Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin has been the subject of critical debate, analysis and discussion for generations. She died this week at the age of 88.
Le Guin published her first paid work April in Paris in the September 1962 issue of the magazine Fantastic Stories of the Imagination – and I am the proud owner of an original copy. I am a lifelong Le Guin fan, but also an academic exploring how science fiction is a cultural artefact that acts as a lens on changing attitudes and specific issues of its time. For me, Le Guin hit the sweet spots of her time powerfully and frequently.
Le Guin explored what it is to be human, faults and all, and the impact and influence of her work is undeniable in the world of fantasy and science fiction.
A fantasy writer for all ages
I first encountered Le Guin as a child through the Earthsea Cycle, and it set the bar high for what I considered ever after to be good fantasy literature, leaving me disappointed by many otherwise quite respectable authors.
A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive wizarding school, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovered is inextricably linked to him) and that he later defeats.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not the first to note it. Regarding the story of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin didn’t say that J.K. Rowling “ripped me off” in her Harry Potter series, but felt that Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.
In the Earthsea series, we are introduced to the complex responsibilities of becoming an adult, and asked to consider the values of life and the nature of death. It’s heavy, but significant and humanly realistic reading for a teenager.
Professionalism and style
Le Guin was fiercely protective and supportive of other authors. In 1973, she made a humorous critique of the problems faced by writers trying to make their worlds fantastical and strange in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, encouraging and emphasising the importance of appropriate style.
Style is something Le Guin seemed to be able to master effortlessly and consistently. I consider her short story Semley’s Necklace – first published in 1964 and later included in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – to be the finest of its kind in fantasy writing, its crystalline prose equal to Semley’s tragic fate.
Le Guin maintained an interest in encouraging writers and sharing her art. I have an original and much-thumbed copy of the elegantly titled (and naturally masterfully written) Steering the Craft: a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 1998: it didn’t make me a better writer, but it made me respect and appreciate the craft of writing.
On human nature, science, ethics and duty
For me, Le Guin has been such a powerful influence in science fiction and fantasy literature that I can’t imagine how it might have developed without her.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, inspired and informed a generation of gender writing in fantasy and science fiction. Yet, in her 1976 introduction to this novel, Le Guin maintained that androgyny was not what she considered the theme of the book – it was more to do with essential human feelings about fidelity and betrayal. Her employment of what were to become tropes of science fiction and fantasy was in service of the story, not the other way around, and this was a characteristic of her work.
More than many other author, she employed language, culture and concept in service of writing significant stories about the condition of being human.
Where writer Philip K Dick might be considered the expert of the “what if” scenario in science fiction, for me Le Guin is the expert at “what is?” She asked questions about our nature, aims and desires. She was consistently writing at the coalface of cultural change, or anticipating it.
Her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973 is a devastating, slow-burn exposition of the implications of taking the utilitarian route in our exploitative relationships with other people.
The power of this writing has only increased with time, as we become more aware of “ethical outsourcing” and labour inequalities. These are portrayed in the film The Last Train Home, where the lives of those in the “developed world” become more comfortable, but at the expense of people we don’t know and can’t see.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was my introduction to a reader-friendly explanation of comparative ideologies – I suspect it was the same for many people.
But it was also a story about scientists, and the duty they have to be responsible, ethical and honest. It is another very human story in which Le Guin skillfully portrays the difficulties of presenting complex concepts to an unwelcoming world – something that is still pertinent in an age of climate change denial, anti-vaccination lobbying and fake news.
Le Guin was not a universal fan of scientific progress, but always took a human perspective. She was horrified by the “deal with the devil” of the Google book digitisation project, which although a great technological innovation, she recognised as a potential assault on the rights of authors.
Le Guin was a prolific novelist, and I only realise how small a proportion of her work my collection includes when I look look her up on the Internet Science Fiction Database.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Le Guin consistently wrote thoughtful and artful science fiction and fantasy throughout her life, without becoming fixed in any particular style.
Like Ged in Earthsea, she matured gracefully and elegantly with age, and continued to be powerful force and influence in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.
The world has lost a great and influential writer and humanist. When I heard the news of her death I was heartbroken.
The scene: a field in southwest England. The sun is shining for a quintessentially British event, the Great Dorset Steam Fair. A six-and-a-half tonne steamroller takes centre stage. This, the Lord Jericho, goes head-to-head with a computer hard drive, and in a battle of old and new technologies, rolls over it several times. Then, just to be on the safe side, the hard drive is placed in a steam-powered stone crusher.
A scene from a fantasy novel? No. The hard drive was from the late author Sir Terry Pratchett’s computer, and it contained the files of, it is thought, 10 unfinished novels.
Pratchett, author of the much-loved Discworld series, wrote more than 60 books in his lifetime. But it was his wish that any unfinished works remained unpublished, and so he instructed that the hard drive containing his remaining works be crushed by a steamroller.
Commenting on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, authors Patrick Ness and Samantha Norman asserted Pratchett’s absolute right to determine the future of his unfinished work. In recent years, though, both authors have completed unfinished novels by other writers. In Norman’s case, it was The Siege Winter, a book by her late mother, Ariana Franklin. For Ness, it was Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, now adapted into a hit film.
For each of these canonical authors, their unfinished texts add to our accumulated knowledge of their writing, their rich imagination, and the development of their thinking. After completing Dorothy L Sayers’ last novel, Jill Paton Walsh went on to create warmly regarded new novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. J R R Tolkien’s son Christopher likewise has worked painstakingly on unfinished works by his father, including The Children of Hurin.
Unlike Pratchett, the strict instructions left by some authors about their legacy have been ignored, sometimes to the reader’s benefit. Max Brod’s decision to counter Franz Kafka’s wish for destruction is to literary history’s benefit, as it led to the publication of The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. Emily Dickinson left no instructions on what to do with the approximately 1,800 unpublished poems she wrote before her death in 1886. Fortunately, her sister Lavinia took it on as her mission to see them made public.
When Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson died suddenly, unmarried and with no will, his estate came under the control of his father and brother. They commissioned ghostwriter David Largenrcrantz to create new works using Larsson’s characters, with the latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye due in September 2017. Larsson’s bereaved long-term partner is in possession of the author’s laptop which is believed to hold Larsson’s last unfinished novel, but she has refused to turn it over to his family.
The biographical figure of the author has, despite Roland Barthes’ critical articulation of “The death of the Author” in 1967, never been more present. Now, readers have unprecedented access to the names on the spines of their books, thanks to festivals, talks and social media.
While some authors may not want to show the struggle of their early drafts to the world, there is both an industry (famous author’ manuscripts can sell for high figures) and scholarship attached to them. Formal archives of Pratchett’s work exist in Senate House in London, for example – including some tantalising glimpses replete with coffee stains and notes to the publisher. Salman Rushdie has even given a desktop computer and several laptops to Emory University in the US.
There is no doubt that Pratchett was within his rights to deprive readers of these last rough-hewn gems, though understandably fans may be disappointed with his choice. However, the rumours swirling around the appearance of Go Set a Watchman – the original version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird – suggest that elderly and infirm authors can potentially be preyed upon. Pratchett’s wish to control his literary legacy was consonant with his advocacy for assisted dying. He, more than anyone else, understood the power of letting things come to an end.
As an author who had “Death” as one of his major recurring characters, Pratchett had thoroughly tested its presence in human life. But now, even knowing that Pratchett’s crushed hard drive will soon feature in an exhibition, we can’t but regret the loss of these early, unfinished drafts, which contained the very last doorway into the Discworld.
When we speak of bestsellers, we’re often referring to books that have sold fewer copies than one might think. By the estimation of award-winning author Donal Ryan, there are times when 300 sales might be enough to make a chart topper – the bestseller mantle tends to have more promotional than monetary value. Of course there are the literary blockbusters — titles like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code — books that ship hundreds of millions of copies. But combine the sales of JK Rowling and Dan Brown, even throw in John Grisham, and you’re still lagging behind the sales figures of the world’s true bestselling author — James Patterson.
According to his publisher, Patterson has written no fewer than 114 New York Times bestsellers. His total bibliography is upwards of 150. He is, without doubt, one of the most prodigious literary figures that the world has ever seen.
Patterson’s success is unusual, in that he isn’t quite a household name; rather, he is a master of the airport novel, an author whose success has largely been achieved as a writer of commuter fiction. Patterson divides opinion: Stephen King describes his work as “terrible”, reviewers have deemed it “subliterate”; yet in 2015 he received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for his philanthropic efforts in encouraging Americans to read.
Patterson’s prodigious output is accomplished through the use of collaborators: co-authors offered a chance to make their name under the tutelage of the world’s most commercially successful author. He is engagingly transparent about his process: co-authors work from a narrative framework provided by Patterson, who either then re-writes what they come up with or provides notes on bi-weekly drafts. The narrative frameworks he provides emerge from his understanding of the literary market, informed by his years of experience as an advertising executive. He has been described as a co-publisher, more of a brand than a writer. This is a distinction worth exploring, because it is Patterson’s name that looms largest on his covers.
Using digital methods, if sufficient samples are available, the extent to which someone actively contributes to the actual words of a text can be tested. The field is called stylometry, and it has been previously used in author attribution studies involving popular figures like Harper Lee and JK Rowling.
A colleague and I applied stylometric methods to the work of Patterson in order to form an impression of how much he contributes to the writing of his books in terms of the actual words used. The results of the study show that, in each of the collaborative novels (we checked all where there was a relevant sample to test against – where the co-author had written individual texts), the dominant style is that of Patterson’s co-authors. This is quantitative evidence that, when collaborating with a junior party, Patterson’s contributions to the literary process are more concerned with plot than style. This isn’t a “gotcha!” moment: Patterson has always given the impression that he’s more about the plot. But it is confirmation that the world’s bestselling author may not principally be a writer.
At a superficial level, this tells us something about Patterson’s practices, how it is that he has managed to sustain such prolific output. But it also challenges notions of authorship — what is the significance of Patterson’s name on a dust-jacket? Is it mainly an endorsement, a valuable moniker which generates sales? Or is he properly seen as an author, just one who is attracted to the possibilities of narrative structure over those of language?
Patterson’s work might contain little to provoke the consideration of literary critics, but his restoration of the novel’s popular traditions — his approach to literary capitalism as both author and corporation, creator and trademark – gives us cause to query our own hierarchies relating to story and expression. After all, the novel’s 18th century beginnings are embedded in commercialism. Critics tend to value style over structure, yet the public are clearly drawn towards the latter. Is plot what makes an author, and style an artist?
All about story
The intention here is not to revive the tired debate between “high” and “low” art. Structure is rich in creative potential, and plot was essential to the novel long before movements like high modernism sought to subvert the popular by privileging style. At the same time, the role of the critic, and indeed, the reader, is to appreciate, interpret, and communicate that which is hidden in the nuances of artistic expression. One is unlikely to find an abundance of such nuances in a text that is all plot.
One could point to the film and music industries, where collaboration is the norm, in defence of Patterson’s approach. Most creative practices, certainly those that have been commodified, involve interaction with some form of producer or director. In the literary world, publishers and editors guide a manuscript before turning it into something tangible for dissemination. Patterson might be seen as a literary director, or even a producer, emulating the practices of contemporary ghostwriters or predecessors like Dumas, though this is something of an unfair comparison, considering Patterson’s 19th-century French counterpart was widely suspected of outright plagiarism, described as “only a myth”.
Patterson is all about story. He has turned the instruments of late capitalism to the task of commodifying storytelling. He is far from the first author to attempt such a commodification: King, Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and many other popular writers have privileged story over style. But Patterson is a curious figure among his peers, and our research suggests that “author” in its widely accepted sense isn’t always the most appropriate term for his role within the writing process.