I don’t often read much non-fiction because I’m not very good at it. It just takes me too long to get through and I get stressed about it. It also tends to have chapters that are too long for me to finish before I fall asleep and finishing mid-chapter really bugs me. However, I do have plenty of non-fiction books on my shelf that need reading. So, I’m trying to ease myself gently with shorter and more digestible reads. The fact that this is also a U title for my August Spell the Month Challenge is just an added bonus. It took me longer than I expected to read this but it was a quick one. I didn’t finish it in time for Friday’s post but we got there for Monday.
I was in a bit of a quandary when it came to rating this one. On the one hand, it was an absolute joy to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s words about her craft. On the other, not all of the interviews are as engaging as the rest. This book is made up of an introduction by the editor, David Streitfeld, and then 7 interviews with the author. Of these, the majority of them are the usual question and answer format, but a couple follow more of a long-form profile style. I wasn’t a huge fan of the more narrative-based pieces because I felt that they were more focused on the interviewer than the writer. They were much less insightful in terms of Le Guin’s life or work. Instead, they spent far too long setting the scene. You can barely hear the author’s voice under the journalist’s point of view.
I much preferred getting to read Le Guin’s own words. That is, after all, the reason why we want to read something like this. Le Guin is an incredible writer and it’s fantastic to be able to get into her head for a bit. I know that plenty of writers have written about their process but I always worry that there is something a bit manufactured about that. There’s something more organic about the interview form that leads to a more natural way of speaking. In the hands of the right journalist, a writer can give away plenty of insights into their mind. With Le Guin, the best interviews in this book allow her to showcase her unique and dry sense of humour. You get an impression of the real human being underneath the reputation and it’s brilliant. You come away feeling more connected to her as a person.
Mostly because you feel as though you’re spending so much time with her. The interviews span her career so she is ageing as you read through. It’s easy to see how some of her attitudes and beliefs change. Obviously, the key stuff sticks with her throughout her life but you can see certain alterations that come from ageing. You also see how her relationships change. Her husband and children are on the periphery of this book and you see glimpses of how the family dynamic changes through the years. Yes, this isn’t an in-depth biography of the writer but it does give you enough detail to piece things together.
She is very open and honest about her feelings. There are times when she doesn’t hold back her criticism and irritation. This is one of those books that I could have highlighted everything. She expresses such ease about setting her ideas down and feels so natural talking about her career. You can feel how much she enjoyed writing and loved her books. More than anything, you see her passion and her interest. The passages in which she talks about the writers that inspired her to make her seem like any other booklover. She’s a fan of literature and just wants to do what she loves. Anyone who has any prior knowledge of her political and social leanings won’t be surprised by the parts that deal with these but it’s still enjoyable to see her tackle them. A lot of focus lands on gender and she offers some great arguments for her beliefs.
So, if this has just been a book full of Le Guin’s own words, then it would have been an easy 5-star read. However, two of the interviews just didn’t work for me. The longer articles that followed more of an essay/profile approach seemed like odd choices. On both occasions, I felt as though the author was lost and overshadowed by the journalist. The result just seems self-indulgent and unfocused. They also feel a little repetitive, which is saying something considering how many questions are repeated throughout the book. Although, this is to be expected from a writer like Le Guin. She has written some popular and iconic novels in her time, so it makes sense that they crop up a lot.
When it comes down to it, this might not be the definitive guide to Ursula K. Le Guin but it is definitely worth a read for anyone who wants to know more about her. I don’t think people give her enough credit for her humour, so I think that may surprise some readers. There are also plenty of inspirational quotations and insight into the life of a writer. Does offer any practical tips? No, but that’s not that point. Instead, we get to spend a few minutes in her head and learn more about what makes her tick. It’s a lovely way to spend a few hours.