Friday, July 8, 2016

Sisters and Science Fiction

Karl Kroeber (1926–2009)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia

“Mariner 10 Approaching Mercury,” by American artist Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986), for the cover of the October 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (Click on the image to see the full cover.) The issue included Ursula K. Le Guin’s twelfth-century Orsinian tale, “The Barrow.”
Many—perhaps most—readers have long associated Ursula K. Le Guin with the genres of speculative fiction. As a result, in the 1970s, when she began publishing various fictional excursions in an imaginary East European country, fans and critics assumed that the new stories were “Le Guin's attempt to extend the range of her talents beyond the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction.” But, notes James W. Bittner, “If anything, the opposite is the case.”

In fact, many of Le Guin’s earliest works were set in Europe from the twelfth century through the twentieth. In an introduction written for the first volume of the Library of America edition of her fiction, Le Guin writes, “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”

Thus was born the country of Orsinia. Her first published poem (1959) was “Folk Song from the Montayna Province.” Her first published short story, “An die Musik,” also set in Orsinia, appeared in the Western Humanities Review in 1961. But a decade earlier, in 1951, while in Paris with her brother Karl Kroeber, she had begun writing A Descendance, a novel set in Orsinia. She sent it to Alfred Knopf, who somewhat reluctantly but (in Le Guin’s reckoning) wisely rejected “the crazy damn thing.” After the story collection Orsinian Tales (a finalist for the National Book Award) appeared in 1976, Le Guin finished a second Orsinian novel on which she been working intermittently since 1952, and it was published at last as Malafrena.

When one of the Orsinian tales (“Brothers and Sisters”) was included in a special double issue of The Little Magazine in the spring of 1976, Kroeber, a literary scholar, was invited to contribute an introduction, which has been reprinted in the LOA edition and is presented here as our Story of the Week selection. Kroeber, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-two, taught at Columbia University for nearly four decades, during which he published a dozen books on such varied topics as English Romantic poetry and American Indian literature (not to mention his 1988 monograph Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction). His wide-ranging interests are very much on display in the piece he wrote to accompany his sister’s story. “He was very interested in soaking up as much as he could about new ways of thinking, new kinds of things to think about,” his colleague Jenny Davidson told the Columbia Spectator. “He wanted to know what people in their teens or twenties or thirties were reading and finding exciting, and then he would go and read those things.”

One of Le Guin’s Orsinian tales will appear as a Story of the Week selection later this summer.

Notes: Birdboot is a character in Tom Stoppard’s satirical play The Real Inspector Hound, a theater critic who becomes enmeshed in the play he is supposed to be reviewing. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his book On Learning to Read and in subsequent books and interviews, disparaged the popular Dick-and-Jane stories for young readers and argued that traditional fairy tales, with their dark motifs and subjects, were better for developing both reading skills and emotional growth. Zembla is a fictional northern European country in Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Graustark, an eastern European country in several novels by George Barr McCutcheon. The Woodlanders (1887) is a novel by Thomas Hardy set in a small English village. The end of Kroeber’s essay quotes lines from Marianne Moore’s 1921 poem “Poetry.”

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Kroeber’s essay, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.


When the editors of The Little Magazine asked me for a fraternal comment on “Brothers and Sisters” they couldn’t understand how far beyond mere sibling rivalry they were pressing me to go. Since my father was a distinguished scientist, my first years in academia were dominated by a question to which the answer was, “Yes, he is my father.” Scarcely had he died than my mother became famous as an author, and I found myself saying, “Yes, she is my mother.” About the time mother turned from public acclaim to a new and exciting marriage, my sister won the National Book Award, and I found a third variant for my identifying phrase. I’m convinced that should my sister disappear (squashed by a malfunctioning UFO?) one of my children would instantly win a Nobel Prize, or kidnap F. Lee Bailey. My remarks, therefore, must be taken as those of a familial Birdboot.

I remark first that my sister’s writing has convinced me that (as I had long suspected) literary biography is useless for understanding literature. Boswell on Johnson and Bell on Woolf are delightful, but not helpful. I believe I know where both the general conceptions and many of the details in “Brothers and Sisters” originate. Every story of my sister’s is full of references to things and events and relationships I recognize. But to know these sources is to know nothing of significance about the stories as stories. Bad stories often are raw biography. Literary art consists in transforming one kind of reality, that of physical experience, into another kind of reality, that of literary experience. Imagining, the process of transforming, is illuminated dimly, if at all, only by the magic of criticism. Writers are often complex people and fascinating subjects for psychological analysis, but a writer is a person to whom writing happens. As Winnie the Pooh put it, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Jacket for Malafrena (Berkeley, 1979),
Le Guin’s novel set in the fictional
eastern European country of Orsinia
Especially disadvantageous for biographers are people like my sister who never become writers but who always are writers. I can’t remember a time when my sister wasn’t writing. I doubt that she can. For such a person writing is a mode of being, like talking for most of us, and making melodies for Mozart. Interestingly, not all the best writers are born writers—Shakespeare may not have been: he seems to have begun lazily and quit early, though commendably active in his middle years. But for those who lisp in numbers, the lisp is the significant biographical fact pointing to the mysterious truth that writers in writing about nothing but their own experience produce works not much illuminated by their experience. Writing is like alchemy—only the process of transmutation matters.

So little for biography, now less for genre, because my sister is not a “science fiction writer.” She is an imaginative author whose early work has followed the pattern of “science fiction,” the best (perhaps the only) mode open to an honest fantast unperturbed by the whims of the New York Literary Establishment. “Fantasy” derives from the Greek for “boaster,” it in turn deriving from a verb “to make visible.” Forms such as science fiction are a natural outlet for the “ostentatious,” that is, impudent, risk-taking writer. Critics, of course, prefer safe experimentalists. But the critical establishment’s power needn’t be overrated, since it is primarily negative. Occasionally it supports talent, seldom if ever does it permanently prevent a genuine artist from succeeding. When I saw the first advertisement for my sister’s work in the New York Review, I predicted a review of her by my colleague Michael Wood within a year. I underestimated Michael’s sensitivity to popular trends by four months.

The national popularity of science fiction, vampire stories, Gothic romances, and the like is impressive. If Bruno Bettelheim is right, this phenomenon might be called THE REVENGE OF DICK AND JANE. It is at least appropriate that a culture which has exorcized from children’s reading all that is genuinely fearful and romantic should be blessed by the high art and moral profundity of The Exorcist. Surely Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is charming. “Bluebeard” is distinctly not charming, a sign that Grimm’s monsters are real. So real that thousands of psychiatrists every year make thousands of dollars fighting them. Bettelheim’s suggestion that our culture impoverishes children’s fantasy life deserves practical recognition. His claim that fairy stories enable children to confront, rather than to escape from or be defeated by, fundamental human predicaments—loneliness, jealousy, death—is attractive to anyone who believes that, on a higher level and in a more complex fashion, fine literature is analogously didactic. By imaginatively living through the course of a novel or play one learns useful truths of human existence. The bizarre, absurd, and surreal elements so prevalent in our “serious” fiction too often are but cheap disguises for imaginative poverty of writer and reader. The popularity in our novels of the monologue form seems likewise symptomatic of an enfeeblement of fictionalizing energy, which does not recount but transmutes so that a strong reader (as Bloom would call her) may enjoy re-transforming.

Cover of the first paperback edition
of Orsinian Tales (Bantam, 1977)
To me, science fiction is best when it exuberantly pretends freakishness to work back toward the essential nature of fiction. One of my sister’s early novels treated a planet where “winter” lasted many years. She has never lived in an extremely cold climate, and anyone who has might notice her unfamiliarity with the details of existence dominated by the sub-zero. Yet her descriptions are fictionally effective, for fiction only seems to remind us of actual existence. It invents possibilities of experience which, if we give ourselves to them, that is, respond imaginatively to them, enable us to return to actuality as more competent human (e.g., moral) organisms. So I would urge the fifteen graduate students who doubtless are busy writing dissertations on Le Guin not to seek in Bulgaria for the setting of “Brothers and Sisters.” The curious growthless plain of limestone quarries is not East of the Sun and West of the Moon, just a little south of Zembla and north of Graustark.

Similar coordinates are needed to locate the following description.

They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days and ran down their stems in green cascades. On older trees still than these huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs. Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum. The leaf was deformed, the curve was crippled, the taper was interrupted; the lichen ate the vigor of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling.

A pilgrim looking for this landscape in southern England is farther off the track than an enthusiast finding prototypes for Theodore Sturgeon. The Woodlanders wouldn’t be worth reading if it only reported what a dope with a camera could photograph. “Brothers and Sisters” isn’t, I think, essentially different from Le Guinian star treks, though its superficial “realism” may indicate my sister’s growing confidence that her readers can be trusted to use their imaginations, to appreciate that fictional reality is fantasy.

I hope so, for such confidence would imply a reviving sense for the utility of literature. Here I can call on the testimony of a fellow immigrant to Brooklyn (unimaginative people come from Brooklyn):  “these things are important not because a/ high-sounding interpretation can be put on them but because they are/ useful.” Miss Moore, like Pooh, referred to poetry, but her words are equally applicable to the transformations of prose. As when, talking baseball, she said she was impressed at how the Dodgers’ catcher “could throw the ball all the way to second base with just one hand.”

In an unambiguous utopia, all novels would be written that way.

Originally published in The Little Magazine (Summer 1976). Reprinted in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia (Library of America, 2016), pages 586–88. Copyright © 1976 by Karl Kroeber. Published by arrangement with Jean T. Kroeber. All rights reserved.

This selection is used by permission. To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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