Democracy Dies in Darkness

Books | Perspective

Ursula K. Le Guin didn’t want to be called a ‘genius’

January 23, 2018 at 7:33 PM

Author Urusla K. Le Guin (Marion Wood Kolisch/Marion Wood Kolisch)

Last year I wrote an introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin's collection of blog posts, "No Time to Spare." Before submitting it to her editor, I ran it by her. In it, I called her a genius. She objected to the word. Her father had told her, she said, that the word "genius" should be "saved for people who were really different in kind from other people — sui generis."

If I used it in reference to her, she said, then I would have nothing left with which to discuss Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

Related: [Ursula K. Le Guin, grand dame of science fiction, dies at 88]

I removed the word because it made her uncomfortable. But I, too, believe in using the term sparingly and carefully, and the criteria she gave me for its use, in my opinion, fit her completely. She was remarkable and amazing and awe-inspiring, gifted with language and gifted with imagination. I can't imagine that any other writer in the history of the world has ever matched the sheer number, not to mention the complexity, not to mention the vividness, of worlds she created. It's our good fortune that she worked in and loved those genres that allowed her genius to be as boundless as it was.

Today my inbox is filled with emails from other writers, especially women, all with a very similar message: No other writer has influenced me as deeply and profoundly as she. I don't even know who I'd be today without her stories.

It's a sentiment I share whole-heartedly. "The Left Hand of Darkness" was one of the first science fiction books I read, and some years later, when I decided to be a writer myself, I returned to that book. I read it again, aware that I'd never be able to achieve what she'd achieved. And still it gave me such a sense of possibility for what I might be able to do.

Possibility and permission, these are the gifts Le Guin gave us. She inspired a generation of writers to unshackle from realism — a mode she once accused of centering the human undeservedly — in favor of her wide and generous vision.

Karen Joy Fowler is a co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.

From our archives:

Ursula K. Le Guin is finally getting the recognition she deserves — almost

What we can learn from two literary masters: Ursula K. Le Guin and James Salter

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