May 13, 2010

The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Language of the Night is a (sadly now out of print) 1979 collection of essays on science fiction and fantasy, as the subtitle tells us – but also on reading and writing, on the role of literature, on race and gender in genre and in general fiction, on the imagination and creativity, and so on. As always, Ursula Le Guin writes with passion, insight and clarity, and occasionally also with biting humour. If I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as her most recent collection, Cheek by Jowl, it was simply because I like the current Le Guin better than the Le Guin of the past. The same goes for her novels, really, so there’s no surprise there. But I did enjoy watching the evolution of her thinking. I’ve always liked the fact that she’s not at all afraid of changing or of being wrong.

There are enough ideas in The Language of the Night that I feel I couldn’t possibly do the whole collection justice, so I thought I’d focus on a few of the essays that interested me the most and comment on those. I’ll start with “Myth and archetype in science fiction”, whose title is pretty self-explanatory. Le Guin writes,
In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.
Even when they begin to realize that art is not something produced for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence). So they use mythology in an arrogant fashion, rationalizing it, condescending to it.
This isn’t to deny that symbols do exist, of course, or that writers make use of them, but this passage made me laugh because it reminded me of the first and last creative writing class I’ve ever taken. We did a unit on fairy tales, at the end of which we were asked to write an original one. The teacher wanted us to follow a specific method to do this: we were to go to the library, consult a dictionary of symbols, pick a few animals, plants, colours, etc. that stood for the “message” we wanted our fairy tale to convey, and then we were to make use of them in our writing. Supposedly this would make our fairy tale incredibly layered and profound.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing whatsoever about creative writing, but this advice completely horrified me. Surely that’s not how it works? Surely symbols and, er, “messages” (a word I shudder to ever see applied to literature, I must say) emerge from a writer’s work a little more organically than that? Same with themes, really – you don’t start out with one, do you? It’s more that it – or they – becomes visible as you tell the story you set out to tell. That’s how I’ve always imagined it, anyway. I know that some of you write, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What Le Guin is arguing against, and what my creative writing teacher advocated, sounds to me more like an exercise in ciphering, in which we replace “B” with “A” and “C” with “D” to pass on a coded message, than a creative endeavour.

The title-essay “The Language of the Night” was another one that gave me pause. Le Guin refers to fantasy as “the language of the night”, in the sense that the genre tends to make use of imagery to convey things we don’t quite have the language to convey—a role similar to that played by mythology. This idea interests me because it touches on what I was talking about recently: my difficult in pinpointing what it is about fantasy that makes it distinctively appealing. My problem with the essay, however, is that I let my aversion to psychoanalysis blind me and get in the way of my engaging with the ideas presented here at all. This is something I regret. Nothing will ever make me stop being suspicious of psychoanalysis’ incredibly dubious methodology, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ideas here that I could perhaps consider from a different, less pseudoscientific angle.

Finally, a few words on my absolute favourite piece in The Language of the Night: In “Science fiction and Mrs Brown”, Ursula Le Guin uses Virginia Woolf’s absolutely wonderful “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, an essay on the role of character in the novel, as a point of departure to trace the evolution of characterisation in fantasy and science fiction. I’m first and foremost a character-oriented reader, so I very much agree with both Woolf and Le Guin on the importance of character. At the time when Woolf wrote her essay, science fiction was just beginning to gain shape through the works of Aldous Huxley, Verne or H.G. Wells. Woolf called these “Utopias”, and said there was no place in them for Mrs Brown. Le Guin agrees that at the time this was so, but she also says that Woolf would probably have been pleased to have been wrong in the long run. The thought made me smile, and I think she’s probably right. These days nobody but the most ignorant of snobs would argue that there’s no place for in-depth characterisation in speculative fiction, and I can’t imagine that displeasing Virginia Woolf.

A few more memorable passages:
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.

The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities, which our culture defines as “womanish” or “childish”. And one of these traits is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of the imagination.

I hate allegories. A is “really” B, and a hawk is “really” a handsaw—bah. Humbug. Any creation, primary or secondary, with any vitality to it, can “really” be a dozen mutually exclusive things at once, before breakfast.

“You’re a juvenile writer, aren’t you?”
Yeth, Mummy.
“I love your books—the real ones, I mean. I haven’t read any of the ones for children, of course!”
Of courthe not, Daddy.
“It must be relaxing to write simple things for a change.”
Sure it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.
All you do is take all the sex out, and use little short words, and little dumb ideas, and don’t be too scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on.
If you do all that, you might even write Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and make twenty billion dollars and have every adult in America reading your book!
(Bwahahaha. Le Guin is very rarely this snarky, but I have to confess I love it when she is.)
If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverish you own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.
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  1. I haven't read any books by Ursala Le Guin yet, but I did pick up The Gifts. Is that an old one or a new one? I am intrigued by this author.

  2. I think I meant to write Ursula not Ursala!

  3. I have one of the books by her but haven't got the chance to read it yet. This one sounds good. I love the passages you posted.

  4. Brilliant post - and though I'ma huge LeGuin fan, I haven't read or even heard of these collections of essays, so they are on the list now, and THANK YOU!

    And she's right, of course, and so are you. That creative writing tutor, whoever he or she was, was doing something about equivalent to an art tutor sending out his students to paint by numbers. It can't be done that way. I can only speak for myself, but it all begins deep down somewhere inside the brain-stem - like those 'black smokers' deep in the ocean trenches, and generates heat, and disturbances in the the water, and you kind of pay attention and try to make sense of it all - not very coherent, I'm afraid, but closer to the truth than your dictionary-of-symbols man.

  5. It is definitely supposed to be organic rather than "insert symbol here to make writing deeper"! I seem to recall a certain author (I want to say Neil Gaiman, but I'm not a hundred percent sure!) starting to read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Face but stopped because they were getting so self-conscious about their writing. While I certainly wouldn't class myself with writers such as that, I do have to say that one of the main themes in one of my novel concepts only became apparent years after starting on it.

  6. What a great post, and sounds like a great book. Some great quotes!

  7. Great review, this sounds like an interesting book! It just makes me really aware of the fact that I still haven´t read any LeGuin. I will have to get some of her works once I´ve read through my current library books pile.

  8. Oh oh oh. That creative writing assignment. That's just absolutely horrible. Frankly I disagree with your teacher!! Adding "symbolic" images to a story does NOT give it depth! That's like saying the sleasy salesman that smiles at you is being "genuine." Uh no. Do authors use symbols in their work? Sure, but they don't pick them out of a catalog and assign them roles in their writing! They come out organically, or they're used purposely as metaphors and such.

    My junior year in high school, we had an English teacher who thought the same way. He was trying to get us to see the symbols in books we read but he took it way too far. For example, the "A" in The Scarlet Letter supposedly stood for not only "adultery" but "Adam" (referring to the first sin), "Ambiguous" (because you're not sure what it stands for), "Allegory" (for the religious sentiment), and more. I think he came up with like 20 different symbols for the letter A, which I frankly find ridiculous. And then, every time a character has the last name "Sinclair" it was because they were clearing their sin, or if their initials were JC, then every single time it's because the author was making that character a symbol for Jesus Christ. It seemed...too much for me.

    Okay sorry for the rant...

  9. I like her thoughts about symbols being confused with allegories, and symbols hiding like scared gerbils. What a great image! Too bad you couldn't have written about a scared gerbil for your "creative" writing class! :--)

  10. Oh, I've been meaning to read this book! I didn't know it was out of print. I'm curious, which current novels of hers you like, or which older ones you don't? I always did love her Earthsea series, but wasn't too keen on some others and haven't read any of her works in a while. I'm not sure what new ones are out there right now.

  11. I love the fact that she compares symbols in literature to sacred gerbils, that is hilarious! I also have a hard time with symbolism in literature and more often than not, I will miss it when it's there. I also find it a bit weird that your teacher advised you to write your stories around your symbols! It seems like such a weird idea! All that being said, I think that this sounds like a really interesting read, and like something I'd like to try! Wonderful review, Nymeth!

  12. I really enjoy Le Guin's essays, she has such a firm opinion on things and even if I disagree with her I still can't help but like her anyway. I didn't know about this book or that she had a new book out. I'll have to hunt down both of them!

  13. She is such a clever writer and it sounds like in this collection she's funny too. I dream of puting her and Susan Hill in a room together to slug out the worth of speculative fiction.

  14. Speaking for myself, when I write, I'm not thinking, I will convey this theme in this way. What generally happens is that I'll write a first draft of a story, and when I go back I'll realize that there are themes there - things that interest me, like gender dynamics or forming an individual identity. And at that point I'll see ways I can touch up the story to bring out those themes more effectively. It's my favorite part of writing, to look back at a story I've written and find that Ideas have happened it in without my even noticing.

    I have now talked about my writing for as long as it is possible for me to talk about it without starting to feel pretentious and self-important. :p

  15. Oh, I read this years ago, and I'd completely forgotten about the gerbil part till you mentioned it here! I remember, as a poor beleaguered English student, finding that so relevant to my life! And that ridiculous assignment to go out and find some gerbils to put in your story is too awful to contemplate. There are way better creative writing teachers out there - sorry you had such a dreadful experience. :p

  16. I think this idea that you have to look for symbolism around every page in a book ruins reading for a lot of young readers. I try to relax when I read and not force myself to think a certain way about what I am reading. I get whatever meaning is there for me which is often different than what someone else will take from it. I agree with you that the process of writing they types of stories should be organic (I'd like to think they are) and not about getting a group of animals that stand for certain things and making a story out of it. I've never read any of LeGuins novels or essays. I'm quite interested in what she has to say based on what you have excerpted here.

  17. Oh, I love all the quotes you included! I'm especially fond of the snarky bit; I'm still chuckling over the Jonathan Livingston Seagull comment. I think I need to read some of her essays!

    And I think I have a number of papers full of "empty pomposity," written many years ago, filed away. Ah, memories of my young self. They are filed under "Youthful Writings: Don't Judge Me by These"!

  18. Wow, I love the way this author writes! I've got to pick up some of her work.

  19. She is one of the very few writers who can make me read fantasy books- and like them! How sad is it that this book is out of print, her essays and thoughts on the genre are extremely valuable.
    “Even when they begin to realize that art is not something produced for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically.”
    This is fascinating and I absolutely agree with her that symbols should be used when it is not impossible to express something in another way.

  20. I can't believe I haven't read any of her books yet. But I think I should read her essays after I've read some of her novels...

  21. Vivienne: Gifts is a PERFECT introduction to Le Guin! It's the first book in a recent trilogy, though it works as a stand-alone, and it's one of my favourites of her books.

    Violet, I hope you enjoy it when you do.

    Katherine Langrish: Thank you for confirming what my instincts told me! I absolutely love how you described the creative process :) And I hope you enjoy Le Guin's essays when you get to them!

    Clare: I do think that was Neil Gaiman - I remember reading that, anyway, and I read more interviews with him than with any other writer. I think he also said that personally he would rather read myths themselves than someone else's take on what they meant.

    Amy, thanks :)

    Bina: You should! She's one of my absolute favourites.

    Amanda: I don't think my teacher knew any more about writing that her students did :P Picking symbols out of a catalogue just sounds preposterous to me. And I definitely think some teachers do overdo it even when it comes to literary analysis. Discussing symbols can be interesting, of course, but more as a means to an end than as a goal in itself.

    Jill: lol - if I'd read this essay then, I just might have ;)

    Jeane: I do like her old books a lot - I just like the recent ones even better. Especially The Other Wind (the final Earthsea novel), Lavinia, and the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy (Gifts, Voices and Powers).

  22. Zibilee: Isn't it an absurd thought? I do think symbolism plays its role in literature, but it shouldn't be the starting point-

    Stefanie: Yes, exactly - she always makes me think, even if I end up disagreeing.

    Jodie: Ha! I'd pay to see that. Recently I discovered that Susan Hill is a global warming denier and is absolutely nasty to anyone who dares disagree, so I currently dislike her more than ever.

    Jenny: lol - don't worry, that didn't sound pretentious or self-important in the least!

    Darla: lol, I fully believe that there are. It honestly doesn't get much worse than mine :P

    Kathleen: I definitely see what you mean about the gerbil-hunting scaring readers away. It's not that we shouldn't discuss symbols or metaphors, but they're a way of getting at the ideas behind the novel and not an end in themselves.

    Terri B: She can he quite hilarious, can't she? :D And nobody should *ever* be judged by their youthful writings ;)

    Emidy: Let me know if you want some recommendations :)

    Lua: I think you might be surprised with how many fantasy books out there you could find yourself liking. And I'm glad to hear that the writers out there agree that writing is not an exercise in ciphering!

    Sakura: Yes, her novels would probably be a better starting place. I think either Gifts or Lavinia would make a perfect introduction.

  23. Never read anything by this author, but I will check out her books!

  24. I like this author's works and I loved her Earthsea series. I'm going to try to source for this one. I have The Left Hand of Darkness and Lavinia but yet to read them. Thank for highlighting this one!

  25. I wanted to comment on this when you first posted it but stuff kept me away from the computer. I loved this book, and I must read Cheek by Jowl.

    I remember laughing over the scared gerbils. I read it in the windowless basement break room of library where I worked under a sadistic boss right after college. It was one of those times where a book sprouts wings and takes you flying to a better place. And the book was ABOUT there being better places, the mechanics of how authors take you there, and it being okay to visit them.

    I like that you mention the contrast between early and late Le Guin. I prefer some aspects of her early fiction, and some of her recent. But on a whole: early Le Guin-ist, her. Is your preference for her recent work due to your dislike of Jung? Her "birth, sex, and death" comment about Earthsea?

  26. Andreea, I hope you enjoy them.

    Alice: Those are both excellent! Looking forward to your thoughts on them,

    Trapunto: No, it's not really the Jung thing... my lack of enthusiasm for Jung, and for the psychoanalysts in general, has more to do with how his ideas were framed than with his ideas themselves. I think he was more of a philosopher than a scientist, and when I say that, I don't mean he was worthless or not serious or anything of the sort. But a lot of people acted and still act as if to call something science was a necessary condition for it to be taken seriously, which is why untestable theories were put forth as science, which is a HUGE pet peeve of mine... but anyway (and sorry to rant :P), I don't necessarily dislike fiction influence by Jung, and I don't mind that about Le Guin's earlier work. But I feel that she became more...deliberate as she aged, if that makes sense. One example if how she readdressed the gender questions she'd more or less ignored in the earlier Earthsea books with the newer ones. Strange though this might sound, this made the whole series, old and new books alike, stronger in my eyes.

  27. I haven't read any Le Guin before, but this post really piqued my interest. And that beautiful cover doesn't hurt, either.


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