Brooke Pollock / Daily Nexus

Ursula K. Le Guin, a titan of literature and an author committed to writing as an art form, was a master of her craft. Her works, from The Left Hand of Darkness to her EarthSea series, came onto the scene like wrecking balls during a time when women in writing, much less women in sci-fi genres, were as alien as one of the characters in her works. Her commitment to originality and integrity within American publications has left her as a guiding light for the future of American literature.

 The American public is at a critical point in its history. The unwillingness of the masses to engage with what makes them uncomfortable has led to an increase in book burnings and classroom bans on literary classics. There is a societal refusal to grapple with problems and find grounds for previously unimagined solutions and American publications aren’t dedicated to countering it, they’re capitalizing on it. Though Le Guin passed away in 2018 at the accomplished age of 88, she has never been more relevant. 

Le Guin’s works have become a model for publication houses because they refuse to play nicely with genre expectations. Le Guin did not pick a genre and format her work around meeting certain criteria, she saw a sickness within society and dissected it from all angles. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin strips away the rigidness of gender to question how notions of gender roles and male pride have contributed to nationalism and war. She did not allow her work to be minced down into quick one-liners that could be touted on the back of a book jacket. She also did not allow the current public opinion of her chosen topics, and their influence on sales, to impact what she had to say. 

 Modern publication trends are such that any success with a singular novel means that a mass production of them is imminent. Think of books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey and how their popularity led to an entire industry of the same book with the serial numbers filed off. Publication houses pounced to meet the market demand and dozens of new novels entered bookstores with the kind of rushed editing and storyline that middle schoolers are often found guilty of. It was the commoditization of genre at the expense of industry standards on originality.

 In the era of Book-Tok, where literature has been declawed and shuffled into neat categories for a quick buck, the recommitment to writing as a craft, as an art form, instead of as a business venture cannot be more relevant. Le Guin warned against the commoditization of art in her National Book Award acceptance speech, reminding her audience that “hard times are coming when we will want writers who see alternatives to how we live now and who can see through our fear stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” 

 Almost a decade after her death, Le Guin’s integrity in the industry is still a guiding light. She reminds us that the point of literature is not to be easily explained, but to be engaged with, to shrug off the trappings of modernity and convention and give readers a chance to imagine something beyond what society offers them. 

Le Guin saw conformity to expectation as a sign of failure. In an interview, she expressed her irritation with confining her to the single category of a sci-fi writer, warning “Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

 Le Guin’s writing was not concerned with giving her audiences what they expected, or even wanted. The job, as she saw it, “is to surprise them, to shake them — to turn their expectations on their heads…Because that’s when the MRI of their brain lights up, and they begin to see.” Her works like nothing more than to take the reader by the shoulders and shake them out of their stupor. 

 That is perhaps the biggest legacy that Ursula K. Le Guin has left behind: A commitment to making people see over a commitment to pleasing them.

In a society that is slowly stripping away the intellectualism of its inhabitants to replace it with consumerist desire, Le Guin’s works, and her words of wisdom, are one of the final strongholds against the exploitation of the arts. She makes readers question the whys of society, of the world. She is not in the market of allowing readers to hold on to their notions of order and hierarchy. Le Guin is committed to the art of making readers submit to the ordeal of being uncomfortable for the sake of growth. She invites you to step outside yourself and the box of conformity to participate in the idea of something bigger, something better, something almost scary in its possibility for newness. 

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin creates an entire civilization of only gender fluid individuals and lets her singular off-world character, a man, be shocked at the possibility of a world that doesn’t meet his biases and taken-for-granted notions on gender hierarchy. Le Guin forces her character, and the reader, to question everything they previously assumed about misogyny, society and its structure and to dare to begin to pull it apart and resist it. She saw the potential to use her storytelling as a subversive tool to dismantle the accepted and expected piece by piece and offer it back to the reader under a microscope. 

Her belief in the power of writing, and her candor about the state of American literature, sets her apart from her peers. Later in her national Book Award acceptance speech, she takes one final moment to offer her audience an opportunity to see. “We live in capitalism,” she acknowledges. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings…Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art.” 

It is perhaps the quintessential style of Le Guin to deliver grounds for hope in the space of a few well-chosen words.  It is testament to her engagement with writing as an art form that she can—with candor and brevity—offer her audiences the starting point to unraveling the complex tangle of society. She asks readers to question their assumptions and imagine something better. She asks her peers to set aside the allure of a quick profit to instead refine their works into something that challenges people to see

In an age where American literature has buckled under capitalist demands for the commodity of neat, easily categorized books, Ursula K. Le Guin remains a poignant reminder to let your tentacles come out of the pigeonhole in all directions. 

Haley Joseph read The Left Hand of Darkness and thinks you should, too.

A version of this article appeared on p.14 of the March 7, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.