This week, Ursula K. Le Guin, the renowned science fiction writer who died in January, was awarded the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for No Time to Spare, a collection of ruminations on aging and the universe. [https://pen.org/press-release/2018-literary-awards-winners-announced] Jenny Bhatt explores Le Guin’s writing, with particular focus on that remarkable collection.
By Jenny Bhatt
We appreciate writers and artists more with their passing. Particularly so when they have left us such a vast, rich legacy of their many works as Ursula K. Le Guin did when she passed away in January.
Some writers, as Nietzsche famously wrote, have only been born posthumously. Entirely or mostly ignored in their lifetimes, they gain a certain cult-like readership after their deaths. Sometimes, many decades after. Their works are then considered as having been either ahead of their time or finally ripe for a new “moment.”
Death also brings a different kind of attention and value to the writer’s works because he or she is now no longer there to create more. What we have is all we have to measure that writer’s worth, influence, and impact. This kind of economic scarcity causes us, as a larger reading community, to scrutinize the works afresh.
That said, the “test of time” is not always a reliable or straightforward measure. There are cases, too, where a work endures not because it is good by critical standards but simply due to longevity or accessibility. We could easily label a lot of classical, canonical works of literature as such. Literacy, readership, socio-cultural, and geo-political factors complicate this “test of time” measure. Homer, arguably, is read more widely today than he was during his own time. There is also a very real impact from how the writer’s estate is managed to ensure the works remain in public focus.
Le Guin will, most likely, fare better than many other writers and artists because she was a living legend and had influenced and inspired, it is fair to say, at least three generations of writers during her lifetime: her own and the two that have come after.
And, finally, the passing of a beloved writer often transports us to a time and place when their work(s) might have been a valued source of personal cognitive strength or growth for us. In a way, when such a writer dies, he/she also takes along that little bit of our individual past.
So, for many of us, our grief over the loss of Le Guin is heavily tinged with guilt. Did we respect her enough while she was with us? Did we give her enough credit for the many works that came after hers and would not have been possible without hers — for example, would Harry Potter and Hogwarts have been possible without Ged and Roke in Earthsea? (And, of course, both owe a big debt to Theodore Cogswell and Terry Pratchett for the young-wizard-at-wizarding-school trope.)
Twenty-four/seven social and news media makes it possible now for everyone across the world to share their personal eulogies and the drip-drip-drip of such tributes extending over days and weeks forces us to recalibrate our own sense of loss. Are we even mourning enough?
As a deep practitioner of Taoism, Le Guin was very aware of and accepting of her own mortality and death as simply another phase of existence. She had no illusions about her celebrity status among writer and reader communities the world over. When she announced that she was giving up writing fiction, she said it was because the well had run dry. But, of course, her voice had not. After that renunciation, all her writing — whether letters to editors or blog posts or book reviews or essays — became a more distilled and clear sounding of everything she had ever stood for. Which, I would argue, makes it even more necessary reading and rereading now that she is not with us.
No Time to Spare, a collection of essays and musings from her blog is in that clarified, distinct voice and with all the insight, humor, truth, and deftness which her longtime readers will enjoy.
Le Guin has often said how she came late to feminism with her fiction because she believed she had to "write like a man.” That feminism, however, underpins everything written here — even when a topic is not explicitly related to gender issues. The other big theme that braids itself through several pieces here is her firm stance on belief versus knowledge and science versus religion. She had participated in these debates throughout her life, whether expressly through the writing or in interviews/discussions. And, finally, to a somewhat lesser extent, she revisited her ideas of freedom, belonging, aging, governance, the value of the natural world, capitalism, humanity’s capacity for war/destruction/peace, and, of course, the art and craft of writing.
All these weighty issues have been handled with a witty touch so that, while we are sure of her position, we are not goaded into taking any particular side. We are able to simply admire the workings of a well-honed mind with its myriad perspectives and romp about with ideas and objects as playfully with her as her cat, Pard, who has also received plenty of love and attention in these pages. As Karen Joy Fowler writes in the introduction: “Le Guin is not the sort of sage who demands agreement and obeisance.”
She had always shied away from the blog form because of both its interactivity and her own reluctance with its close relative, the personal essay form. Then she read The Notebooks (2010) by José Saramago, one of her longtime favorite writers. He had turned to blogging at age 85 or 86 and this book was a selection of his posts. It helped her see the form as a more freeing writing approach. That sense of freedom also shines through in the writing here.
The title No Time to Spare comes from her thoughts on a questionnaire from her alma mater, Harvard, on the occasion of the 60th reunion of the class of 1951. Question 18 in a list of many (some of which she skewered so well in the book's opening essay) was about whether the person answering was living their secret desires. And, in the 27 occupation options provided, the seventh was “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” It made her pause to consider what “spare time” means for people in their eighties and how to deal with a mindset that saw her life’s work of writing as a creative activity or hobby done to fill up spare time. From these reflections, she moved into an existential though lively exploration of how we view and use time at different stages of our lives. And how, at her advanced age, given all that she occupied herself with, she had absolutely “no time to spare.”
The essays alternate between the political and the personal. Often, these aspects merge perfectly well and, through it all, her keen attention to and fascination with words and language remains a constant pleasure.
The diaries, blogs, essays, and letters of writers have always been of immense interest. Nowadays, we get a lot more of these personal musings from social media where some of the best writers have figured out ways to not only use various platforms beyond sharing links or outrage but also to leverage them to keep alternately stoking and sating their readers’ appetites for their words and insights.
But social media posts cannot do the most important thing that such collected works of nonfiction as No Time to Spare can, which is to show us how the writer’s crucible of imagination works: the different heat sources that fires it up; the various substances that come together to melt and fuse into something uniquely different; and all the beautiful energy, light, and matter that is generated and poured into their much-loved creative works. Such an understanding adds new dimensions to those works and enables us to revisit them with expanded perspectives.
“Wordworking” is how Le Guin herself described her craft at one point to juxtapose it as a cognitive craft with woodworking, a material craft. But she went on to say how she liked the material aspect of words too — particularly their sound, both in the mind and spoken by the voice.
She added: “And right along with that, inseparably, I like the dances of meaning words do with one another, the endless changes and complexities of their interrelationships in sentence or text, by which imaginary worlds are built and shared. Writing engages me in both these aspects of words, in an inexhaustible playing, which is my lifework. Words are my matter — my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncharted wood. Words are my magic, anti-proverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.”
So if, like me, you have not read all of her wordworks (10 story collections, 6 volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books, 4 translations, numerous essays, and 20 novels) or even any of it, here is a good way to start. Read No Time to Spare. There is another such work out by Small Beer Press, Words Are My Matter, which includes more reflections on reading and writing — essays, lectures, and book reviews. Read that too. Then, go to this handy flow-chart to figure out a good point of entry into the rest of her ouevre based on your interests.
Beyond a deeper appreciation of how Le Guin’s fictional utopias and dystopias are very much a part of her real-life activism, what we may be lucky enough to parse — if we pay the requisite and deserved attention — is how her works, including this one, were also very much a part of her generous humanity, where she found something hopeful in even the most challenging circumstances. May we all, as we continue to grapple with the frequent incomprehensibility of our own times, find such abundant goodness — old-fashioned though it sounds — in ourselves, the writers we read, the lives we lead, and the world we are becoming.
Jenny Bhatt's first short story collection is due out this year. Her writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, The Atlantic, Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Hofstra’s Windmill, Eleven Eleven Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Jet Fuel Review, Kweli Journal, Five:2:One, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review (UK), The Nottingham Review (UK), Litro UK, The Vignette Review, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in Atlanta. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com. Other book reviews: https://indiatopia.com/reviews/book-reviews/.