Science fiction, fantasy, realistic fiction, poetry and even children's literature all have at least one thing in common: Ursula K. Le Guin. The prolific author and feminist stands tall in several fields. Among the 60-plus books bearing her name are science fiction milestones (including The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, each of which won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards), fantasy classics (including A Wizard of Earthsea, the first novel in the Earthsea cycle) and beloved children's books (the best known of which are Catwings and its successors). Here, Ms. Le Guin looks back over her long career, talks about her new novel, The Telling, and contemplates the future of speculative fiction. [This interview was conducted in 2000.]
You've written many different kinds of books. How do you feel about the way books are marketed by genre?
Le Guin: I have no real objection to marketing and shelving by genre, because people who read a certain type of book want to be able to find it. The problems come with books that are cross-genre -- and with the critical assumptions that anything they call "genre" is going to be automatically inferior and they don't have to review it or learn how to read it. That's where I get cross and run around orating about it. ... I know that I'm always called "the sci-fi writer." Everybody wants to stick me into that one box, while I really live in several boxes. It's probably hurt the sales of my realistic books like Searoad, because it tended to get stuck into science fiction, where browsing readers that didn't read science fiction would never see it.
I've heard that publishers sometimes react to the success of a book by saying, "Give me another one just like it."
Le Guin: It's funny, I started out with a kind of a naive arrogance, like, "I know what I can write and that's what I'm going to write." I never did feel that I had to do what a publisher said. That's probably what kept me from getting published for the seven or eight years that I was sending stuff out and not getting published. But once I got published, I met up with editors and publishers who were willing to let me do what I thought I had to do.
Some of your alien societies are fundamentally different from ours, and yet there's something eerily familiar about them.
Le Guin: Actually, all my worlds, in the novels anyway, are populated by human beings. I make that pretty clear. ... Part of what a novel does is make you feel with the people in it -- so that you really can get into their skin and be a different person for a while, while you're reading the novel. If the person is too remote from human experience, I think that's not possible.
Your heroes really go through hell. How does suffering relate to character development for you?
Le Guin: I do tend to punish my central characters rather severely. That's a huge question, actually, because I don't believe that suffering purifies a character. Suffering generally brutalizes people -- it just hurts them, and sometimes it cripples them. But one thing most fantasies seem to do is show somebody coming through adversity by using a lot of intelligence and courage and endurance. A lot of fantasy stories are "the little guy triumphs over a very harsh world." That's such an ancient plot, and we need it. Kids need it, because kids are little guys in a world that's very hard to understand. And everybody needs it, because we all do face an awful lot of shit [laughs].
Some of your stories feature a character that seems to embody a society.
Le Guin: I think that's just novelistic convenience. You've got to have a protagonist, and if you're interested in cultures, then the protagonist has to kind of represent that culture. And if you have a foreign visitor the way I so often do, like Genly Ai [in The Left Hand of Darkness], those two people can bounce off each other and learn from one another. Estraven and Genly certainly do bounce off each other.
You once said that science fiction wasn't working for you, back in the '80s. What did you mean by that, and what's changed since then?
Le Guin: What was happening in the '80s was a sense that this "remasculinization" of science fiction was beginning. ... A good many science fiction books being written now strike me as boys' books. And I don't say men's books, I do say boys' books, because they're kind of like the old science fiction. These books don't have very much to interest a grown woman, to be brutally frank about it. ... Which is all a little different from the stuff that was being written when I came into science fiction in the '70s and early '80s. There was less technology, maybe, and more social science. There was a kind of openness, which I'm beginning to miss now in science fiction. ... What happened, maybe, is that the literary experimentation that some of us that started writing in the '60s and '70s -- we were turning science fiction into literature, and the hell with those who didn't like it. ... One reason women banged into science fiction so hard in the '60s and '70s was that some writers realized that this is this wonderful place to write novels that show different opportunities for women. We could try out different societies. I mean, that's what The Left Hand of Darkness is -- I'm trying out a different physiology, finding out what gender is by doing away with it. Maybe those experiments have been made and those thoughts have been thought, and we're going on to other things, for which science fiction is not as appropriate.