Ursula K. Le Guin vs. the Shock of the New

The Oregonian recently profiled Ursula K. Le Guin, who at 80 is still writing (albeit more poetry than fiction) and has taken on a prominent role in protesting the Google book settlement. Her age keeps her from teaching like she used to, but she adds that her health isn’t the only thing that holds her back from leading a classroom:

“[T]here is also that gap between the young student and the old teacher, which all teachers, if they’re honest, worry about,” she says. “The language has begun to change, literally. You may be going along saying things that are perfectly clear to you and they don’t know what you’re saying, and vice versa.”

Given her concern about copyright, stories like “The Free-Appropriation Artist” in the New York Times may justify her wariness; she’s concerned about the sanctity of the author at a time when more attention is drawn toward people who are actively trying to undo it. The Times story revisits the much-discussed recent cases of German novelist Helene Hegemann and novelist-essayist David Shields, both of whom are getting attention for testing the boundaries of fair use and freely borrowing from other texts. Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, lobbies hard for a literary culture that does more heavy borrowing and mash-ups, and I’m a little skeptical about how pioneering or promising that idea is. (Though to be fair, Shields isn’t arguing he’s doing something brand-new—just that writers ought to be doing a lot more experimenting in this space then they have.)

Le Guin has reasons to resist; in recent years she’s expressed disappointment that she didn’t get enough credit as an influence on the Harry Potter series. But she may not be as far removed from the new enthusiasm for heavy borrowing as her complaints about J.K. Rowling suggest. In a 1982 interview with the Missouri Review, she discussed her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven in the context of how science fiction thrives on such mixing and matching:

You could almost call it, “Homage a Dick.” I was openly, I trust, acknowledging the influence. My approach was like saying, “This is one great way to write a novel, invented by Philip K. Dick.” That’s one thing about science fiction: writers in the genres are less uptight about imitation and emulation than “mainstream” people. Writing should really be more like music, with its healthy spirit of borrowing—as in the period of Bach, as in all healthy artistic periods. Everybody borrowing from each others’ tunes and ideas like crazy and nobody worrying. There’s plenty of music to go around.

But that quote is easily accessible on Google Books, so perhaps Le Guin might have a problem with it?

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