Stop Arguing About Genre Fiction When Ursula Le Guin Is the Best Writer Alive

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 2 2012 11:28 PM

No Better Spirit

The incredible stories of Ursula Le Guin make arguments about genre seem foolish.

Ursula Le Guin

Illustration by Noah Van Sciver

Nothing in the gorgeous The Unreal and the Real, this two-volume, author-picked collection of Ursula Le Guin's short fiction, appeared in The New Yorker after the arrival of Tina Brown in 1992 and that magazine's first installation of "a fiction and literary editor," Bill Buford, in 1994, this being quite around the time that the amount of fiction per issue dropped and the proportion of male fiction writers to female ones rose. Previously, staff editors had taken on the fiction-dealing role in turn. Charles McGrath was described as "a" fiction editor, or as "head of the fiction department," in a time period after Roger Angell was described as the "chief fiction editor" (somewhat like his mother before him), and also there was Daniel Menaker. The last publication of a piece of short fiction by Ursula Le Guin in The New Yorker, by the choice of either or both parties, was in 1990, after eight stories in the ‘80s, with one in 1979 bookending a nice set of 10.

Five of those 10 appear in these two volumes (according to the book's credits). Four of them appear near the end of the books, where the favorites, the curtain-closers, the encores, go. "The first draft of 'She Unnames Them' was written down on a cocktail napkin during a bourbon on the rocks on an airplane flying home alone from New York to Oregon after getting an award. I was feeling good. I was feeling like rewriting the Bible," Le Guin writes (amazingly!) in the introduction to Volume 2.

"She Unnames Them" is a short one, in a favored goofy mode of Le Guin's, in which she turns something inside out—in this case, apparently, Eden. That and a story called "Sur" are her favorites, and the closers, of that volume.

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They are not my favorites, as sweet as they are. For all the famous "quality" of a New Yorker short story—and that reputation is on the whole reasonable—Le Guin wrote stories vastly more rich, far more assured, and often far more devastating than these two, and instead they appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, and also Fantastic (RIP), Crank! (RIP), Universe (RIP), The Blue Motel (IDK!?), and so on. How wonderful that these publications existed and published and even sometimes paid. I hope everyone involved had so much fun. At least from here in cold 2012, so much closer to the end of the world, it looks like a cozy sun porch on an apple farm.

Le Guin titles the first volume of this collection Where on Earth and the second Outer Space, Inner Lands. "Some people will identify the first volume as 'mundane' and the second as 'science fiction,' but they will be wrong," she writes in the first volume. I do hate being wrong, so I will not.

The genre wars are back again, or never stopped. Arthur Krystal took up the case hard again on Oct. 24 on a (yes) New Yorker blog. He began by disputing Le Guin's claim that "all novels"—"all written art"—are members of the tribe of literature. They are not, he thinks.

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" 'Genre' is not a bad word," Krystal wrote, "although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply 'commercial.' " So his case entirely is that there are two kinds of books: genre books, which go with other "commercial" books, and then there is literature, a class made up of all books that have some apparently more noble ambition (and may not be meant to sell) and also do not contain mystery, space, a Western town, or monsters. None of this argument really makes sense, once he has declared all genre commercial, and particularly in light of the fact that there is no genre more stultifying and isolating and self-referential than the contemporary literary novel. I personally find its conventions revolting. The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them.

Krystal's argument to box genre and elevate literary fiction is like some demented, literary version of heteronormativity. While of course we can and likely should divide novels into commercial and noncommercial, that dividing line, because the actual book marketplace is drowning in silly, wand-waving, superpowered teenage trampires, is certainly not to be painted down between "genre" at large and the whiny, alienated, modernist rehash that is considered the "quality novel."

The rise of easy readin' conventional and commercial science fiction and fantasy indicates that, now more than ever, literature—all "written art," whether set in space or in an English country house or even, I suppose, in some oh-so-alienating Midwestern college dorm room—all belongs together, in a dreamy house with many rooms, apart from the blatantly commercial.

OK.

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