On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.
I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.
There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.
It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.