In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

9EDBB28F-1438-4032-A184-2015DAD5E517It takes the shiny off everything. Everything. Including the pure shameless pride of being declared a Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. All of it.

I’m a good writer. I know that perfectly well, after some sixty years of doing whatever it is I do, and then doing it over. But I’m not shuffling my feet, looking down and mumbling shyly when I say that on my best day, with the wind at my back and the fish biting, I couldn’t have carried Ursula K. LeGuin’s spare gym socks. I know that equally well. Sharing a great honor with her won’t ever change that.

I didn’t know her well. She lived in Portland, and I’ve been all over northern California in the last half-century, with six years out for the Seattle area. We hadn’t yet met when I followed her by a week into the Clarion West workshop (1972, was it?), to be greeted by a note saying, “Welcome, Unicorn! Make the little kobolds work their tails off!) Mostly we ran into each other at various conventions, grabbing coffee where we could. I do like to recall a serious conversation, initiated by me in increasing alarm at having become known more and more, in the intervening years, as the Unicorn Guy. Meanwhile, Ursula’s recently-published Earthsea novels had, as far as I was concerned, put paid to dragons as literary figures: I felt – and still feel – that dragons should be off-limits to all other writers, no matter how gifted or inventive they might be. But I was younger then, and had the chutzpah to offer to trade my unicorns even-up for her dragons. “Unicorns are really easy to housebreak. They always ask to go outside.” I remember that I was even willing to throw in a utility infielder, if she insisted.

Ursula’s response: “Do you know how impossible it is to keep dragons off the curtains? And they’re absolute hell on carpets!” We never did make the deal, but not for my lack of trying. As I say, I was younger then.

I’ve often told the story of appearing onstage with Ursula and Vonda McIntyre in 1975, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, the three of us speaking about being considered genre writers, inhabitants of a certain ghetto: our work generally tolerated – even loved, in certain corners of the ghetto – but almost invariably unrespected as real, proper, literary fiction. Some of the male students in the back of the auditorium began to complain loudly that they’d come to hear talk about ​ good old rocket-jockey science fiction, and not this “shrill feminism!​”​ Ursula, sitting on my left, turned to Vonda on my right, saying severely, “Vonda, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you about being shrill!” Vonda responded calmly, – without missing a beat, “No, Ursula dear – I’m strident. You’re shrill.”

Me? I sat between them, absolutely vain of actually knowing those two women, and trying very hard not to giggle. I can’t honestly remember whether I managed it or not.

In fact, she was never shrill. Fierce, yes. Intense, yes, with a great many things that she wanted to say, since no one else was saying them. Deadpan funny, always, even at her most passionate. Pissed-off, certainly, of course, as she bloody well should have been – as she bloody well needed to be. She meant business, Ursula did, and never a doubt of it. But kind, always, with the angry compassion of her Space Crone. Forever fiercely, stubbornly kind.

In my introduction to the 2017 Tachyon anthology New Voices of Fantasy, I wrote:

“Years ago, knowing that I was scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of [SFWA]…Ursula LeGuin​,​ wisest of us all, warned me as follows: ‘Remember that most of your audience will be drunk by the time you get up to speak, and remember always that all of us feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas – and even our classic cliches – for generations, and selling them back to us as Magic Realism. Tell them that, loudly and repeatedly, and the ones who can still stand up will be buying you drinks all night. And never forget that this is a small, highly incestuous group, and a lot of people have been married to, or sleeping. with other members of the group – so watch what you say.'”

There’s nothing I can say about her now that isn’t all over the Internet today, and won’t be providing endless exhausting doctorates, seminars, fellowships and festivals tomorrow, and in the years to come. She was the master. She still is. She lived as full and honorable a life as anyone could have, and she got her work done. But I don’t believe for a minute that she ever thought she’d gotten her work done. The truly great ones never do. There’s always more.

Photo is used under a Creative Commons license from Wikipedia.

About Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is the best-selling author of The Last Unicorn, which has sold a reported five million copies since its initial publication in 1968. His other novels include A Fine & Private Place, The Innkeeper’s Song, and Tamsin. His short fiction has been collected in four volumes by Tachyon Publications, including The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche, The Line Between, We Never Talk About My Brother, and Sleight of Hand. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic, and Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire awards as well as the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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5 Responses to In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

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  2. Leif Behmer says:

    I would have liked to have told Ursula the same thing I told you, Peter. She helped me get through my graduate program, and with her example, along with the thoughts and talents of other writers, I was able to make some small contribution to that case for literary vs commercial fantasy to my thesis committee.

    I’ve noted that she now appears in textbooks in American Literature and general reading texts. I share “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” at every opportunity I have to teach it. Perhaps with the right PhDs we’ll see even more of her in the future.

  3. I agree with everything you say, Peter, about Ursula. She was a wonderful writer, enormously sharp and perceptive, and with great insight into the human condition.

    But I must disagree when you put your own writing below hers. You have written so magically, so well, so passionately, and with such grace and skill that you really need not consider yourself less than Ursula as an author.

    Really.

  4. Juliette Nash says:

    I’ve been on a reading hiatus due to my masters thesis and voracity for reading not mixing well, but as soon as that dust settles I know who’s work I’m adding to the top of my list. Thank you, Peter.

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