Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
93. Pard’s Christmas, 2014
Annals of Pard XIII
What’s Under the Tree?
Pard’s New Year Greeting:
So here’s a paw, my trusty friend,
And gie’s a paw o’ thine!
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
5 January 2015
94: The Saga of the Mice, Continued
Annals of Pard XIV
“The Saga of the Mice, Continued” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
95. “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Kazuo Ishiguro talked to interviewer Alexandra Alter (NYT
20 Feb 15) about his forthcoming novel The
Buried Giant, which takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian
England. Everybody there has lost most of their longterm memory, due to the
influence of the breath of a dragon named Querig.
Ogres and other monsters roam the land, but Querig just
sleeps and exhales forgetfulness, until a pair of elderly Britons with the
singularly unBriton names of Beatrice and Axl arrive with the knight Gawain and
a poisoned goat to watch a Saxon named Wistan kill Gawain and then slice the
head off the sleeping dragon. Beatrice and Axl wander on in search of their
son, who they now remember may be dead, until Beatrice falls asleep in the boat
of a mysterious boatman who rows her off to a mysterious island while Axl
wanders back inland.
A wild country inhabited by monsters, an old couple who must
leave their home without knowing exactly why, a sense that important things
have been, perhaps must be, forgotten . . . Such images and
moods could well embody a story about the approach of old age to death, and
indeed I think that is at least in part the subject of the book. But so generic
a landscape and such vague, elusive perceptions must be brought to life by the
language of the telling. The whole thing is made out of words, after all. The
imaginary must be imagined,
accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid
and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality,
the storyteller can’t. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating
landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. And the vitality of
characters in a semi-historical, semi-fanciful setting depends on lively,
plausible representation of what they do and how they speak. The impairment of
the characters’ memory in this book may justify the aimlessness of their
behavior and the flat, dull quality of the dialogue, but then how is it that
Axl never, ever, not once, forgets to address his wife as “princess”? I came to
wish very much that he would.
Mr Ishiguro said to the interviewer, “Will readers follow me
into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be
prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is
Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?
It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.
To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice,
that I had to write this piece in response.
Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking
‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres,
dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain
works of great literary merit such as Beowulf,
the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much
imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork. Their presence or absence is not
what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid,
powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into
a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.
Familiar folktale and legendary ‘surface elements’ in Mr
Ishiguro’s novel are too obvious to blink away, but since he is a very famous
novelist, I am sure reviewers who share his prejudice will never suggest that
he has polluted his authorial gravitas with the childish whims of fantasy.
Respect for his readers should assure him that, whatever the
book is, they will honestly try to follow him and understand what he was trying
I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it
didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’
of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose,
while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found
reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire
while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”
2 March 2015
96. Addendum to “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
At a Guardian event
held at the Royal Institution in London on Sunday, Ishiguro said that veteran
author Ursula K. Le Guin was “a little bit hasty in nominating me as the latest
enemy for her own agenda,” after she had written a blog post accusing him of
“despising” the fantasy genre.
“I think she wants me
to be the new Margaret Atwood,” he said, referring to the criticism the
Canadian author and poet has received from Le Guin for distinguishing her
writing as “speculative fiction” and for saying science fiction was about “talking
squids in outer space”.
“If there is some sort
of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books,
I am on the side of ogres and pixies,” he said. “I had no idea this was going
to be such an issue. Everything I read about [The Buried Giant], it’s all ‘Oh,
he’s got a dragon in his book’ or ‘I so liked his previous books but I don’t
know if I’ll like this one’.
“[Le Guin]’s entitled
to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got
the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.”
I am delighted to let Mr Ishiguro make his own case, and to
say I am sorry for anything that was hurtful in my evidently over-hasty
response to his question “Will they think this is fantasy?”
I still don’t quite understand why he asked it, but I only
questioned it because it appeared to me to be drawing the kind of “battle line”
that he deplores.
Indeed I wish I hadn’t flown off the handle at what I took
for a sneer at the literature of fantasy, offending him so that I suppose he
and I will never be able to discuss such issues as his remarks make me long to
ask him about. For instance: If I said I was “on the side of” dragons, but not
really “on the side of” pixies, would that interest him at all? Would he be
interested in talking about the various definitions of the word “fantasy” as
inclusive of most imaginative literature (as I use the word), or as limited to
a modern commercial development in fiction and the media (as I think he was
using the word)?
I certainly had no intention of nominating Mr Ishiguro as
“the latest enemy for my own agenda,” and regret very much that my clumsiness
led him to take my words so much amiss. I have no agenda that I’m conscious of,
and I certainly don’t want to nominate any enemies (and least of all Margaret
Atwood, whom I have long been honored to consider a wonderfully unpredictable,
admirable friend). My enemies must nominate themselves; I have no interest at
all in making, finding, or knowing them.
Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog
post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc. They were hot on the scent
for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?
10 March 2015
97. Utopiyin, Utopiyang
“Utopiyin, Utopiyang” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
98: Puzzle Personal Assistant
Annals of Pard XV
Pard Gives Charles Invaluable Assistance in the Jigsaw Department.
11 May 2015
99. Up the Amazon with the BS Machine,
Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon
Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which
my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by
Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you
like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine
with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may
have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my
business anyhow. My only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they
market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only
bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.
Best Seller lists have been around for quite a while. Best
Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps
wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive.
How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable. Their
questionability and their manipulability was well demonstrated during the
presidential campaign of 2012, when a Republican candidate bought all the
available copies of his own book in order to put it onto the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List,
where, of course, it duly appeared.
If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have
to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap,
dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.
The readability of many best sellers is much like the
edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened
fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS
Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what
I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction
ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind
obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate
resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing
If it can find its audience by luck, good reviews, or word
of mouth, a very good book may become a genuine Best Seller. Witness Rebecca
Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta
Lacks, which for quite a while seemed to have immortal life
among the Times Top Ten. And a few books work their way more slowly onto BS
lists by genuine, lasting excellence — witness The Lord of the Rings, or Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories. Not
products of the BS Machine, such books sell because people actually like them.
Once they get into the BS Machine, they are of course treated as products of
the BS Machine, that is, as commodities to exploit.
Making a movie of a novel is a both a powerful means of
getting it into the BS Machine and a side-effect of being there. Like so many
side-effects, it may outdo its cause. To many people the movie is the real
thing, the book can be left unread. If the book has value as a book, however,
and is kept in print, I have noticed with pleasure that in time the movie tends
to become the shadow, while the book regains its substance, its reality, and
continues to be read.
But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in
Consistent in its denial of human reality, growth capitalism
thinks only in the present tense, ignores the past, and limits its future to
the current quarter. To the BS machine, the only value of a book is its current
salability. Growth of capital depends on rapid turnover, so the BS machine not
only isn’t geared to allow for durability, but actually discourages it. Fading
BSs must be replaced constantly by fresh ones in order to keep corporate
This fits well with a good deal of reader desire and
expectation, since to many readers much of the value of a BS is that it’s new:
everybody’s reading and talking about it.
Once it’s less read and talked about the BS is no longer a
BS. Now it’s just a book. The machine has finished with it, and it can depend
now only on its own intrinsic merit. If it has merit, reader loyalty and word
of mouth can keep it selling enough to make it worth keeping in print for
years, decades, even centuries.
The steady annual income of such books is what publishers
relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing
new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold
pretty well but not very well.
That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the
Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then
trash and replace.
Any publisher willing to print a book that isn’t easy to
market, or to keep books that sell modestly but steadily in print, is bucking
this trend. Most of them are small houses. The few big publishers that now
continue functioning at all under the deliberately destructive pressure of
Amazon marketing strategies are increasingly controlled by that pressure, both
in what they publish and how long they keep it in print. This pressure forbids
them to value quality as well as salability, or to plan in terms of long-term
And the independent booksellers that were and are the
natural habitat of the non-best-selling book have been driven out of business —
first by the chains that operated as part of the BS Machine, and now,
decisively, by Amazon.
As a book dealer and publisher, Amazon wants no competitors,
admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks.
Its ideal book is a safe commodity, a commercial product
written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list,
get to the top, and vanish. Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next
thing. No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit. Quick
obsolescence, disposability — the creation of trash — is an essential element
of the BS machine. Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/endless
dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture
without content and without contentment.
1 June 2015
100. “A Book that Changed My Life”
There’s a magazine aimed at the people
who used to be called old before that became the unspeakable and unprintable
“o” word now replaced by blandnesses such as elderly, senior, feisty, and spry.
This magazine approached me, I expect because I am a writer who is very
[unspeakable and unprintable], to see if I’d write a short piece for them. I
sent them the 200 words they asked for, but they never answered, and I realised
I was glad they hadn’t, because my 200 words were no good.
The problem was their topic: “A book that
changed my life.”
A book? One book?
When I was very little, books were read to
me; then I started reading them; a while after that I started writing them. By
now I’ve been reading and writing books for about eighty years, and every
single one of them changed my life.
Well, I admit some of them didn’t change it
very much. But you never can be sure what you take away with you from a book. Almost
anything you read is likely to have the power to change, or to shape, your
Since almost any book can inform or
misinform, enlighten or confuse, shrink or enlarge expectations, and directly
or indirectly subvert conventional teachings or beliefs, The Powers that Be,
political and religious, are always trying to control books by censorship,
forbidding literacy to women, etc. Their distrust is justified. Nobody can
guess how a person’s life or a people’s fate may be changed by one book, or one
poem, or even a single sentence.
So in that sense, the magazine’s topic was
a sound one. But for me, it was this can of worms the size of Arkansas. How the
hell was I going to pick one book out of eighty years of reading books? One,
out of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books that changed my life,
every one of them in a different way?
So I wrote them 200 words of bleh, which
went nowhere, thank goodness, and I forgot about it.
Then the Strand Bookstore in NYC asked me
to do their monthly “author’s bookshelf.” The authors gets to pick 50 books,
and they do their best to have copies of them all, set out on a sale table in
Well, now that is a really nice idea. I
thought I could do that.
Fifty isn’t very many books, by my lights,
but at least it’s 49 more than one. And the only qualification was liking them,
and I like a lot of books a whole lot. I got to fifty in about ten minutes. Actually,
a lot more than fifty, because I cheated — with some authors, such as Virginia
Woolf, I just said “anything she wrote” — simplifying life both for myself and
for the Strand.
I tried to name books purely because I like
(love) them. I consciously tried to avoid thinking about it, thinking that I
should mention something because it had such an influence on
me . . . No. People are always asking me What Books Influenced
You? — a question I hate, because it’s the same problem as A Book That Changed
What books didn’t influence me?
If only someone would ask that! I’ve been
waiting for years to answer it. Atlas
Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, I will say, had absolutely no influence on me except
to cause hours of incredulous boredom. I thought in all fairness I ought to try
The Fountainhead. I gave up on page
But that title reminds me of The Fountain, by Charles Morgan, a book
that did have real influence on me when I was 22. Though I don’t now really
know why, so it’s not among my fifty at the Strand. But it’s on my own shelf,
for the piety or tenderness we have for something we loved long ago. So is D.H.
Lawrence. So are many others I didn’t list.
By a semi-conscious decision, I left out almost
all the kids’ books I have reread all my life. And most books not in English.
For some reason I had listed almost no
fantasy and sf, when I realised I had my fifty, and more than fifty, and must
stop. If I went on I would try to make the list complete, and there is no way
it can, or should, be complete. There will always be one more book I forgot to
mention. And there will be the book that I haven’t yet read but will read
tomorrow and love. So I just stopped.
Here’s my original list. They’re not in any
meaningful order. I’ve added a few books that I couldn’t bear to think weren’t
included. But then again, I stopped. The beginning of wisdom is in knowing when
to stop. Or maybe sometimes it’s in just stopping.
List of books sent to Strand Bookstore:
Virginia Woolf: whatever you have — novels, letters, the diary.
Jane Austen: all the novels
José Saramago: The Cave, Blindness, Seeing, The Stone Raft, The Elephant’s Journey, All the Names
Charles Dickens: Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Poetry (collections or selections): Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Emily Bronte
Lucretius: The Nature of Things
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
Charles McNichols: Crazy Weather
Thomas Berger: Little Big Man
George Eliot: Middlemarch
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rudyard Kipling: Kim, Just So Stories (with Kipling’s illustrations), The Jungle Books (with his father’s illustrations), The Day’s Work
Lyov Tolstoy: War and Peace (in any of the older translations, not Pevear), Anna Karenina
Molly Gloss: The Jump-Off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, Falling From Horses
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi
Poetry: A.E.Housman: Poems (how could I have not mentioned
J.R.R.Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (ditto)
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Austin Tappan Wright, Islandia
Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake
Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog
15 June 2015
101. Some People Are Just As Equal As Others
Annals of Pard XVI
Pard Gives an Eye-Level Visitor a Level Eye
This photograph illustrates something I’ve been
thinking about cats, dogs, and people. And about Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
We know that dogs, descended from wolves, and
having lived domestically with humans for as long as 30,000 years, are for the
most part deeply hierarchical, conceiving of society as a pyramid with The Boss
(Alpha Male, Master, Mistress, God, King, Leader) on top and other beings
arranged in descending order beneath. Obedience to authority and acceptance of
one’s place in that social and moral order is right behavior.
I believe that cats, descended from semi-social
or asocial wild cats and having lived domestically with humans for probably
less than 3,000 years, have no concept whatever of a rightful hierarchy of
social or moral authority. It does not occur to a cat that any other being has
any right, other than might, to its obedience, which is offered only out of
immediate self-interest or personal affection. Cats are intensely
opportunistic, practical anarchists.
What we see in this photograph, taken by an
amiable human willing to get down on his belly at floor level with the cat, is
that the cat accepts this willingness as unworthy of special notice. The cat
considers himself on a level with the human, whether the human is towering six
feet above him or is flat on the floor with him.
Knowing that the human is a stranger,
although a quiet, well-behaved one, and is ten times larger and stronger than
himself, the cat shows no alarm, but some rational distrust. He offers no
welcome, slits his eyes, sets his ears at alert, gives nothing away, and simply
looks straight at the large intruder upon his territory.
This is the level gaze of one who does not
conceive himself as inferior to anybody — who sees himself as the social equal
of anyone he meets.
I don’t say the absolute
equal. Size matters. Pard grants me a certain authority: there are places I forbid
him to go and things I prevent him from doing, and though he tests these
sanctions often and sometimes disobeys them, mostly he accepts them. I think he
does so because he trusts me, is fond of me, and is very much smaller than me. If
he weighed 120 pounds instead of 12, he would be lot likelier to assert his
equality with me by disobeying my orders.
Relationships of trust and affection that involve a balance
of power are never simple. We work them out as we go along, individually and by
species. Generalizations lead to assumptions that are often misleading,
sometimes fatally so. After all, an 80-pound dog frightened or goaded into
aggression, or who has been trained and encouraged to attack, is as dangerous
as any leopard.
That so many of us can’t see the cat’s level gaze as a
declaration of equality, but see it as contemptuous, arrogant, even
threatening — as declaring superiority — signifies that, like wolves and dogs,
we simians are hierarchs. We want power to be assigned to certain individuals
once for all, not to pass around among us according to circumstance. We make
permanent niches — Higher, Lower — and fill them. Creatures who won’t stay in
the niche we put them in frighten or anger us. The gaze of equality from a
small, speechless, furry creature is read as the intolerable challenge of an
inferior claiming superiority.
I said cats are anarchists, but a society of equals is also,
after all, a democracy.
The cat-human connection, historically an almost entirely
practical, utilitarian one (with occasional fits of worshiping the cat as a
divinity) in our time has come to include powerful bonds of intimate affection,
unconditional, as between equals. I like the idea that from these subtle,
intense companionships we might have something to learn about the nature of our
own politics, our difficulty in achieving, even conceiving, genuine equality.
20 July 2015
Pard is doing the Legless Cat Asana on top of a four-drawer filing cabinet in the upstairs hall, at just about human eye level, a good place for exchanging greetings with his equals.
Photo by Moe Bowstern.
102. A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee’s “new” book starts out wonderfully. Its young
author had a sure touch and a light hand. It is entertaining, vivid, funny,
dry. It begins to come apart a bit, but gains in intensity, about halfway through,
when it hits its real subject: A person imbued with the highest ethical
standards is faced by a radical immorality in her society, in which her family
and friends are complicit.
Reviews that describe the Attticus of Watchman as having become a racist, or being revealed as a racist,
by clinging to the idealized Atticus of Mockingbird
may miss the point of Watchman.
Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as
faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully
committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes
the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a
lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.
free of childishness — its author was still pretty young — but its goals are
adult ones: to show how hard it may be for a daughter to see her father as a
fellow human being, and how hard it is to rebel completely against the injustice
of your own people. Merely to be less racist than most of the people around you
can be quite an accomplishment. I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint,
then demon, we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the
author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.
the daughter returning home on a visit finds her father, her model of clear
thinking and courageous honesty, is siding with the bigots; her boyfriend, her
model of brotherly kindness, is siding with the bigots. What’s she to do?
The answer from outside is quick and easy: of
course she rebels. She rises in wrath, denounces, disowns, and departs.
what Scout (now Jean Louise, 26, on a two-weeks visit home from New York)
almost does. It’s what I would have imagined her doing, and believed it
absolutely necessary for her to do, before I married into a white Southern
family and lived with them some years.
If you love and respect people who live in and
obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and
they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they
did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not
and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race
prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart.
Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of
this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous,
ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.
You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising
it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent
non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not
everyone shares, or admires, his opinons.
Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and
you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law
says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.
Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it
looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and
loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no
such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists.
It may seem implausible that a person can, like
Jean Louise, grow up without race prejudice in a society so profoundly racist as
the small-town White South. It is in fact a miracle, but not an uncommon one. I
can attest that my husband and two
of his cousins, raised entirely in that society, grew up entirely without race
prejudice. But unlike Jean Louise they were intensely aware of their anomaly,
the complex discomfort of their position. They were all among the first in
their families to go to college; they all sought and found a non-racially
prejudiced community of people within Southern society, or else left the South
altogether. What is implausible to me is not that Jean Louise is, as she says,
“colorblind,” but that she’s somehow managed to blind herself all her life to her
difference from her people.
The time is early in the Civil Rights movement;
customary behaviors are becoming the object of discussion, deep-rooted injustices
are being challenged. On her visit home, Jean Louise realises that her
boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP organisations. She feels utterly
betrayed. Her naivety may be incredible, but her denunciations are fine, her
diatribes fierce. They soon get the wind taken out of them, however, by
unshaken arguments from the boyfriend, an erratic uncle, and (most importantly)
the beloved father, who, with a mixture of Christian meekness and lawyerly
aplomb, permits her to say unforgivable things to him, while gently setting her
straight about practical realities, the impossibility of immediate change, the importance of avoiding violence —
all the persuasive and predictable justifications for moving very, very, very
slowly towards righting the wrong.
Jean Louise has arisen and denounced,
unsuccessfully. Does she depart?
We’re never told what she’s been doing in New
York City. She never thinks about the place, any person there, or her work,
whatever it is. A small town in Alabama is the entire cosmos of the novel. I
think it must have been the cosmos of the author’s life. Jean Louise is going
to go back North, but we don’t know whether to stay there or not. My guess is
that what she was doing in New York was being a writer; and she’ll make a go of
it, and come back South to stay. Not a very hard guess to make.
appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the
human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping
her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the
book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming,
nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was
encouraged to go back to childhood,
and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing,
instead, a lovable fairytale.
I like to think of the book it might have been,
had the editor had the vision to see what this incredibly daring first-novelist
was trying to do and encouraged and aided her to do it more convincingly. But
no doubt the editor was, commercially speaking, altogether right. That book
would have found some admirers, but never would it have become a best-seller
and a “classic.” It wouldn’t have pandered to self-reassuring images of White
generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man.
was published, I was skeptical and unhappy — all the publicity made it sound
like nothing but a clever lawyer and a greedy publisher in cahoots to exploit
an old woman. Now, having read the book, I glimpse a different tragedy. Lee was
a young writer on a roll, with several novels in mind to write after this one. She
wrote none of them. Silence, lifelong. I wonder if the reason she never wrote
again was because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In obeying the dictates of popular success, letting wishful thinking corrupt
honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed
in order to write.
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman,
and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote
this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies
to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d
be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the
simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The
white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.
Little white lies . . . North or
South, they’re White lies. But not
Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable,
greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions,
asks some of the hard questions To Kill a
3 August 2015
103. Concerning a Wilderness
I spoke briefly last week at a celebration
of the 15th anniversary of the Steens Mountain Wilderness, October 2, 2015, in
Portland, held by the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Getting an area designated Wilderness is no easy
matter, even when, or especially if, it’s so far away from urban areas that
most people never heard of it. A Wilderness designation offers protection from
ruinous land use, reckless development, and recreational over-exploitation.
Beautiful, remote, unique, and fragile, the Steens high desert region is one of
the jewels in Oregon’s crown. We can hope that Crater Lake (a National Park
since 1902, but not yet a Wilderness) and the amazing Owyhee Canyonlands will
soon join it.
how Matt Kertman, the Outreach Director, describes ONDA:
Nearly half of Oregon is high desert, characterized by
rolling uplands, jagged mountains and canyons, rushing rivers and rich
wildlife. The Oregon Natural Desert Association is the only nonprofit
organization that works exclusively to protect, defend and restore this high
desert. ONDA has worked in stunning, ecologically significant areas in the
Central Oregon Backcountry, John Day River Basin, Greater Hart-Sheldon Region
and the Owyhee Canyonlands for almost 30 years. Learn more at ONDA.org.
I’ve been a member for a long time and
thoroughly admire the work ONDA does and how they do it. They’re based in Bend,
and many of their members are Eastern Oregonians. At the meeting, I tried to
express my appreciation of the way they handle relations with the people who
live in the remoter desert areas. Efforts to conserve and protect wilderness
often meet local pressures and resistances rising from ignorance or from greedy
dreams of easy money from development. Education and awareness can change the
balance there. But the education and the awareness have to go both ways.
Nobody likes being told how to live where they
live by somebody who doesn’t live there. Much of the population of Eastern
Oregon consists of people who don’t want anybody telling them anything at all. Part
of their ethos could be reduced to something like: You need help, we’ll give
it, generously and with good will. And we’ll keep our cows off your grass, and
you keep yours off ours.
Cattle ranching is still one of the ways to make
a living in the Steens area. I’m not going to recite the many ways in
which this always was a poor way to use this land and is now rapidly becoming
an impossible one both economically and ecologically. That’s not in question.
The problem is that there are families who’ve been
ranching there for four or five generations. (My great-grandfather tried it on
the Steens, around 1870, but gave it up.) These people and their animals are
just as much a part of “the scenery” as the buttes and the marshes, the egrets
and the eagles. Grazing practices that have impoverished the land can be and
are being reduced and improved, and many of the ranchers are as aware of the
need for this as any ecologist.
On the ranch I know best, the cattle are entirely grass
fed, freely grazing in uncrowded grasslands by a river. They’re handled when
handling is necessary by a few people on horseback or little ORVs – no hazing
by helicopter, etc. Old cows and ailing calves are walked in to pastures near
the ranch house to be cared for. When the time comes to move or sell off
animals for beef, they aren’t crammed into trucks but led out onto the road by
a cowboy or two to go along at their own gait. Drivers in cars on that road go
at that gait for a while too, in the dust, among the big half-curious eyes of
the cattle and the soft, random mooing.
I’m not describing this sentimentally, nor to defend
raising cattle for beef, but to try to counter the impression that all beef is
a product of enormous corporations that keep the animals in cruel, filthy,
shameful misery. There are cattle outfits where the relationship of people and
animals is more like the relationship of gardener and garden: knowledgeable,
intimate, hands-on, and tending towards mutual benefit.
The reason I brought up the ranches and the ranchers at
the ONDA meeting, and here, is this: I went out to the Steens country because
I’d fallen in love with it, the desert, the scenery. It took me years to realise
how much I was learning by living on a ranch for a few days a year, watching
domestic animals as well as wild ones, and talking with the people. Slowly I
began to see the scenery as what it is to them: their world, by birth or
choice; their life, often their parents’ and their children’s life. They know
it deeply, they curse it from the bottom of their hearts for its implacable
obstinacy, they love it and give their lives to it.
It’s only too easy to antagonize “the locals” by appearing
to dismiss their hard-earned local knowledge or giving the impression that the
aesthetic emotions or escapist yearnings of hikers, campers, birders, tourists
are more valuable than the ranchers’ relationship to the land and the living
they and their animals earn from it.
Such antagonisms can be modified by patient listening on
both sides, genuine conversation, working towards a mutual good. Sounds easy.
It’s complicated. Nothing in conservation work is ever uncomplicated! But I’m
proud of ONDA for working on that conversation, being neighborly, trying to
include the human landscape in the natural one as truly part of what is to be
honored, protected, and saved.
At the meeting I read some poems from Out Here, the book Roger Dorband and I did about that country. I’ll
end with one from its history. In the 1890’s the P Ranch covered a great part
of what we now call Harney County and the Steens. Frenchglen (population ~12)
is named for the man who ran it, who built barns the way the Middle Ages built
The Cattle King
He turned his back in scorn, did Peter French,
unarmed, and the homesteader shot him dead,
on the land he’d got by hook or crook, P Ranch —
the cattle kingdom he was ruling, still
convinced he’d break the desert to his will,
control it all; and yet his partners profited,
ate up the cash and cheated Peter French.
Controlling, cheating, ruling, we’ve done ill
and ill and ill again to this great spread
we got by hook or crook, this empire-ranch,
this Harney County. Maybe we’ll learn until
we learn to use it well. Of him let it be said:
his lifeblood’s in this land where he lies dead.
12 October 2015
104. A Trip South
Back in the days, I did considerable
traveling around the country to talk or teach or read from a new book. Only
once did I get hooked into a regular book tour, the if it’s Tuesday this must
be Connecticut thing. After a couple of weeks of that, and after sitting in a
plane on the runway at the Denver airport watching them de-ice the plane for
the third time before we took off into a white-out blizzard, as we climbed
(just barely) over the Rockies, I was able only to resolve never to do a book tour
The worst thing about it was that
I’d realised I was obsessing about whether and when I could have a drink before
I went on stage. I’ve “used alcohol,” as the medical questionnaires weirdly
phrase it, ever since I was in college, but I’d never before (or since) felt
that alcohol was beginning to use me. Nicotine had had me cornered for years,
and I didn’t want another addiction. It scared me. When I got home I was so
strung out that Charles looked me over and said, “I’m going to take you over to
the beach for three days by yourself,” and he did.
He put me in a nice little run-down
motel, kitchenette and geraniums, two blocks from the ocean. I didn’t speak to
anybody but the grocery store clerk for three days. I spent them walking or
sitting on the beach. In the evening I’d wander back to my room and sit down
with a shot of bourbon to call Charles before I made dinner. Dr Le Guin’s
Pacific Therapy worked. It wasn’t too long after that that we bought a house, a
few blocks from that motel, so we could both do beach retreats, jointly or in
solitude — with a kitchen that had more than two saucepans, one lid, no teapot,
and those damn serrated motel knives that won’t cut butter.
For a long time plane travel was no
problem for me physically, and although I always hated airports, I did enjoy
flying. It can be amazingly beautiful, and sometimes a real high. I got more
than one story idea at 30,000 feet. (One was the germ of Changing
Planes.) But as deregulation progressed, and security became a
big deal, and the airlines took to processing passengers as insentient objects,
airports became suburbs of hell. And the bag of peanuts on the plane
deteriorated into five intensely saline plaster pretzels and a granite corn
nut, and then into nothing at all. And I was getting lame, and old, and then
really old, and the prospect of getting through airports and plane changes and
delays made me more and more anxious, until I saw I couldn’t do it alone. So now
I fly only very seldom, and as a sheep, guided by an endlessly resourceful and
kindly shepherd, my son.
Thus I arrived, bleating softly, in
Los Angeles airport last Saturday night.
I feel like writing a blog about
the trip, because I never have done that, and because I have a fairly strong
feeling that I may not fly anywhere to do a gig again. No, I am not saying
never. I learned long ago never to say never, or anyhow hardly ever. And I
hardly ever say last, ever since I published The Last Book of Earthsea
and then discovered it was the fourth book of six. Never and last are closing
words. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to open closed doors and
windows, I have no intention of going around slamming them shut now, just
because I’m 86.
As I see it, getting old gives me
the opportunity to go through another door, into another place.
Old age is quite a different place
from what people who don’t live there think it is or say it is or want it to
be. Here, what you want doesn’t count as much as it used to. Energy, stamina,
memory, any of them may suddenly fail and let you down — not because you let it
happen, but because you can’t prevent it. Where there’s a will, here, there
isn’t always a way. Doors do shut; windows close. No hype, no vanity or
pretense, no resolution can keep them open. In fact, I wonder if a continuous
strenuous effort to keep them open may prevent the compensatory thinning of the
fabric of the everyday, the weakening of all walls and barriers, that
increasingly admits shadows, gleams, intimations, glimpses of a larger
habitation, a vaster landscape even than that of the world seen from 30,000
So anyhow, I made one strenuous
effort. I flew to L.A. to do a gig — I’m sorry, an Event — at the Center for
the Art of Performance series in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus on Sunday
afternoon. I took it on partly because it paid very well and thus provided me a
(completely unnecessary) excuse to go on to Santa Ana to see my daughter in the
house she bought there two years ago. I very much wanted to see her in it, so
that I could imagine her where she is whenever I think of her. It is hard to
have children where you can’t imagine them.
Also, the person who was to talk
with me on stage was Meryl Friedman, who now teaches at UCLA, but who, years
ago, in her wild youth, produced the first stage play of my Left Hand of Darkness. I always
regretted that I wasn’t able to go to Chicago to see it. Reviews of the play
and reports by people who saw it were very impressive. When I had the pleasure
of being in on the production of Left
Hand here in Portland two years ago by Hand2Mouth and Portland Playhouse
Theaters, I knew better than ever what I’d missed in Chicago. Stage magic is
just about the purest magic I know. So I wanted, at least, and at long last, to
meet Meryl. It was a happy meeting.
Meryl Friedman & UKL in green room
Me and Meryl on stage
The Diva, at her first ever back stage dressing room with her name on the door
Afterwards, Theo and I met Charles
Solomon and Scott Johnston at a fish house for dinner. I don’t remember how
Chas (as I will call him to distinguish Charleses) and I became email-pen-pals
— was it something to do with Miyazaki? or with cats? We share cat stories
shamelessly. I tell him about Pard, he tells me about Nova, Matter, and Typo.
Typo makes himself into a black fur scarf around Chas’s neck and goes to sleep
there. I wish he could have worn Typo to the restaurant. Over the past few
years, Chas has given me a master class in the criticism and appreciation of
animated film, and patiently endures my ignorant grumblings about why does
everybody have to look like inflated plastic toys, etc. As a critic, he can be
a master grumbler himself, but he grumbles from knowledge. Meanwhile, Scott
does the real thing, practices the art. I don’t know how often a top artist and
a top critic can make a happy marriage, but it’s a great thing when it happens.
The picture, taken by Scott, is me and Charles — both obviously full of fish
UKL & Charles Solomon
Next morning we rather gratefully
left the hotel. It was perfectly OK, but why do hotels think you want to enter
a cavernously dark lobby with a gas fire burning in a glass hearth on a
brilliant day in Southern California, or eat breakfast in windowless gloom to
the unmeaning thump and whimper of muzak, while palm trees clash and glitter
outside in the sunlight? I’m just glad the muzak wasn’t yet playing “White
Christmas” and “Let it Snow.” Anyhow, we got out into the bright air under a
radiant blue sky and drove on The 405 (every highway in L.A. must have its
article) down into Orange County.
Santa Ana isn’t a mess of cognitive
dissonances plunked down in a desert, like Riverside. It’s a solid old town
with a history. Like Sacramento, Monterey, Petaluma, it’s been there for a
while, with good reasons to be there — a county seat with federal offices, for
years the market center of a great orchard and farming area, a long-established
settlement of Americans originally from the south, chiefly Mexico.
Elisabeth’s house is in a largely
Spanish-speaking neighborhood built mostly just after the second world war. The
push now is to upscale and gentrify, that is, to push out the people who’ve
lived and worked and paid taxes there for sixty years or more, bulldoze the
one-story houses, scrape away the lots full of tricycles and persimmon trees
and old California sycamores, and erect the sterile megamansions of Money with
their locked doors and unopenable windows. Can we do nothing to prevent these
hordes of the filthy rich from overrunning our country and dispossessing our
people, to stem this ever-growing White Plague of freeloaders who let us pay
their taxes while they send our jobs to China and our kids to Afghanistan? —
Oh, it’s so easy to rant with so many examples of ranting to be heard, and so
easy to turn bigotry upon itself! Anyhow, I hope the City of Santa Ana comes to
its senses and saves its pleasant neighborhoods.
We met the other inhabitants of the
house. Here they are: Terri; Chimul in his cat-bed; Opal (with whom I bonded
when she was still a kitten); and on my lap, in his new holiday sweater, Ugo, a
Terri, Chimul, Opal, UKL, Ugo
Terri calls Chimul the Punk, and
there is some truth in it, but he’s very pretty. Both cats outweigh little Ugo,
but they all get on; and Ugo is a dear, and a brave watchdog. After we had
enjoyed touring the house we went round the garden, where we deeply admired the
clothesline and the compost pit, and deeply envied the lemon and orange and
Agave or Century Plant, used as Clothesline
Meyer Lemon, just getting its growth
Elisabeth made us a grand lunch of
fish and vegetables which we ate outside in the sunshine at the table beside
the pretty solar, a shady-sunny patio
enclosed with lattice and half-roofed, with a most inviting hammock.
Hammock, with Occupant
It was quite windy, with the palms
sounding like sea-waves, and not very warm, except in the sun — a north-wind
day. I didn’t grow up in Southern California, never even saw it till I was over
thirty, but California is itself and nowhere else from top to bottom, from
Sierra to sea. When I’m there, almost anywhere there, deep in me a contented
voice says: Yes. Right. Some people
have an Inner Child. I have an Inner Californian.
We drove downtown to see the Centro
Cultural de México, the community center that first drew my daughter to Santa
Ana in pursuit of the son jarocho music of Vera Cruz, and which has become an
important element of her life. But all too soon it was time to leave for the
John Wayne Airport. I didn’t say I
like everything about California, you know.
After we got there we discovered
that the two-hour six-o’clock flight to Portland was two hours late. Altogether
we spent three hours in John Wayne Airport. Not too bad. Theo belongs to
airline clubs where you can sit peacefully and have a drink, and the restaurant
was really OK. But it was getting pretty close to closing time. John Wayne
Airport shuts right down at ten p.m., because the people in the megamansions in
the luxury burbs and Huntington Beach object to having plebeian airplanes fly
over them when they want to sleep. Honestly. This is true. And not only that:
all day long, so as not to disturb the filthy rich, the planes have to gain
altitude fast by taking off very steeply.
By then I was quite willing to take
off very steeply.
We flew against headwinds all the
way north, missed our landing the first try, circled back, and bumped down in
blinding rain and gusty wind about midnight. Dear, wet Portland, hello! I am
happy to be home.
23 November 2015
105. Ruby and Me
These pictures are of Ruby and me at the thirty-fifth Wild Arts Festival, an annual craft fair and book sale for the Portland Audubon Society.
I attend to sign books for the very lively benefit. (People bought 58 copies of my new poetry book, Late in the Day!) Ruby attends for the edification and delight of those who behold her.
Ruby turned up at the front door of a farmhouse, a young Turkey Vulture someone had tamed and then lost or abandoned. The farm family wisely brought her to the Audubon Society. She never learned the skills she needs to survive in the wild and is not accepted by her own people, so she must live with us, which she does with great dignity. I admire Ruby very much, and like to think that I look a little like her, or would if I had a majestic black-and-silvery feather cloak and an ivory nose. We both always attend the Wild Arts Fair.
In the first picture, I am trying unsuccessfully to imitate Ruby’s splendid profile. In the second one, she’s turned away because the camera flash displeased her. I wasn’t really that close to her. You don’t invade the personal space of somebody with a six-foot wingspread.
Ruby’s companion from the Audubon Society asked us what we thought she weighed. One guessed forty pounds, and one said, “If she was a Thanksgiving turkey I’d say about 18 pounds.” In fact she weighs more like 4 pounds. She is all feather and hollow bone. The Queen of Air and Darkness.
7 December 2015
Photography by Alyson Berman
Photo-editing by Zach Kobrinsky
106. A Child Who Survived
The vapid statement “the creative adult is the child who
survived” is currently being attributed to me by something called Aiga —
which is “supported in part by public funds from the New
York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.”
I wasn’t able to communicate with Aiga to ask them to take my name off their
It probably wouldn’t do much good anyhow. A
false attribution on the Internet is like box elder beetles, the miserable
little things just keep breeding and tweeting and crawling out of the woodwork.
I posted on my blog and at
Book View Café on this persistent misattribution last year. Early
and very welcome responses to it by Meelis and Jonathan on BVC gave me both the
sentence I wrote, and a possible source of the misquotation.
Meelis pointed out this sentence in the 1974
essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (reprinted in the collection The Language of the Night):
I believe that
maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead
child, but a child who survived.
Nothing about “creativity” whatever. I just said
a grown-up is somebody who lived through childhood — a child who survived. A
truism, of course, but in 1974 I had reasons for stating it. The disavowal of
childishness that is part of assuming adulthood, particularly male adulthood,
can become a denial of the value of any connection to oneself as a child or to
children in general. It was acceptable, forty years ago, for people to boast of
disliking children. It was all but automatic for critics to deny adult value to
fantasy literature simply by saying it was ‘for children.’ And some feminists
of the Seventies, wanting to free women from sole responsibility for children,
denied any natural connection to them at all. This was the mindset I was
addressing. I was just trying to keep the child-adult connection open, and free
Jonathan discovered that the earliest appearance
on the Internet of the misquote was in 1999, from
a huge collection of quotations compiled by
Professor Julian F. Fleron:
The professor gave no source for
the sentence; I have no idea why he attributed it to me.
It is high time that this
sentence, “The creative adult is the child who has survived,” be attributed to
its originator, Prof. Julian F. Fleron.
If he did not originate it, and
wishes to be freed from the onus of supposedly having done so, that’s up to him
or to those who wish to preserve his good name. I just wish, oh how I wish!
that he hadn’t stuck me with the damn thing.
28 December 2015