The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places
Since Thomas Disch's largest stumble in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, discussed last month, was over feminist science fiction, and over the work of Ursula K. Le Guin in particular, I decided to turn my attention to The Wave in the Mind this month. Since that collection was fairly recent, having been published in 2004, I thought discussing it would also be fairly timely.
However, once I dove into Wave, I was reminded of the recursive qualities of Le Guin's writing, and so decided to touch briefly on two earlier collections in order to address Wave more fully. When I turned to them, I found that there were internal qualities that made this choice even more fruitful than I'd expected.
I'd read The Language of the Night long ago—in the early '80s, in fact, not long after it came out. I'd enjoyed it then, and had returned to it periodically for both pleasure and instruction. My favorite of these, combining both joy and understanding is "The Staring Eye," an appreciation of Tolkien. In just a few pages, Le Guin manages to articulate the wonders and dangers of the man's great work, and to evoke a sense of what growing up in her home must have been like, with a mother who read all of the trilogy to each of her children aloud and to weep at Sam's homecoming. Other pieces address the language of the fantastic, myth, archetype, creativity, and censorship. All are valuable, and I recommend the collection to anyone interested in the fantastic, but especially to aspiring writers. Le Guin believes in craft and discipline, but her challenging demands are tempered throughout with compassion.
Rereading The Language of the Night now, in the wake of Waves, two things strike me: the formality of the essays, and the relatively narrow scope. To address the latter point first, it may seem odd to refer to essays that critique the market's tendencies to censor, or that follow the archetypical trail into the depths of human heart as narrow; but they seem traditional. All would have been at home in an English class of the 1950s. Some of this is due, no doubt, to the traditional structure Le Guin follows in the essays. The titles are striking, but again, could be used as models in a composition class, and the essays themselves almost all follow a controlled and linear structure.
Open Dancing at the Edge of the World, published ten years later, and the contrasts are obvious and immediate. Le Guin had addressed gender both directly, in "Is Gender Necessary?" and somewhat more obliquely, in her discussion of Tiptree's career, in The Language of the Night. However, these had always been placed within traditional constraints on an author's labor: she discussed gender in light of The Left Hand of Darkness, because it related immediately to her creative work there. The subtitle "Thoughts on Words, Women, Places" indicates a willingness that had emerged in the intervening years on Le Guin's part to send her words out into the world, and to address gender directly.
She does not abandon her literary concerns in Dancing. Indeed, some of my favorite sections of this book are her brief reviews of other greats, such as Lewis's Dark Tower or various works of Italo Calvino. However, she opens these concerns to the winds of the larger world, commenting even more directly on the political, emotional, and intellectual import of what she reads there. She also engagingly narrates the process of filming The Lathe of Heaven. Finally, she continues to turn her finely honed attention on language itself—the lines between prose and poetry, how stories get made, etc. More interestingly, though, orality explodes into her work and through the pages outward, and along with orality, the intensely personal and feminist. Stylistically, what this means is a willingness to include speeches and performance pieces, and to use textual formatting to evoke the rhythms of oral performance, something Le Guin is aware of both through her feminist allegiances and her familial background—her father was a renowned anthropologist, and her mother wrote books retelling Native American mythic stories, traditionally passed down through oral transmission. Finally, the recursive qualities visible in Le Guin's fiction are evident in her republication of "Is Gender Necessary?" not in a revised fashion, but in an annotated fashion: the original essay is reprinted, but with comments and afterthoughts interwoven in italics.
The changes visible in Dancing are even more manifest in Waves. Like the two earlier collections, Waves is divided into clusters that focus on loosely related topics. There are four sections: Personal Matters (focusing on Le Guin's life), Readings (reviews and discussions of other works), the almost non-category Discussions and Opinions, and, finally, On Writing. I say these topics are loosely related, because many of them could easily slide from one grouping to another. Several qualities unify the collection. The first and foremost is a growing insistence on the rhythms of language. Sometimes this means including pieces that were performed. Frankly, some of these do not read well on the flat page, and cry out for performance or exclusion.
Others function quite well on the page, but can't, or rather, shouldn't, be read straight through. The clearest examples of these are the sections on rhythm in poetry, and on rhythm in Tolkien. "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose" is so dense with useful lessons that one should only read it if one is going to reread and apply it, either to well-written pieces or to one's own work in progress. "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings" analyzes imagistic structures and the resultant pace in one fairly brief section of Tolkien's masterwork, thereby inviting the reader to do the same with other sections (and, again, handing out tools to be applied to one's own fiction).
On a related note, there are few bodies in the earlier collection, but they are everywhere in Waves, as they are in Le Guin's fiction, and in life. Most often, these are human bodies, especially human bodies in rhythmic movement (dancers, drummers, etc.), but animals (especially cats and dogs) and even the bodies of books are tangible. One could read The Language of the Night and forget the physical body; it's not possible in Waves. This book is aware of our physical bodies and oriented in space as Language was not and Dancing, despite its title, was only intermittently.
Finally, Waves is also unified by a rather feminist paradox. That is, the longer Le Guin writes, the more her voice is more fully her own. These works are fully personal, fully hers, in the same sense that the essays in The Language of the Night are traditional and academic. Their rhythms are fully her own. At the same time, she demonstrates everywhere a greater awareness of the work of others, how they influence her, and how her work exists in conversation with it, not as a monologue. Here, the tendency to return to a formative work comes into play again; Le Guin returns to the works and people that formed her, bringing her adult perceptions back to their many sources. At times she turns these perceptions on herself, noting positive qualities that she now sees that she missed earlier (in Cordwainer Smith, and in Mark Twain, for example). Other times she returns to these admired works to voice objections (to Tolstoy) that she can articulate now, issues she could not voice before. In doing so, she models what it means to be a writer who is independent, but always in context.
Obviously, I enjoy reading these essays. I find many of them a pleasure in their own rights, and can directly apply some of the insights to both my reading and my writing. (I see I haven't had a chance to say anything about "Award and Gender," that simple, terrifying account of gender imbalance in awards.) That said, there are some points that trouble me, primarily in the later two works. All of them relate to Le Guin's choices, and to some of her positions or statements. By that I mean, I appreciate the risks she takes by including talks and performance pieces in a collection. It's an interesting decision…but some of them include the weaknesses of orality, without the benefits. They have repetition without rhythm, and to be blunt, they ramble at times without having the benefit of an individual voice to listen to. When they do, they bore.
Other times, Le Guin seems oddly unreflective in her sweeping pronouncements. The best example of this is her statement from "Prospects for Women in Writing" found in Dancing at the Edge of the World, when she writes
To try to summarize my own experience: The more truly your work comes from your own being, body and soul, rather than fitting itself into male conventions and expectations of what to write about and how to write it, the less it will suit most editors, reviewers, grant givers, and committees.
Admittedly, that statement was published in 1986, but even then, Le Guin had won multiple Hugos, Jupiters, and Nebulas, as well as a National Book Award for children's literature and various and sundry other awards. I wish she'd returned to this comment and the others like it in Waves. Were these the works that fit into male conventions? I want to ask her about this comment, and others. Failing that, though, I will continue to listen to Le Guin, to learn from her, and to love her work.