"Reeking of Rocket Fuel and Kryptonite…"

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I must digress for a moment, with your indulgence, into the world of authors. Ursula K. LeGuin, who is NOT Madeleine L’Engle, is the author of the splendid Earthsea trilogy and one of my personal favorites, The Lathe of Heaven. One of my favorite authors of more recent vintage is Michael Chabon, who game me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

In May, Slate ran a profile of Mr. Chabon written by Ruth Franklin which was reprinted in numerous newspapers (including by chance The Jerusalem Post where I first read it). In this profile, Miss Franklin said the following…“Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” I knew those were fighting words (through no fault of Mr. Chabon’s) when I first read them in May and I wondered who would take up the gauntlet.


Miss LeGuin took up said Gauntlet this week HERE, and wrote the following. If you have an aversion to stylish, passionate, perfectly turned prose…look away now.

Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs — somebody in wet training shoes, climbing the stairs very slowly … but who? And why wet shoes? It hadn’t rained. There, again, the heavy, soggy sound. But it hadn’t rained for weeks, it was only sultry, the air close, with a cloying hint of mildew or rot, sweet rot, like very old finiocchiona, or perhaps liverwurst gone green. There, again — the slow, squelching, sucking steps, and the foul smell was stronger. Something was climbing her stairs, coming closer to her door. As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo? Had he not even understand the importance of the distinction between sci fi and counterfactual fiction? Could he not see that Cormac McCarthy — although everything in his book (except the wonderfully blatant use of an egregiously obscure vocabulary) was remarkably similar to a great many earlier works of science fiction about men crossing the country after a holocaust — could never under any circumstances be said to be a sci fi writer, because Cormac McCarthy was a serious writer and so by definition incapable of lowering himself to commit genre? Could it be that that Chabon, just because some mad fools gave him a Pulitzer, had forgotten the sacred value of the word mainstream? No, she would not look at the thing that had squelched its way into her bedroom and stood over her, reeking of rocket fuel and kryptonite, creaking like an old mansion on the moors in a wuthering wind, its brain rotting like a pear from within, dripping little grey cells through its ears. But its call on her attention was, somehow, imperative, and as it stretched out its hand to her she saw on one of the half-putrefied fingers a fiery golden ring. She moaned. How could they have buried it in such a shallow grave and then just walked away, abandoning it? “Dig it deeper, dig it deeper!” she had screamed, but they hadn’t listened to her, and now where were they, all the other serious writers and critics, when she needed them? Where was her copy of Ulysses? All she had on her bedside table was a Philip Roth novel she had been using to prop up the reading lamp. She pulled the slender volume free and raised it up between her and the ghastly golem — but it was not enough. Not even Roth could save her. The monster laid its squamous hand on her, and the ring branded her like a burning coal. Genre breathed its corpse-breath in her face, and she was lost. She was defiled. She might as well be dead. She would never, ever get invited to write for Granta now.

Oh dear Miss LeGuin….We are not WORTHY. We are not WORTHY.

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7 Comments

  1. Lord Bardhaven,

    Miss Le Guin is also one of my favorite authors, and A Wrinkle in Time is a wonderful book, but it was written by Madeleine L’Engle. (I would note that Miss Le Guin’s “Earthsea” novels are among my favorites.)

    Could you, perhaps, supply a url for Le Guin’s fine writing (as an editrix, I would note that it is at best impolite, at worst a violation of copyright, to reproduce another’s work without sourcing it or gaining permission)?

    Yrs, etc.

    Miss Hermione Fussbudget
    Baroness Wyre

  2. It has been a long day Ma’am, and I thank you for the correction. I shall make it immediately.

    Sighs.

  3. Bravo, Miss Le Guin, and thank you, Lord Bardhaven! On a personal note, Terry Goodkind and his “Sword of Truth” series is my favorite. I’m on the third straight reading of that series (12 books in all, till the last in the series comes out November 13th thereabouts).

  4. I’ve fallen in love with Miss LeGuin all over again, I think.

    And yes. “Lathe of Heaven” is brilliantly crafted, start to finish. It even makes the two attempts at bringing it to film watchable, because if nothing else, it inspires one to go find the original work and be swept away by prose.

  5. I am obscurely complimented that a slice of a photograph of my humble manse served as the masthead for this little snippet.

    Thank you very kindly for that ascerbic and wonderful prose bit from Ms. LeGuin, Sir.

  6. Ms. Ursula LeGuin is a living example of how “genre” fiction can be amazingly literary. I would put her fiction on par with any other twentieth century writer. Her use of the medium of speculative fiction in order to examine questions about our own society and conventions is truly amazing; yet she never loses sight of the fact that an author’s first duty is to Tell the Story.

  7. Ms. LeGuin is a fantastic writer. I get so tired of the whole “genre” fiction vs. “literary” fiction debate. If the writer is gifted and the story is sound, why should it matter? Really, the only ones hung up on it the most are the booksellers trying to figure out where to pigeonhole/market it. The reader just wants a great story. Period.


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