After Ursula K. Le Guin died, I made an agreement with myself I would read anything and everything she'd written as the chance arose. That said, Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand probably would have been the last on my list, had I not stumbled across a paperback copy in a library booksale (in pre-pandemic times) in a "fill a paper bag for $10" sale and it languished in my TBR pile for months before I finally got around to it.
The reason? Genre snobbery, in reverse of the usual direction. Searoad is a collection of short stories published in magazines like The New Yorker, and fancy-sounding publications with Review in their names. Serious publications publishing so-called "literary" fiction, or maybe "realistic fiction" or just plain fiction--fiction that's supposed to tell-it-like-it-is, lay bare the inadequacies of modern life, and leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled after watching empty and unfulfilled people make poor decisions in futile attempts to fill the emptiness and inadequacies of their lives. Because that’s the whole point of literature, right?
Oh. Perhaps I'm generalizing. But so it feels to me whenever I dip into one of these publications. They are "literature", everything else is "genre": romance, science-fiction, fantasy, action, adventure, thriller, mystery, crime. "Literary" fiction is usually just plain old "fiction" in the library classification systems and in common parlance: it is assumed to be the norm, the default, from which everything else is a deviation. And I hate this. I've always hated this.
To write about petty modern people with their petty modern lives is one thing--we all have our kinks--but to disdain others for imagining different things, for epics and grandeur and you-could-have-anything-so-why-not-go-for-it always struck me as a deep failure of, and disdain for, imagination. Genres, like so much else in our lives, are social constructs: us and them, the have and the have-nots. Literary fiction are the "haves", everything else is the "have-nots". That's changing, obviously, and the boundaries aren't as rigid as they once were, but I still see that divide reflected in so-called "serious" publications, and I generally avoid them.
Ursula K. Le Guin has always hugged the boundaries between "pure" genre (aka trashy, flashy, unfit for serious folk in the eyes of the pedants) and "literary merit". She's been accepted and respected by both camps, although the "literary" folks speak of the sci-fi rather patronizingly in their reviews of her works. Le Guin, however, never disdained the sci-fi labels in the same way that Margaret Atwood--another boundary-spanning writer--has always done.
For this reason, I've retained infinitely more respect for Le Guin than Atwood, despite Atwood's considerable talents as a writer. Atwood wants to play with sci-fi tropes, but she doesn't have the backbone to stand up and be proud of it. Atwood wants to write science fiction but not be judged for it, and the easiest way to do that (since genres are a social construct) is just to firmly insist that it's not sci-fi at all--move along, nothing to see here.
Here's a blurb on the back of my copy of Searoad by Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet from the Pacific Northwest:
"For a number of years, the only science-fiction I read was that of Ursula K. Le Guin. I don't read science-fiction any more, thought I wouldn't think of missing a book of Le Guin's. She has transcended the genre..."
How very generous and open-minded of you to only read science-fiction so elevated it “transcends” its genre entirely, thereby becoming worthy of notice. And this is supposed to make me like literary fiction?
That said, the irony is that Kizer’s statement sums up my approach to non-genre stuff as well, although I would not have phrased it quite so baldly. More like “Okay, not usually my cup of tea--but if it’s you, it’s okay....” The genre transcending thing, as much as I despise the phrasing, works both ways here.
All this is to say I finally read Searoad, even though I had to coax myself into it by pretending that this was an alien society that Le Guin and I were exploring together in order to tell us stuff about our own, and that helped. It also helped because the stories were so damn good, and I got carried away, even though they are very literary stories, with ambiguous endings, the usual focus on unexpressed and/or self-destructive emotions of love, birth, and death, and no magic or wizards or dragons whatsoever.
(To repeat: I am a genre snob who has never understood why writing without dragons was inherently better than writing with dragons in it. I have always operated under the principle that dragons made everything better. And I have never understood why depicting the world as it is was a stroke of literary genius, if all you were going to do with it it is show people being unhappy in the usual old ways instead of unusual ways. Or even imagine something new and different!)
Searoad reminds me of Lake Wobegon a little, but that's only because it's a small town, with characters from one story popping up in others in the most unexpected places--just like small town life. After a while, it feels like we're constantly running into old friends, a shared world--real, but in a good way. The stories were published across a wide range of outlets from 1987-1991, yet flow into each other astonishingly well when read in rapid succession, or indeed, in any order at all.
My favorite is "True Love," which is all about ditching unsatisfying conventional relationships to focus on one's true passion instead:
For me, sex is sublimation. Left to itself, in its raw, primitive state, my libido would have expend itself inexhaustibly in reading.
And since I have been a librarian ever since I was twenty, I can truly compare my life to that of some pasha luxuriating in his harem--and what a harem! Half a million mistresses, when I was at the Central Library in Portland! A decade-long orgy! And during the school year, since I teach now at the Library School, I have access to the University Library. Here in Klatsand where I spend the summers, the harem is very small and a good many of the houris are rather out of date, but then so am I. My lust has lessened somewhat with the years. Sometimes I imagine I could be contented with a mere shelf of tried, true, and highly selected Scheherazades, with only now and then a pretty little novel to flirt with, or a volume of new poetry to make me cry out with excess of pleasure in the heart of the night.
And in the same story, Le Guin makes it clear she's one of us:
"Do you like science fiction" I asked her, because all I can really talk about is books. And of course, she couldn't talk about books. That had been knocked out of her years ago. We compromised on "Star Trek," new and old. She liked the new series as well as the old one. I liked the old one better. Antal stared, not at Rosemarie, only at me. "You watch it?" he said. "You watch television?"
I didn't answer. ... I was not going to let him try to shame us for our commonness.
"The one I liked best was the one where Mr. Spock had to go home because he was in heat," I said to her.
"Except, he never, you know," she said. "They just had a fight over the girl, him and Captain Kirk, and then they left."
"That's his pride," I said, obscurely. I was thinking how Mr. Spock was never unbuttoned, never lolled, kept himself shadowy, unfulfilled, and so we loved him. And poor Captain Kirk, going from blonde to blonde, would never understand that he himself loved Mr. Spock truly, hopelessly, forever.
Reader, I LOLed. Because it's true. You know it, I know it, and so does Le Guin. And she had the guts to say so in the Indiana Review, and the editors published it. LEGEND.
Like all of Le Guin's writing, the stories in Searoad are lyrical, elegant, soaring, and moving--sympathetic, yet unafraid to call out bad behavior and terrible things when she sees it. My other favorite story, "Sleepwalkers," is a brilliant example of this: it starts with a complaint by a privileged male playwright about the housekeeper at his summer cabin, only for us to quickly learn (if his tone and phrasing didn't give it away) that he's an arrogant asshole who sees only what he wants to see and misses what's actually in front of him. We then pivot to a number of other people at the little resort, and their views of the housekeeper, and we're left with an open question at the end: which view is more accurate? Which story do we believe? What is actually going on? Can any of us really know or understand the hidden depths within another person? It's so deep and lush and well-written, and even funny on occasions.
And there's also a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives and scenarios enough to keep me interested: a lesbian grieves the death of her long-time partner, a war veteran deals with PTSD, a college student runs off into the woods to secretly map illegal old-growth logging stands, a ghost appears in a late-night diner to a sexual-abuse victim. The ghost thing seems like it ought to fall under genre conventions, but doesn’t because of the framing, and yet it still works for me--another example of Le Guin’s skill.
Anyway, so Le Guin actually made me enjoy so-called "literary" fiction and that was unexpected and delightful. Regardless of my feelings about most "realistic" fiction, I'm glad I read this collection.
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