Name: Ursula K. Le Guin
Claim to Fame: Avenali Chair in the Humanities at UC Berkeley (not to mention a wonderful writer)
If you’ve never heard of Ursula K. Le Guin, please drop whatever you’re doing and check out A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed…any of her books, really. The only thing more remarkable than the diversity of her work is its uniformly high quality. Over the years, Le Guin has won the National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, the PEN/Malamud Award, and many more laurels for her novels, short stories, essays, and poetry.
What may be slightly less well-known is the fact that Le Guin is Berkeley born-and-bred. In fact, the ‘K.’ in Ursula K. Le Guin stands for her father’s surname, Kroeber- as in Cal’s Kroeber Hall. Though Le Guin currently resides in Portland, Oregon, she’s returning to UC Berkeley on Tuesday, February 26 to give her Avenali Lecture, titled ‘What Can Novels Do?’
But judging by her thoughtful and continuously inventive work, I think we can safely say that in Le Guin’s hands, novels can do almost anything. A pioneering author, she has used fiction to explore gender, technology, ‘otherness’, and utopia with characteristic subtlety- often in genres that tend to be critically derided, like science fiction and fantasy. She has explicitly argued against the stratification of ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, but her work provides the best possible evidence of the universality of literature.
Though her books are often philosophical, Le Guin is a staunch believer in the power of story and the beauty of words, without the necessary trappings of a ‘message’ or a ‘point’. In her own words, “Writing is my craft. I honor it deeply. To have a craft, to be able to work at it, is to be honored by it.”
Le Guin’s previous essays and speeches on the art of fiction are extremely insightful, so if you’re at all interested in reading or writing, she is definitely a person to follow. Her Avenali lecture is sure to be one of many glimpses into the mind of a true creator.
Photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch