Ursula K. Le Guin is having a moment. Earlier this year, the Library of America announced that it would collect and republish her body of work, making her only the fourth author to be so honored (alongside the likes of Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty, among others). Saga Press is also releasing, today, a collection of her novellas, The Found and the Lost, alongside a short story collection, The Unreal and the Real. On the occasion, PW talked to Le Guin about the distinctions between mainstream, literary, and genre fiction.
What made you decide to collect your novellas and short stories into big volumes? And why now?
I’ve been publishing short fiction for fifty years, [in publications] all over the map from the Harvard Advocate to Playboy to Fantastic Stories to The New Yorker, and in ten different volumes. Some of it gets reprinted a lot, some doesn’t. It seemed like high time to pick out some of my own favorites from them all. [The indie house] Small Beer Press published the selection in two handsome volumes, and now Saga has it in one. As for my novellas, a fictional form I’m especially fond of, Saga persuaded me that we could collect them all in one book. I was afraid it would outweigh Webster’s Unabridged. It is large, but liftable, and I’m delighted to have them there.
What was the hardest part of putting together a volume like this?
Whatever my system was, it hardly deserves the name of strategy. I made a list of the titles of all my short stories. Then I crossed out a bunch of them and put an 'A' beside others. I then went through the list again, and re-read old stories, and brooded a lot, and put 'A' by some and question mark by others, and crossed out some more. The crossing out part got harder as it went along, but the satisfying part was including some stories I like that have received less attention than others. I don’t buy that kill-your-darlings line. Does good judgment really involve murder?
Your work is typically labeled “speculative fiction” or “science fiction” or “fantasy,” in spite of your protests. How do you think the typical demarcations of “mainstream,” “literary,” and “speculative” fiction have evolved since you began writing?
I’ve never protested when my science fiction and fantasy is called science fiction and fantasy—why should I, when that’s what it is? But a lot of it isn’t, and I do protest having all my work lumped into a genre that only some of it belongs to. I’ve written for decades in various genres including realism, SF, fantasy, kiddilit, and fable. I published poetry long before I sold a story, and am still publishing it. I'm no longer writing fiction. I don’t fit into any pigeonhole. I’m all kinds of birds. The walls between fictional genres that were constructed by critical prejudice and ignorance are going down fast, and I love to watch them go! [That being said], genre is a permanently useful idea when used rightly, to indicate actual difference in subject-matter, style, expectation. It’s sort of like dogs, isn’t it? Your basic dog is a mongrel. No one breed is “superior” to all others, and exclusive inbreeding results in monsters. But variety and adaptability are valuable traits in a species, and there are real differences between breeds. Long live the Chihuahua, the Elkhound, the Poodle, and the Mutt.
What is your favorite fictional form to write in?
The novel. When a novel gets going and finds its necessary course, its momentum carries me along like a boat on a river. If I’m the writer, I’m the pilot, steering the craft the best I can; but I’m also free, because I’m carried by the power and following the way of the water.