March 10, 2015
Kazuo Ishiguro is worried; Ursula K. Le Guin is pissed
by Taylor Sperry
Kazuo Ishiguro ruffled some feathers recently when he told Alexandra Alter, in an interview for The New York Times, that he was worried his readers would perceive his newest book, The Buried Giant, as fantasy–that they wouldn’t follow him where he was trying to go.
This anxiety, while not particularly interesting, is fair for any writer a) in general and b) who’s somehow departing from the kinds of books he’d been publishing so successfully in the past. (And, according to Michiko Kakutani, at least, he’s right to be nervous: “Mr. Ishiguro seems to have renounced the qualities—precision, elliptical understatement and indirection—that lent his two masterworks, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, a tensile strength, and he’s instead embraced a fablelike primitivism that hobbles his instinctive talents,” she writes for the TBR. Oof.) Nobody’s arguing that The Buried Giant isn’t different from his previous works, but some are interpreting his comments as a slam against science fiction and fantasy in general.
Notable among the offended was, of course, Ursula K. Le Guin, the very brilliant, very beloved, and frequently outspoken defender of genre fiction. Her most notorious squabbles have been with Margaret Atwood, who rejects the terms “fantasy” and “science fiction” (she famously characterized the latter as “talking squids in outer space”) to describe her work, preferring instead “Ustopia,” a word she “made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite.” (It’s amusing to read Le Guin’s and Atwood’s praise of each other’s work while they simultaneously engage in a game of literary hot potato with the phrase “science fiction.”)
But for the moment Le Guin has taken issue with Ishiguro, whose comments she described as “insulting” in her very heated post on Book View Cafe last week:
Familiar folktale and legendary ‘surface elements’ in Mr. Ishiguro’s novel are too obvious to blink away, but since he is a very famous novelist, I am sure reviewers who share his prejudice will never suggest that he has polluted his authorial gravitas with the childish whims of fantasy.
Respect for his readers should assure him that, whatever the book is, they will honestly try to follow him and understand what he was trying to do.
I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre—far less its profound capacities—for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”
For his part, Ishiguro said at a reading in London on Sunday that he “had no idea this was going to be such an issue;” he thought Le Guin had been “a little bit hasty in nominating [him] as the latest enemy for her own agenda.”
Elsewhere Le Guin’s defense of science fiction and fantasy writers is more persuasive, less reactionary, more powerful in scope–as in this terrific interview for The Paris Review and the incredible speech, below, that she delivered at the National Book Awards in November, when she accepted the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.