Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction Of Ursula K. LeGuin (book review).

February 23, 2018 | By | Reply More

Ursula K. LeGuin died on 22 January 2018, narrowly missing the release of her last book, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction Of Ursula K. LeGuin’. This is 50 articles that she wrote between 1972-2004.

Looking through her booklist that Gollanz provided at the opening of the book, I’ve only ever read four of her novels. The most significant one being ‘The Left Hand Of Darkness’ and its hardly surprising that a couple of these articles focus on that novel. If you haven’t read it, do so now, only because you can associate the cold of winter to that of the planet Gethen, called Winter by its inhabitants, and the two lead characters trekking across a bitterly cold wilderness before a blizzard traps them on a mountain for several days. The delay causes the local inhabitant to change sex which he/she hides from his Earth-born companion. Even after the 40 or so years since I’ve read this book, other than check on name details, the imagery is still strong which should tell you how powerful LeGuin’s writing was.

If anything, I was rather confused when she switched from writing SF to fantasy although the pieces within does show she had a liking for descriptive words so the switch now seems less of a jump.

LeGuin was also a very good observer. Even back in 1973, she distinguished between British and American tastes by pointing out we adults over here didn’t discriminate between adult and children’s books. A very interesting point made is that although children’s books don’t pay as much as adult books, their longevity and reprints mean they go on for much longer. I haven’t even gotten past page 10 yet.

There is so much I can pick out that is making an effect on me. LeGuin says that removing a style from a book just leaves a plot synopsis. From my perspective, the hardest part is explaining to people how to discover their own writer’s voice because it can take some time to develop to get a balance between text, descriptive text and dialogue and call it your own.

Picking out things that became a little tiresome is her university lectures or at least introductions to them as LeGuin is fluent in university-speak. That is, long words, literally quotes and me coming away wondering if I absorbed the message or not. Then again, university-speak depends on form far more than content which can be interpreted at discussions afterwards. Although I can understand her using the technique at such places, she does change back after a few pieces, albeit still with long words. A note for those who need to adapt to the audience they are lecturing to is be adaptable…a little anyway. The odd footnotes she uses throughout the book are more to update some information although there are some footnotes from when these articles were originally written.

Don’t mistake any of this for disapproval. Reading on, I ended up with three ideas for possible editorials. LeGuin certainly stopped me in my tracks to think when it came to the use of writers workshops. She’s taught at some herself but isn’t convinced that they do any good, which does match my thoughts on the subject. It’s more about getting the discipline and mechanics sorted out in your head and adult writing classes are seen as a short-cut to getting it done but it’s still only about practice. Thing is, unless the innate skill or talent is there in the first place, it’s a longer struggle to get it right and those with the innate talent look like they use it as a finishing school. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be writer’s workshops, just that it isn’t necessarily a requisite in becoming a writer. Pay particular attention to LeGuin’s ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ and ‘Prides: An Essay On Writing Workshops’ on the subject.

Still for you nascent writers out there, those two pieces by LeGuin will make you sit up and think. Oddly, I thought I had already finished my pep talk on storycraft in my editorial for the month and ended up adding a couple refinements although not from her writing. In her ‘The Question I Get Asked Most Often’, it is where does she get her ideas come from? Her reply is that they’re out there and you just have to know how to find them by self-discovery. You can’t teach it, you just have to learn how to look and not believe that they can be bought in a shop in Schenectady as Harlen Ellison often lies. I suspect he gets them as a freebie promotion by buying in bulk anyway. LeGuin thinks no writer has learnt enough until they’re passed 30 to be able to write well but as she admits that in her stories, a lot of her experience is made up, you have to wonder how much she’s lying. Her second piece on the subject, ‘A Matter Of Trust’ pinpoints how you have to instil confidence in your writing that people will want to read you. There, I suspect writers tread the same ground as con-artists. You have to believe us.

For me, her last big analysis comes in ‘Cheek By Jowl’ and the examination of books where animals talk and get on, not to mention they association with or without humans. Something that did make me think in regard to ‘The Wind In The Willows’ is that other than the weasels and stoats, why was there only one Mole, Badger, Toad and Ratty (who is actually a water-vole). Only the Mole is truly a solitary creature. If they are all full size or at least relative to each other, such a world would be heavily populated. Think how big Toad would have to be to have masqueraded as a human washerwoman when he escaped from jail. I’d have loved to have had a discussion with her on the animal/human relationships her of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the apes and McCaffrey’s Pern dragons.

There is a lot of good material in this book and as you can tell from the length of this review, I’ve had a lot to comment on and still leave plenty for you to find. Ursula LeGuin might be gone but her writing and observation will give you much to think about.

GF Willmetts

February 2018

(pub: Gollancz. 384 page enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-20594-9)

check out websites: www.golancz.co.uk and www.orionbooks.co.uk

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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