of realism as the only fiction worthy the name of literature. I'm delighted to know that my arguments in defense of genre were becoming unnecessary even as I made them.

Gender in literature, however, remains a vexed issue. Books by women continue to be marginalised or segregated, receive fewer "major" literary awards, and are more subject to terminal inattention following the writer's death. So long as we hear about "women's writing" but not about "men's writing" — because the latter is assumed to be the norm — the balance is not just. The same signal of privilege and prejudice is reflected in the common use of the word feminism and the almost total absence of its natural counterpart, masculinism. I long for the day when neither word is necessary.CHAPTER 2

The Operating Instructions

A talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002.

A poet has been appointed ambassador. A playwright is elected president.

Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel. Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills. Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.

... Well, maybe in some other country, but not this one. In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don't work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. "Yes, yes!" they cry. "The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!" In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don't use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can't have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

We have to learn to use it, and how to use it, like any other tool. Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people — Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian. ... We are those who arrived at the Fourth World. ... We are Joan's nation. ... We are the sons of the Sun. ... We came from the sea. ... We are the people who live at the center of the world.

A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done, how things are done rightly, done well.

A child who doesn't know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.

Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.

Small communities with strong traditions are often clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it. But tradition may crystallise imagination to the point of fossilising it as dogma and forbidding new ideas. Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.

As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching — what we need, what life ought to be. In our time of huge populations exposed continuously to reproduced voices, images, and words used for commercial and political profit, there are too many people who want to and can invent us, own us, shape and control us through seductive and powerful media. It's a lot to ask of a child to find a way through all that alone.

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.

What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

Reading is a means of listening.

Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It's an act: you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed, not the ceaseless, incoherent, gabbling, shouting rush of the media. You take in what you can and want to take in, not what they shove at you fast and hard and loud in order to overwhelm and control you. Reading a story, you may be told something, but you're not being sold anything. And though you're usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. You aren't being brainwashed or co-opted or used; you've joined in an act of the imagination.

I know no reason why our media could not create a similar community of the imagination, as theater has often done in societies of the past, but they're mostly not doing it. They are so controlled by advertising and profiteering that the best people who work in them, the real artists, if they resist the pressure to sell out, get drowned out by the endless rush for novelty, by the greed of the entrepreneurs.

Much of literature remains free of such co-optation, in part because a lot of books were written by dead people, who by definition are not greedy. And many living poets and novelists, though their publishers may be crawling abjectly after bestsellers, continue to be motivated less by the desire for gain than by the wish to do what they'd probably do for nothing if they could afford it, that is, practice their art — make something well, get something right. Literature remains comparatively, and amazingly, honest and reliable.

Books may not be "books," of course, they may not be ink on wood pulp but a flicker of electronics in the palm of a hand. Incoherent and commercialised and worm-eaten with porn and hype and blather as it is, electronic publication offers those who read a strong new means of active community. The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we're visiting, life.CHAPTER 3

What It Was Like

A talk given at a meeting of Oregon NARAL in January 2004.

My friends at NARAL asked me to tell you what it was like before Roe vs. Wade. They asked me to tell you what it was like to be twenty and pregnant in 1950 and when you tell your boyfriend you're pregnant, he tells you about a friend of his in the army whose girl told him she was pregnant, so he got all his buddies to come and say, "We all fucked her, so who knows who the father is?" And he laughs at the good joke.

They asked me to tell you what it was like to be a pregnant girl — we weren't "women" then — a pregnant college girl who, if her college found out she was pregnant, would expel her, there and then, without plea or recourse. What it was like, if you were planning to go to graduate school and get a degree and earn a living so you could support yourself and do the work you loved — what it was like to be a senior at Radcliffe and pregnant and if you bore this child, this child which the law demanded you bear and would then call "unlawful," "illegitimate," this child whose father denied it, this child which would take from you your capacity to support yourself and do the work you knew it was your gift and your responsibility to do: What was it like?

I can hardly imagine what it's like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe vs. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime.

But I can tell you what it is like, for me, right now. It's like this: If I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents through the pregnancy, birth, and infancy, till I could get some kind of work and gain some kind of independence for myself and the child, if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, for the anti-abortion people, the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have borne a child for them, their child.

But I would not have borne my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.

The life of that fetus would have prevented, would have aborted, three other fetuses, or children, or lives, or whatever you choose to call them: my children, the three I bore, the three wanted children, the three I had with my husband — whom, if I had not aborted the unwanted one, I would never have met and married, because he would have been a Fulbright student going to France on the Queen Mary in 1953 but I would not have been a Fulbright student going to France on the Queen Mary in 1953. I would have been an "unwed mother" of a three-year-old in California, without work, with half an education, living off her parents, not marriageable, contributing nothing to her community but another mouth to feed, another useless woman.

But it is the children I have to come back to, my children Elisabeth, Caroline, Theodore, my joy, my pride, my loves. If I had not broken the law and aborted that life nobody wanted, they would have been aborted by a cruel, bigoted, and senseless law. They would never have been born. This thought I cannot bear. I beg you to see what it is that we must save, and not to let the bigots and misogynists take it away from us again. Save what we won: our children. You who are young, before it's too late, save your children.CHAPTER 4

Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love

A talk given at the Public Library Association Preconference on Genre, in Seattle, February 2004, revised in 2014.

The concept of genre is a valid one. We need a method for sorting out and defining varieties of narrative fiction, and genre gives us a tool to begin the job. But there are two big problems in using the tool. The first is that it's been misused so often that it's hard to use it rightly — like a good screwdriver that's all bent out of shape because some dork tried to pry paving stones apart with it.

Genre is a generic word — naturally! — for "a kind or style, especially of art or literature," says the OED, and more specifically a term for paintings of a certain type and subject matter: "scenes and subjects of common life."

Now, "scenes and subjects of common life" nicely covers the subject matter of the realistic novel, the literary equivalent of genre painting. But when the term made its way into literature, it came to mean anything but the realistic and the commonplace. It was oddly enough applied to fictions whose subject matter is some degrees removed from common life — Westerns, murder mysteries, spy thrillers, romances, horror stories, fantasies, science fiction, and so on.

The subject matter of realism is broader than that of any genre except fantasy; and realism was the preferred mode of twentieth-century modernism. By relegating fantasy to kiddylit or the trash, modernist critics left the field to the realistic novel. Realism was central. The word genre began to imply something less, something inferior, and came to be commonly misused, not as a description, but as a negative value judgment. Most people now understand "genre" to be an inferior form of fiction, defined by a label, while realistic fictions are simply called novels or literature.

So we have an accepted hierarchy of fictional types, with "literary fiction," not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the "genres," are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgmental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of "If it's science fiction it can't be good, if it's good it can't be science fiction."

And judgment by genre is particularly silly and pernicious now that the idea of genre itself is breaking down.

That's the other problem with our good tool; the screwdriver is melting, the screws are all screwy. Much of the best fiction doesn't fit into the genres any more, but combines, crosses, miscegenates, transgresses, and reinvents them. Seventy years ago Virginia Woolf questioned the possibility of writing realistic fiction honestly. Many honest writers have given up the attempt.

Terms such as "magical realism" or "slipstream" are taken from the literatures to which they're suited and slapped hastily across great widening cracks in the conventional structure of narrative. They disguise more than they reveal, and are useless as description. Major novelists appear outside any recognised category — tell me what kind of fiction it is that José Saramago writes. It is not realism; no, it certainly isn't; but it very certainly is literature.