Sunday, February 25, 2024

Quoits

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: Five Novels

Ch√Ľn Quoit, in western Cornwall, England. Originally covered by a barrow of dirt and rocks measuring about 35 feet across, this burial site was built around 2400 BC. The capstone measures 10 feet in diameter. Photograph by Jim Champion (treehouse1977, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0).
Ursula K. Le Guin finished the manuscript for Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand in 1991 and sent it off to Marion S. (Buz) Wyeth, Jr. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate in having Buz Wyeth as my editor,” she said during an interview at the time. “What I do, Buz will take. And he’s never said, ‘Do another this or that.’” Yet Wyeth, his colleagues at HarperCollins, and many American critics apparently did not know what to make of this new book by one of world’s most famous writers of science fiction and fantasy. A collection of interconnected stories, Searoad focused on moments in the lives of various women (and a few men) living in a small town in northwest Oregon, without so much as a hint of dragon-taming wizards, otherworldly dystopias, or space travel. “People didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “It didn’t fit any particular category.”

During an interview with William Walsh published in the Kenyon Review in 1995, she recalled the challenges that confronted her:
If men are at the center of the book it’s considered to be of general interest to the reader. If women are at the center of the book, it is considered to be of interest to women. Searoad—the book you have with you—I had to fight my own publisher from saying it was a book about women for women, and only women could possibly be interested in it. I said, “My God, my sales are generally pretty good. Shall we not try to cut them in half by saying stay away from this book, boys, you’ll hate it?” In Searoad there are women who don’t seem able to keep men in their lives or don’t have very good luck with men, women who live alone. I think that’s what some of the reviewers and my editor homed in on, and why they said this is all about women. So what?
In the three decades since its publication, Searoad has attracted a coterie of discerning readers who laud it as an overlooked gem. Among them is science fiction critic Carl Freedman, who interviewed Le Guin in 2008 and remarked on how her imagined Oregon town was “not a utopia, but perhaps it could be called a ‘topia,’ because the sense of place is very strong and very important for the overall effect of the book.” Comparing it to previous American story cycles, including Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, he asked what opportunities the format presented to the writer. Le Guin responded with a description of how the book (a “story suite, as I have come to call it”) evolved:
[A] perfect example of a topia is the (very British) Victorian story cycle Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which probably helped Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine write her Country of the Pointed Firs. Because these books are important to me, I had in fact thought of the story cycle as probably being predominantly a feminine form. (I know the Anderson and admire it, but am ignorant of the Hemingway and Faulkner.) . . .

My experience is this: As I began to write them, the stories were connected only by place, or by certain characters. But as I went on writing them the stories began consciously to interconnect and inter-implicate, forming by the end something that is unmistakably a whole thing: not exactly a novel, yet achieving very much what the novel achieves, by a slightly different method. (I should guess that this is how Cranford and Country of the Pointed Firs were written, too.)

This is how Searoad came to be, and by the third story at latest I was fully conscious that I was writing not just a story but part of a book. . . .
Brian Attebery, the editor of the Library of America’s multivolume edition of Le Guin’s fiction, recently remarked, “In Le Guin’s hands, characterization is a form of world-building, even in a more-or-less realistic work like Searoad. The coastal village of that novel turns out to be a kind of multiverse. Characters interact across gulfs of difference. Conversations between neighbors might as well be conducted via Le Guin’s invented interstellar communication device, the ansible.” Or, as Le Guin told Freedman, “I don’t feel that writing sf is in any important way different from writing fantasy, nor from writing realistic fiction, for that matter. You have to construct, sort out, select your fictional world, whether it is a made-up planet, a fantasy kingdom, a utopia, Russia in 1812, or a contemporary town on the Oregon coast. The process is much the same. The degree of invention may vary somewhat, but after all we do not literally invent; we can only recombine.”

Searoad is included in Five Novels, the latest volume in the LOA Le Guin edition. One of the stories in the suite that (judging from comments in online forums) seems to have resonated most strongly with readers is “Quoits,” which we present below.

Notes: MacNeill and Lacey is Le Guin’s wry conflation of the detective series Cagney and Lacey with the PBS news show The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. The final scene of Romeo and Juliet takes place in the Capulet family tomb; by the end, Romeo, Juliet, and Juliet’s vengeful cousin, Tybalt, all lie dead. Black Elk Speaks is a book published in 1932 by American poet and amateur ethnographer John G. Neihardt and is loosely based on his conversations with Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk; it became widely read by New Age groups. The two italicized lines of poetry (Out of her grave . . . and They twined into a true lovers’ knot . . .) are from a stanza found in some versions of the traditional folk song “Barbara Allen.” In 1989, the Conservative government of England, led by Margaret Thatcher, sold off public water systems to corporations. In Ebenezer Scrooge’s vision of his own funeral in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), two women sell his bed sheets in a rag-and-bone shop. Off Our Backs was an American feminist periodical that ran from 1970 to 2008. The American poet Adrienne Rich was a classmate of Le Guin’s at Radcliffe College.

*   *   *
The days after Barbara ’s death had not been a period of time but a place of a certain shape, a place where Shirley had to crouch down and hold still because it was the only thing to do . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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