ENG 333 Seminar: Major British or American Writer: Ursula K. Le Guin

William Oram, T 3:00 PM-4:50 PM

 Ursula K. Le Guin is arguably the best writer of science fiction and fantasy over the past fifty years.   Her career itself is long—she began publishing in the early nineteen sixties—and varied: it includes novels, (mainstream fiction as well as the science fiction and fantasy for which she is known) short story collections, poetry, essays, translations. While the course will focus on her novels, it will also try to introduce students to these other genres—the more easily because some of her books embrace an anthology-form. Her writing and her views on a number of matters have changed in interesting ways, so that a chronological study of her work illuminates her remarkable development and her remarkable persistence.  She is a fearless writer, able to look at directly at evil and keep a sense of humor.

            The course will put primary emphasis on the novels, in which many of her particular gifts show most clearly.  While there are great differences from work to work, there will be certain leitmotivs: her political activism and with that her wary utopianism; her interrogative treatment of gender; her focus, especially in the second half of her career, on the functions of story-telling; her exploration of the fear of the other, whether conceived as an alien group or a repressed aspect of the self.  These go along with the most striking capacity of her fiction, its ability to conceive an imagined society from the inside, giving one the felt experience of its life and its citizens.  This gift sets her off from pretty well every other science fiction writer that I know, and makes her utopian novel, The Dispossessed, different from other utopian fictions.  The “anthropological” richness of her work is made possible by the extraordinary verbal grace, humor and precision of her prose and her normal unwillingness simplify either character or moral judgment. 

            The course will be divided into three parts.  The first and longest focuses on Le Guin’s fiction in the sixties and seventies.  It will begin by reading a short novel, The Lathe of Heaven, alongside passages from her translation of the tao te ching, to suggest certain abiding concerns in her work, and will move on to her early major novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, read alongside her essays, related short stories, and work by her critics and interpreters.  The section ends with Le Guin’s most important fantasy work, the initial Earthsea trilogy. The second part will turn to the writing of the late seventies and eighties, treating a volume of Le Guin’s poetry, Hard Words, and Always Coming Home, an ambitious utopian work attempting to imagine a future society after an unspecified global catastrophe.  Finally it will consider the last twenty years of Le Guin’s writing, her return after fifteen years to the Earthsea world, her thought-experiments with gender and marriage arrangements, and her attention to cultural change. 

            Students will probably keep journals of their reading for the course and for their long paper.  There will be one short (6-8 page) paper done in during the first third of the course and one long (15-20 page) paper done over the rest of the course.  Both will be done in draft and rewritten.  The range and extent of Le Guin’s work makes it ideal for a seminar paper, in which each student will discuss one or more works that the class has not read in relation to one or more that it has.

            I’m having the class meet twice during the week, once for two hours (Tuesday) and once for an hour (Thursday) because I’d like to use the Tuesday hour for an analysis of novels, and the Thursday hour for discussion of criticism (by her or about her) and related shorter fiction.

While the critical readings and short stories below are tentative and may change, the short stories are pretty well set, except for the final week. 

Part 1  First Harvest

I.  The Lathe of Heaven.  Excerpts from Le Guin’s version of the tao te ching

II. The Left Hand of Darkness.  Critical essays by Scholes, Rabkin.

III. The Left Hand of Darkness (finish).  “Coming of Age in Karhide”; Essays: “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”; “Some Thoughts on Narrative”

IV. The Dispossessed.  Critical essays by Jameson, Urbanowicz. 

V.  The Dispossessed (finish); “The Day Before the Revolution”; “The New Atlantis;”   

VI.  Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan. Essay: “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Jung “Aion: The Phenomology of Self”

VII. The Farthest Shore.  Critical essays by Shippey and others. 

Part 2.  Middle Years

VIII.  Hard Words (poetry)

IX. Always Coming Home 

X.  Always Coming Home (finish).  “Buffalo Gals”

Part 5. Le Guin in her Sixties and Seventies

XI. Tchanu, or the Last Book of Earthsea;  Essays: “The Space Crone;” “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” 


XII.  Four Ways of Forgiveness 

XIII.  The Birthday of the World and Other Stories or Lavinia