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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin

In this book, several short essays by Le Guin are presented, most of them for the first time in formal print.

She covers many topics. One of them is the process of writing. Le Guin, arguably the most important writer of fantastic fiction in North America in the last half of the twentieth century, and continuing into the twenty-first, knows a lot about writing, and has taught it in many writers' workshops. To summarize too briefly, her advice on writing is twofold. First, be true to your story, because story is important. Second, listen to the constructive criticism of others.

Some of the other topics include:
an attack on Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, principally for being too simplistic in his understanding of such fields as sociology and anthropology. (Le Guin's father was an important anthropologist.)
some of what her early life was like.
a few drawings--she's pretty good.
an attack on Tolstoy for the famous sentence that begins his Anna Karenina, something like (depending on the translation) "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
rhythm in writing and reading, even of prose.
her appreciation of Peter Jackson's first Tolkien film, and her understanding of why the pace, etc., must be different from books, in film. (Le Guin has been publicly unhappy about a film version of some of her own work, for valid reasons. At least two of her works have been filmed.)
a brief analysis of the work of the late Cordwainer Smith, who happens to be one of my own favorite fantasy authors.

She argues for the importance of fantastic literature:

Fantasy is, after all, the oldest kind of narrative fiction, and the most universal. . . .
Fantasies are often set in ordinary life, but the material of fantasy is a more permanent, universal reality than the social customs realism deals with. The substance of fantasy is psychic stuff, human constants: situations and imageries we recognise without having to learn or know anything at all about New York now, or London in 1850, or China three thousand years ago. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Things not Actually Present: On The Book of Fantasy and J. L. Borges," in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala, 2004. pp. 38-45. Quote is from pp. 43. Originally appeared as the introduction to The Book of Fantasy, Viking, 1988.

Le Guin quotes Virginia Woolf for the source of her title: "A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it . . . " (Le Guin, p. 280)

* * * *

Note added on November 2nd: I should have included this link to the Project Gutenberg Anna Karenina text.


Arevanye said...

Excellent book by Le Guin. I really enjoyed it. Her quotation from Virginia Woolf about having her mind crammed with ideas and visions--the "wave in the mind"--but not being able to put them down into words because they have to tumble about a bit reminded me of C.S. Lewis's essay on "Past Watchful Dragons" where he talks about having a bubbling idea for a story, but needing to figure out the Form it needed: whether "verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not"--just like someone making jam needs a jar to pour it into.

I do like Le Guin's philosophy of staying out of her characters' development, of distancing herself emotionally from them so that they do not speak with her words but their own words. For some reason, I think that makes her characters ring "true" in their motivations and decisions. Her footnote about Tolstoy's characters in War and Peace: "They do what they do, and all they must do: and it is enough." Well, I think that can be applied to Le Guin's characters too.

Arevanye said...

Oh and the Sci-Fi channel's adaptation of Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy was just dreadful. She had good reason to be upset!