Known For: Le Guin has been writing and publishing since the sixties. Though she is mainly known for her science fiction and fantasy, she has written a wide array of essays, children's books, and young adult fiction.
Dates: October 21, 1929 -
Also known as: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
Parents: Theodora Kroeber (a writer) and Alfred Louis Kroeber (pioneering anthropologist)
Ursula K. Le Guin has resisted pigeonholing for most of her career. As her brother has pointed out, applying the label of "science fiction" to Le Guin's work doesn't convey the range of her stories or her literary sources. A more accurate description for Le Guin would be "fantasist" or "story-teller".
The work of Ursula K. Le Guin is distinguishable not only by its careful craftsmanship and realistic detail of imaginary worlds, but also from its profound ethical concerns. Through her writing, Le Guin explores themes of feminism, the role of gender in sexism, and environmental concerns. She has always championed the humanizing power of imagination and believes that fantasy can be a moral compass for both adults and children.
Ursula Le Guin Biography
Growing up, Le Guin was surrounded by scholarly and humanistic pursuits. Her mother described their home as a "gathering place for scientists, students, writers and California Indians". It was in this environment that Le Guin began to write. She never made the conscious decision to be a writer, because she never expected not to share stories. Le Guin has often claimed that her parents' careers in anthropology had a great influence on her writing.
Ursula K. Le Guin received a B.A. from Radcliffe in 1951 and an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature from Columbia in 1952. When she went to France on a Fulbright in 1953, she met and married her husband, historian Charles A. Le Guin. Le Guin turned from graduate studies to raise a family and they moved to Portland, Oregon.
Turning to Science Fiction:
In the early 1960s, Le Guin had published a few things, but had written much more that was not yet published. She turned to science fiction in order to get published. In doing so, she became one of the most critically acclaimed scifi writers.
Ursula K. Le Guin has gone on to become known as one of the early feminist voices in fantasy and science fiction. She is one of the very few writers that has been able to break through the academic disdain for "low art" (a term used to describe genre work). Le Guin's work has been collected more frequently in literary anthologies than that of any other science-fiction author. Le Guin believes imagination, not profit should drive artistic creation and expression. She remains a vocal advocate for genre work, finding the distinction between high and low art to be incredibly problematic.
Her work is often concerned with individual freedom. In her fictitious worlds, there is a limitless range of choices, but none are without results. To ignore this fact is to be not human. Therefore, in Le Guin's story, any self-aware being is a human, regardless of its species.
One of Ursula Le Guin's most well-known series, the Hainish series, was the setting for two of her earliest novels. These two novels were awarded the Hugo and Nebula award, an unprecedented double honor. While Hainish tends to be more science fiction, Le Guin's Earthsea is a fantasy series. It has often been compared to the works of Tolkien and Lewis. Le Guin prefers the Tolkien comparison: Tolkien's open-ended mythology is much more to her taste than Lewis's religious works (Le Guin prefers to let allegory alone).
Ursula K. Le Guin has won more Locus awards than any other writer, 20 in total. For Le Guin, the most important thing about writing is the story and she struggles against anything that could be construed as propaganda. Her science fiction and fantasy is part of her alliance with formal intellectual pursuits. Her work reflects a deep interest of the field of anthropology, reflected in the amount of care she puts into creating other cultures as well as other worlds. Her work continues to offer an alternative to the capitalistic, male-centered ideals of the West that rule most genre fiction of today. Her own work is filled with a desire for balance and unity in society, reflected in the ideals of Taoism, Jungian psychology, ecology, and human liberation.
In one of her most interesting novels, one that has frequently been critiqued by feminist critics, The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin presents the reader with a thought experiment by introducing a world inhabited by an androgynous race of beings (the Gethins). In a later essay written about this novel, Is Gender Necessary Redux, Le Guin observes some interesting things: First, the absence of war. Second, the absence of exploitation. Third: the absence of sexuality. While she came to no definitive conclusions, the novel remains an interesting examination of the interplay of sex, gender, and sexism.
To read Ursula K. Le Guin is to examine our place in the world. By elevating low genre to an academic pursuit, Le Guin has opened the doors for other women writers that wish to examine contemporary issues using the tools of genre. Now in her nineties, she continues to write new works and continue to push for the acceptance of genre work and the preservation of women's writing.
Attebery, Brian. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Twentieth-Century American Science-Fiction Writers. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1981. 263-280. Print.
Gordon, Andrew. "Ursula K. Le Guin." American Writers for Children Since 1960. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1986. 233-241. Print.
Petersen, Zina. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Twentieth-Century American Western Writers. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. 140-149. Print.
Samuelson, David N., and Elizabeth Cummins. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present day. 2nd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons :, 1999. 421-436. Print.
For more information
Ursula Le Guin's personal website: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/
Interview: Shoot, Brittany. "Steering the Craft: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin." Bitch Fall 2010: 32-35. Print.
More women's history biographies, by name: