Jul 21, 2009

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cheek by Jowl: talks and essay on how and why fantasy matters —I almost want to end the sentence right here. Because really, what else do I need to say? A book by Ursula K. Le Guin about how and why fantasy matters!!@1 Don’t you want to read it right now? Okay, I realize that not everyone will find the title alone as exciting as I did, so I’m going to do my best to explain in detail why this is a brilliant book.

Cheek by Jowl
collects eight of Le Guin’s essays. Most of them are short, and all of them are wise, accessible, and to the point. Seven of these essays, while brilliant, mostly introduced ideas I’m already familiar with. This is undoubtedly because so much of what I know about fantasy I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin. She is, after all, one of the writers who helped shape the way I think.

For example, in “A Message about Messages” she argues with the idea that children’s literature is all about The Message or The Point. This isn’t to say that fiction doesn’t have social or ethical implications—it does, but children, like adults, respond to language, to metaphor, to story. They respond to a lot more than just A Message. In “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”, she addresses the good old prejudice against imaginative literature in critical circles. “Assumptions about Fantasy” is about—well, you guessed it. All these essays were a pleasure to read. They make points I wholeheartedly agree with, and I just loved seeing her word them more elegantly than I ever could.

But my favourite was the long essay that gives the book its title. It was my favourite because it introduced me to an idea about fantasy than I hadn't considered before, but which I think makes a lot of sense. I would love to hear your thoughts on it also, so feel free to tell me if you agree or disagree in the comments. “Cheek by Jowl” is about animals in children’s literature, and Ursula Le Guin writes about several animal fantasies in some detail (which resulted in several books being added to my wishlist). But what interested me the most was the point she made in the conclusion. You might remember that a few weeks ago, when I posted about why I read fantasy, I said that unlike what many of its detractors say, fantasy is about human things. Ursula Le Guin suggests that one of the reasons why it’s so appealing is that it doesn’t always have to be.

Fantasy is often accused of being nostalgic and anti-progressive; of offering escape from contemporary problems by constructing pseudo-medieval societies or focusing on things altogether non-human: animals both real and imaginary, forests, the wilderness. But focusing on something other than contemporary society doesn’t mean avoiding human concerns. It just means remembering that we are not alone on the planet, that there are things beyond us, there were things before us, and there will probably be things after us.

Animals fantasies do this very well. As Le Guin puts it,
We go crazy in solitude. We are social primates. Human beings need to belong. To belong to one another first, of course; but because we can see so far and think so cleverly and imagine so much, we aren’t satisfied by membership in a family, a tribe, people just like us. Fearful and suspicious as it is, the human mind yet yearns for a greater belonging, a vaster identification. Wilderness scares us because it us unknown, indifferent, dangerous, yet it is an absolute need to us; it is that animal otherness, that strangeness, older and greater than ourselves, that we must join, or rejoin, if we want to stay sane and stay alive.
What do you think? Do you agree that fantasy’s ability to go beyond human matters is part of what makes it appealing?

Some of my favourite passages from the other essays:
The purposive, utilitarian approach to fantasy and folktale of a Bettelheim or Bly, and in general the “psychological” approach to fantasy, explaining each element of the story in terms of its archetype or unconscious source or educative use, is deeply regressive; it perceives literature as magic, as verbomancy. To such interpreters the spell is only a spell if it works immediately to heal or reveal.

The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.

The notion that a story “has a message” assumes it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review. If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and scenery and plots and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is a story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make an idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easy to swallow?

I’m not saying people don’t read fantasy; a whole lot of us people do; but our scholars and critics for the most part don’t read it and don’t know how to read it. I feel shame for them. Sometimes I feel rage. I want to say to the literature teacher who remains wilfully, even boastfully ignorant of a major element of contemporary fiction: you are incompetent to teach or judge your subject. Readers and students who do know the field, meanwhile, have every right to challenge your ignorant prejudice. Rise, undergraduates of the English Department! You have nothing to lose but your A on the midterm!
Oh Ursula—I should have. I’m a coward, but I really should have. Especially when atrocities were said in your name: that you couldn’t possibly be a science fiction and fantasy writer because you’re intelligent and have a background in anthropology. Because yes, as everyone knows, only the ignorant, dim, and uneducated write and read genre fiction. Instead of coming home fuming, I should have spoken up. I promise to be a coward no longer - which is easier now that I've graduated, but the thought counts, right?

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. "Do you agree that fantasy’s ability to go beyond human matters is part of what makes it appealing?" I'm not sure I can answer that. My experience with fantasy is still so limited. But I love this idea...and I'd really love to read this essay. Okay, the whole book for that matter. But this idea has me especially intrigued. I have to say that I'm all for anything that can help people reach beyond human matters. Everyone can hate me for saying it, but I'm all for anything that can help us get rid of our feelings of "exalted position" in this world. Yes, I love people, I love humanity...but denying that we are just one part of incredible picture of life is dangerous. And I realize that that's not exactly what she's saying. But I'm all for anything that can help us explore the vastness of experience beyond "the human." Yep, this definitely sounds like something I'd like to read. Thanks Ana...you're amazing, you know that? :D

  2. That last quote is fantastic! I have a friend who teaches high school English at a very conservative religious school, and she is constantly pushing the boundaries of both the school and her students by encouraging them to read Fantasy novels (over many objections). Many of the students are falling in love with it, and I can only imagine how wonderful that must be for her as a teacher.

    This sounds like a lovely book, one that would inspire Fantasy lovers everywhere.

  3. "I want to say to the literature teacher who remains wilfully, even boastfully ignorant of a major element of contemporary fiction: you are incompetent to teach or judge your subject."

    YES!! Why is it "okay" to read genre mystery or thrillers, but not fantasy or romance? Why does anyone get to approve or disapprove of what I read, anyway? And why was I never introduced to Theodore Sturgeon or Ursula le Guin at school, but forced to read several different novels by Steinbeck? *end lament*

    Great post. Thank you.

  4. What really frustrates me is when a scifi/fantasy book is accepted by the literati, they all have to say that it "transcends genre". Because of course if it were actually part of the genre it's part of, it couldn't be worth their time. Grrrr.

  5. Regarding "messages," I was always taught that theme is the most important component of a narrative. I still agree with that, but I don't think that means you can simply abstract parts of the story. As one of my college professors wrote about poetry (and it easily transfers to fantasy), "Poets speak a language of images because they want
    readers to experience the content of their utterance as image and concretion,
    not simply as an idea. The meaning that literature conveys is
    affective, imaginative, and experiential as well as ideational."

  6. Ack! Sorry for the snaggletoothed formatting. Don't know how that happened.

  7. Yes, I do agree that fantasy can remind us that we are not alone, that the world does not revolve around us, that there are things out there that we don't understand and may never understand. I will definitely add this to my to-read list.

  8. My view has long been that the "escapist" reasons why people read fantasy are the exact same reason why people read novels of any kind. If you go back far enough, early 19th century say, you'll find high minded critics dismissing all novels they exact same way they currently dismiss fantasy.

    I'm going to look for this book.

  9. You mentioned this title quite sometime ago, and the moment I saw it I went and ordered a copy! It just arrived at the store and I'll be buying it at the end of the month - after reading the quotes here, and your thoughts on the book, I can't wait!

  10. Some excellent points, here. First, fantasy has replaced mythology in our culture--or fills our need for it. Look how many fantasy writers, so called, have based their tales on myth/religion: Tolkien, CS Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Phillip Pullman, LeGuin herself (though I am not as familiar with her work as I now know that I should be). This book just went on the list. And I liked what Loren's professor had to say about poetry, which applies to all literature, really.
    Score another point for the elimination of genre! Thanks again for Mr. Dirda's lecture--you should have everyone watch it.
    And thank you for this.

  11. Kiirstin - yes, yes to everything you say! I feel like I need to gently recommend this to my book club, who have a lot of misgivings about our current pick - The Left Hand of Darkness! Why, when we've already read Winterston's The Stone Gods, I don't know.

    I could have done without Upton Sinclair in high school, and done with some LeGuin.

  12. wow, this does sound good. you always review the most unique books.

    'It just means remembering that we are not alone on the planet, that there are things beyond us, there were things before us, and there will probably be things after us.'-perfectly stated.


  13. I adore LeGuin and like "The Message about Messages" except that she sounds so curmudgeonly in her complaint about "serious" genres and boundaries.

    There are college professors who read fantasy; her imaginary prof is a straw man, as I suspect she knows. Verlyn Flieger, one of the best and most serious academic critics who wrote about J.R.R. Tolkein, taught in the graduate school at University of Maryland while I was there, along with a world-reknowned Shakespeare scholar, a middlin'famous Milton guy, and an expert on Walker Percy.

  14. This sounds really interesting! I read her other essay collection, but the library doesn't have this one...

  15. I just love fantasy. What if it was actually real and we just couldn't see it. Maybe there are people out there with different perceptions of the world, who can see the things we can't. OK, so it is often considered escapism, but what if we all hold a tiny hope that we have had since childhood, that other life forms exist. I am waffling now.

  16. What I meant to say, fabulous review, food for thought and another author to add to my list. I am wondering whether I should just have a Nymeth TBR list in it's own little book!

  17. Debi: I don't think that's actually far at all from what she's saying. You should read her, you know! She's one of my favourites for a reason :P

    Heather: Your friend sounds like an amazing teacher :D

    kiirstin: I have no idea. Hopefully before long that attitude will disappear for good.

    Jenny: I've seen "mainstream" reviews like that too. And there's also those that start "I don't normally read fantasy/science fiction/kiddie books, but...". They drive me nuts.

    Loren Eaton: Don't worry about the formatting. I really like that quote. I care about theme a lot too, but yeah, that doesn't mean there's a clear and simple message that any piece of literature can be reduced to.

    Carol: I hope you find it as interesting as I did!

    C.B. James: YES! I had a conversation with one of my profs a few months ago in which I brought that up, except that what I was talking about at the time was comics, not fantasy. The dismissal of the medium you still sometimes see (though less and less often these days, fortunately) is exactly like the dismissal of novels when they first became popular.

    Marineko: And I can't wait to see what you think!

    ds: Yes, I agree with your point about mythology. I'd post about the lecture, except I found it at another blog I read and don't want to repeat content. If anyone's wondering what we're talking about, you should watch this: Michael Dirda at the Library of Congress. It's long, but I promise it's worth it!

    Kate: You should recommend this to your book club! Why authors like Atwood or Winterston are "respectable" while Le Guin isn't is something I'll never understand.

    Naida: I'm glad you agree :)

    Jeanne: I hope I didn't offend you - I really didn't mean to imply everyone in the academic world is prejudiced. I know that there are plenty of open-minded professors out there who are knowledgeable about genre fiction, but because I live somewhere fairly conservative, I've also met the other kind. I have been teased and even belittled because of my love of fantasy. I think those attitudes are becoming more and more rare, but sadly they're still not entirely a thing of the past.

    Kailana: Probably because it's fairly recent - I hope they get it at some point, though!

    Scrap Girl: lol, a Nymeth tbr shelf :P I think the escapism factor is really no different in mainstream or genre fiction.

  18. I think I need to read this. I'm a lit fic reader & just finished my first Le Guin book and loved it. I have never read her scifi/fantasy stuff- I'm not a genre reader and I'm okay with that! The pitfall of writing in genre is that it DOES get pigeonholed. It's a rish writers take when they decide to write those kidns of books.

  19. Fabulous post Nymeth and greatly appreciated. This just confirms what I already knew, being a media specialist/librarian at the elementary level is so much more exciting. At one time, I taught middle school and eventually moved back to teach K-5. I am always inspired with the questions and discussions generated after reading fantasy and sci-fiction. I do many book talks for the older kids and read alouds for the younger kids. This is a genre they relate to and thrive on. Think of the video game environment too.

    Once they move to the middle school the glorious world of writing and reading fantasy fiction is forgotten. Some students would not continue to write. I've seen the passion lost and energy zapped.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  20. These sound like great essays, Nymeth. I appreciated the last paragraph that you quoted. As an undergrad, I didn't have to "rise up and revolt" since my university actually took this genre seriously and offered a class (which I took). I have no idea if they still offer that class, but they did for many years from the 60s to the 90s.

  21. "Most of them are short, and all of them are wise, accessible, and to the point." Sounds like my kind of book on essays. So many things to comment on here... Yes, I think that the thought does count. Sometimes it's hard to stand up when conventions are so ingrained. I've told you that my teacher called me a philistine when I mentioned my disdain for A Portrait, right? :P But it's sometimes easy to nod and go along when inside you're fuming and biting your tongue. But literature should be discussed and debated. Maybe should isn't the right word, but I think it lends itself to discussion. Otherwise why are we here, right?

    And also, I'm glad you mentioned Le Guin's stance on animals. It's not a secret that I have a tough time with talking animals in books and movies--more so when the animals are interacting with humans (seems different if humans aren't present for some reason). What an interesting thought about not being alone on the planet. Almost a type of awareness.

    Ok, I'm done. :)

  22. I need to read more books by Ursula... I think I've only read one book by her so far. :P

  23. Since I love fantasy, I would love to read LeGuin's essays discussing the genre. Fantasy takes the same problems and situations presented in any novel and just puts them in a different setting. Sometimes, that helps me interpret human behavior in a new light.

    Great review Nymeth!

  24. Love the title. Love Le Guin. Want book.

    (my brain seems to speak in staccato phrases)

  25. I'll keep a look out for this one. I love genre fiction which includes fantasy (not so much sci-fi). It's not because I like to escape, more just because I like the writing, the style, the storytelling and the way it makes me think and feel. I am pretty honest with people when I say what type of books I read and they do sometimes frown and switch off which I find really really irritating. I am not an English undergraduate, but I will be better at standing up for my interests.

  26. I am not much a reader of fantasy, but I think that might change if I read this book. I don't know why it is that I have always shied away from it, but the more I come across reviews and opinions on well written fantasy, the more I want to dive into it. It is strange, because fantasy is the literature of choice for the rest of my family, so I do feel a bit isolated in not gravitating towards it. I did, however, just buy a few fantasy novels, so I think the ice may finally be starting to chip!

  27. Oh, Ursula. We love you so much! This sounds great. When I feel like reading highly intelligent essays again (as opposed to highly intelligent juvenile and YA books, which is all I feel like reading right now), I will read this.

    I think of The Wood Wife as a good example here... definitely about humans, but also definitely about the *Other* -- and how we feel a deep need to connect with the Other, in various forms. I'm not so much into the reconstructed-medieval style (old-skool) fantasy, but frankly a little bit of fantasy feels like the world where I live. I need a little bit of magic to feel at home in my own head, you know what I mean?

  28. Well... I wrote my response, Ms Nymeth, but it was longer than the original post, so I gave up and posted it as a blog entry :P.

  29. Well this sound fantastic, I feel like I must own it! I had a bad experience with the Earthsea trilogy (the female characters got me down) but everyone says Le Guin is excellent, constantly evolving and revising her opinions. Maybe starting with her non-fiction will send me off to her other novels.

  30. Marie: I know fantasy and sci-fi is not for everyone, and I'm fine with that too! I just don't like it when people try to belittle others for liking it. You're right that authors risk getting pigeonholed for writing it, but at the same time, I have a lot more respect for Ursula Le Guin or even for a more "mainstream" writer like Michael Chabon who stands up for genre fiction, than I do for those who, like Atwood, write science fiction, pretend their books are not science fiction, and then dismiss the genre (and this regardless of how much I adore her writing). Anyway, I hope you'll read Le Guin again! She's seriously amazing.

    Wisteria: This is also why I want to be a children's/YA librarian: no one will give me trouble for loving fantasy there :P

    Terri B: Your university sounds awesome! I wish I'd gone there :P

    Trish: lol, you did tell me that. I always kept quiet about not really enjoying Joyce too. I agree there should be more debate. I actually had some profs who were all about debate, and unsurprisingly they were my favourites. But others were all about not questioning The Judgement Of Your Betters, which...meh :P Anyway, in the title essay she writes about all those different kinds of animal stories, and she prefers it when animals actually act like animals too.

    Melody: Well, what are you waiting for? :P

    Jenclair: Yes, I absolutely agree.

    Bybee: lol! It's good to hear from you, btw :D

    Rhinoa: Same here. I like the stories and the imagery and the way it makes me think and feel, and we definitely shouldn't have to apologize for it.

    Zibilee: Oooh, which ones did you get? It makes me happy to hear you're going to give the genre a try :)

    Daphne: Yes we do <3 The Wood Wife is indeed a perfect example. I'm also not as drawn to epic fantasy as I am to other kinds. And this - "I need a little bit of magic to feel at home in my own head" - I just love how you said that :)

    Jason: I really enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    Jodie: You've read the original trilogy, right? The reason why she returned to Earthsea and wrote three more books was because she wasn't happy with how she'd treated gender roles, with the assumptions she'd let go unquestioned. Though most people prefer the earlier Earthsea books, I much prefer the latter, and I think you'd enjoy them a lot more too!

    Alice: You'd enjoy it for sure!

  31. This looks like a wonderful book, Nymeth. I just checked bookmooch and my library, and neither has it, unfortunately. I will have to put it on my bookstore wishlist for my next order.

    I love fantasy and have always loved it. I read a lot of sci-fi when I was growing up, too. I think fantasy in many ways actually speaks to our own inner potential, and that's one of the reasons I love it so much. It's also an amazing vehicle for exploring a lot of issues without getting bogged down in the kinds of facts and details that get people steamed up or derailed.

  32. Actually, I totally want to read this book right now. ;)


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