(1929-2018)

Who Was Ursula K. Le Guin?

Acclaimed writer Ursula K Le Guin struggled initially to be published in the mainstream fiction world, but her first three novels, Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, put her on the sci-fi map. In 2008, 40 years later, Le Guin made literary news with Lavinia, a metatextual examination of a minor character from Virgil's Aeneid. Le Guin was also widely known for her globally popular Earthsea fantasy series. She wrote essays on fantasy fiction and feminist issues as well, and was awarded the Living Legend Medal by the Library of Congress, among a plethora of career honors.

Background and Early Life

Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber on October 21, 1929, in Berkeley, California, the youngest child and only girl among four siblings. Her mother, Theodora, was a writer who chronicled the life of the last Yahi tribe member, Ishi, while her father, Alfred, was a celebrated anthropologist. Le Guin was raised in a household in which the exploration of art, ideas and cultures was encouraged, with members of the Native-American community becoming well known to the family.

A lover of mythology, Le Guin went on to attend Radcliffe College, and later graduated with an MA from Columbia University. She wed historian and fellow Fulbright scholar Charles Le Guin in December 1953 some months after the two met on a maritime voyage to France.

'Left Hand of Darkness'

Le Guin would later recount that she faced years of rejection from mainstream publishers while plying her trade as a writer. She eventually turned to the genres of science fiction and fantasy and found acceptance. In 1966, Le Guin published the novel Rocannon’s World, which places the planet Hain as the birthplace of humanity and thus became the first of several books that are part of the “Hainish Cycle.” Among the later titles in the cycle are The Word for World Is Forest (a 1972 outing that invited later comparison by critics to the James Cameron film Avatar), The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) and The Telling (2000). (The author stated the later novels in the cycle don’t have to be read in a particular order.)

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the fourth book of the Hainish Cycle after Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967), became one of Le Guin’s most acclaimed and trailblazing works. A ponderous narrative, Darkness profiles the Gethenians, an alien race who have no fixed gender characteristics until the time of monthly mating, with the novel also contrasting the social mores of two nations in conflict. The book was eventually lauded as a visionary classic and won both Nebula and Hugo awards.

Globally Popular 'Earthsea'

After a request from a publisher, Le Guin turned to the world of young adult audiences and released A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968, following the travails of student wizard Sparrowhawk in a tempestuous archipelago locale. With visceral descriptions of magic and physical terrain (and a quieter precursor to the commercial juggernaut of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts), Earthsea became a renowned series as seen with the follow-up works The Tombs of Atuan (1970), The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), as well as Tales From Earthsea (2001) and The Other Wind (2001), the final novel in the series. The Earthsea books have reportedly sold millions of copies worldwide. Though the series is geared towards teen audiences, adult readers have taken to them as well, as the works are noted for their emotional maturity and depth.

Array of Honors

Le Guin published additional books for children, such as her Catwings Series, along with short story collections, poetry, essays and adult speculative fiction. She became one of the most decorated writers in publishing, winning multiple Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a National Book Award and the Kafka Prize, among many other honors. In later years, Le Guin retired from teaching and writing outside of poetry. She also courted controversy, staunchly critiquing online entities like Amazon and Google for their influence on how books are sold and consumed in the new millennium.

Le Guin was concerned with nurturing up-and-coming writers, as seen with advice given via the online blog Book View Café. She penned the 1998 nonfiction book Steering the Craft: A 21-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.

In September 2016, the Library of America published from Le Guin The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena, Stories and Songs, focusing on a novel unbeknownst to the general public.

Personal Life

The Le Guins had three children and settled in Portland, Oregon, where they lived for decades. Though brought up in a non-religious household, Le Guin took to the Eastern spiritual traditions of Taoism and Buddhism. Of her personal spirituality, she said, "Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business."

Death

Le Guin died at her Portland home on January 22, 2018, at age 88. No cause was immediately named, though one of her sons said she had been in poor health for months.

The tributes came pouring in, with other writers paying respects to one of the most influential figures in the literary world from the past 50 years. Tweeted Stephen King: "Ursula K. LeGuin, one of the greats, has passed. Not just a science fiction writer; a literary icon. Godspeed into the galaxy."


QUICK FACTS

  • Birth Year: 1929
  • Birth date: October 21, 1929
  • Birth State: California
  • Birth City: Berkeley
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: Ursula K. Le Guin was an iconic writer known for her science-fiction and high fantasy works as well as her essays. Her published books include 'City of Illusions,' 'The Left Hand of Darkness' and the 'Earthsea' series.
  • Industries
    • Fiction and Poetry
    • Journalism and Nonfiction
  • Astrological Sign: Libra
  • Schools
    • Columbia University
    • Radcliffe College
  • Death Year: 2018
  • Death date: January 22, 2018
  • Death State: Oregon
  • Death City: Portland

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CITATION INFORMATION

  • Article Title: Ursula K. Le Guin Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/ursula-k-le-guin
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: November 16, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014

QUOTES

  • ...where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.
  • The words that I work in are the words of the story. I'm not a philosopher. I'm not a moralist…. My responsibility is to my art and to the people who perceive it, the readers. That's an aesthetic responsibility and if it's aesthetically right, then it will probably also be morally right. I'm saying what Keats said. I'm saying ‘Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.’ That's a very rash statement. But it goes so deep in me that I just can't get around it.
  • I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.
  • I published as a genre writer when genre was not literature. I paid the price, you could say. Don DeLillo, who comes off as literary without question, takes the [1985 National Book Award] over me because I published in genre and he didn’t. Also, he’s a man and I’m a woman.
  • Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business.
  • It took me so long to get my fiction published—years and years of submitting and rejection, submitting and rejection—that I was getting a little desperate. I was beginning to wonder, Am I just writing for my attic? And I deliberately wrote a fantasy story, a genre story, to see if I could sell it.
  • ...I came into science fiction at a very good time, when the doors were getting thrown open to all kinds of more experimental writing, more literary writing, riskier writing. It wasn’t all imitation Heinlein or Asimov. And of course, women were creeping in, infiltrating.
  • Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé! Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.
  • Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies—it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.
  • ...once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that? I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.
  • Anybody can write. You know, one of my daughters teaches writing at a community college. She teaches kids how to put sentences together, and then make the sentences hang together so that they can express themselves in writing as well as they do in speaking. Anybody with a normal IQ can manage that. But saying anybody can be a writer is kind of like saying anybody can compose a sonata. Oh, forget it! In any art, there is an initial gift that had to be there. I don't know how big it has to be, but it's got to be there.
  • I think there are writers who don't enjoy writing, and I feel sorry for them. I love it. I don't care how hard the work is. I would rather be writing than not writing, that's all there is to it.
  • Doing two jobs is hard enough, but doing three is just impossible. And that's essentially what an awful lot of women who wanted to write were being asked to do: support themselves, keep the family and household going, and write.
  • ...a lot of people don’t hear their writing, and it never occurred to them that they should. We used to recite and to have to learn poems in school. All that seems to be gone. Reading aloud is not something that people seem to do much anymore, though just about everyone seems to enjoy being read to. It’s like the page has fallen silent. And I think a writer needs to be able to hear the page they’re writing. And to speak a sentence out loud you often hear, It’s going clunk right there.
  • People who meet and read each other’s writing, who meet and critique and talk about it, it’s something that did not exist when I was a young writer. I’ve seen it work. I’ve been in groups; I’m in a poetry group now. It’s simply very nourishing and very useful. It kind of keeps your eyes on the work. And you get feedback. It takes writers out of their writer’s loneliness—it makes it a bit more like being a musician, where you do it with other people.
  • My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it