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The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy…

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7391619,573 (4.23)41
A collection of twenty-four essays concerned with writing in general, the field of fantasy and science fiction, and with the author's own writing.

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» See also 41 mentions

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This book is a collection of talks and essays Ursula K. LeGuin. Even if you're not a writer of fantasy or science fiction--which I'm not--this is a good how-to book for learning how to incorporate fantastical elements into a story in such a way the reader is willing to go along with the writer.

One of the best quotes from the book covers writing of all types: "You head for Perfection and you may very well get trash. But you head toward trash, and by gum, you always get it." (page 225) ( )
  Cheryl.Russell | May 25, 2019 |
(Original Review, 1981-04-01)

My understanding of close reading was what I described in another review gleaning from Empson, and I never intended to dismiss the idea of finding archetypes in literary characters. As far as that goes, I might put myself much closer to the other extreme and be tempted to say: every story contains archetypes because we have nothing else to tell stories about; even non-fiction stories are told primarily if not exclusively about real people who embody archetypes.

I’m now reading a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Language of the Night,” and she offers an interesting take on many of these issues from the writer’s point of view. She acknowledges the appearance of archetypes in her stories, but, with what she considers her best work, the story comes from within her and only after it is written does she recognize the archetype that inspired it:

“The writer who draws not upon the works and thoughts of others, but upon his own thoughts and his own deep being, will inevitably hit upon common material. The more original his work, the more imperiously recognizable it will be.”

Here she is on symbols and meaning in literature:

“In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing courses the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does this Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.

Even when they begin to realize that art is not something for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence).”

SF (Speculative Fiction) was the realm where nerdish white boys went to dream of swords and D-cups. (Yes, that is very unfair. I must be slandering at least 1 1/2% of my fellow geeks.) Now it's no longer just boys & men but also girls & women who have discovered how much fun you can have in these genres. So give it some time and the whole community, from the bottom up, will change. Some dinosaurs won't - no: don't - like it and they will complain about the newcomers trying to take their swords and D-cups away. We already see that in the world of gaming and comics. One word of advice to the dinosaurs: comet. No, I think it is unlikely a cabal of females will come to your house and slit your throats with magic swords or strangle you with their bras*. You will just become more and more irrelevant. A group of moaning old-timers who are Fantasy & SF's equivalent of the Creation Museum. I don’t care about the gender of the writer; what I care about is the quality of what they write. If it’s crap, I’ll give them hell as I usually do [2018 EDIT: I’m still doing it… there has been no shortage in the last decades of absolutely brilliant women writing SF. There has, however, been a noticeable increase in the number of titles unambiguously written by women. This increase deserves examination. While there are still very good women writing science-fiction and fantasy, I do think that the number of poorly written books being published seems to be increasing. I think the market has expanded, and publishers are less likely to devote resources for editing. The recent surge of women writing means that women are disproportionately affected by that lack of editing. This is particularly true in Fantasy, as opposed to Science-Fiction, as Fantasy allows more discretion over the rules of the Universe (one can always resolve a plot issue through magic, “deus ex deus”, if you will). Science-Fiction requires a higher degree of internal consistency (“Deus-ex-machina” requires a machina, after all). Again, poorer editorship then has a disproportionate effect on the incoming women writers of Fantasy. To be clear, poor editorship effects both genders and both genres, but hits disproportionately against women writing in Fantasy].

NB: (*) Which might actually come as a disappointment to many a hardcore nerd: sorry (Nah. Not really).

NB: Both quotes from the essay “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction”.

[2018 EDIT: I'm still slightly in shock. Ursula Le Guin was simply one of my favourite writers; a constant companion throughout my reading life. Everything she wrote is worth reading. However perhaps it's worth going beyond these same things that everyone recommends (excellent though they are) to work that people don't read enough or underrate. You could read the Hainish novels. “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed” aren't the first of these. City of Illusions (1967) is perhaps the most Taoist of them all, and does provide a kind of underpinning for many of the others. For my money, the novella, “The Word for World is Forest” (1976), is also one of the best: a brilliant anti-colonial eco-political fable. Then there are her short stories. And don’t get me started on Earthsea…] ( )
  antao | Dec 8, 2018 |
Every person who is a writer, or who wants to be a writer, should not only read this book but should keep it on their desk - full of sentences underlined and notes in paragraphs. I submit this is an essential read. ( )
  mysterymax | Jun 19, 2018 |
The essays by Le Guin in this book are mostly forty years old, but still well worth reading. Le Guin's thoughts and concerns about literature are thought-provoking, insightful and well thought out. ( )
  nmele | Sep 9, 2017 |
This was another very interesting non-fiction book by Le Guin. If you read much in ANY genre, this book will make you think about genre itself in new ways. If you do academic work with literature, this is definitely even more worth it.

Reread some of this in late 2012. ( )
  amaraduende | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ursula K. Le Guinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wood, SusanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wood, SusanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Susan Wood
Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians.
A Citizen of Mondath
One evening when I was about twelve I was looking through the living room bookshelves for something to read, and pulled out a little Modern Library book, in the old limp leather binding; it had a queer title, A Dreamer's Tales.
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A Nebula and Hugo Award-winning writer of science fiction presents a collection of essays that explores the various issues, concepts, challenges, and paradoxes that confront the science fiction writer.
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