She was one of the people who taught me what good writing was. I read mostly SF as a kid. Nothing against SF. But a lot of it is … terrible. We know this. When I read LeGuin I suddenly saw what English could do when a writer actually cared about the words on the page, where they sat, how they sounded. I couldn’t believe it. Her sentences were more exciting than most people’s space battles.
The famous books are famous justly. The Dispossessed. The Left Hand of Darkness. A Wizard of Earthsea. (And when you’re talking about words on the page, think about how much more right that title is with “A” instead of “The.”) Earthsea I just read again last year. I felt, at once, glad I’d gotten to read it as a kid, but equally glad I’d come back to it as an adult so I could understand it in full. Maybe 20 years from now I’ll read it again and say, “I’m sure glad I read it again — now I finally get it.”
(Here’s David Carlton on Earthsea.)
But the one I read down to shreds was her anthology The Compass Rose. Especially “The New Atlantis.” And hey look, the full text is online!
When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be a writer but probably really I just wanted to be the writer of this story. I wrote a dozen crappy versions of it, each of which I thought of as original. Looking at it now, I can hardly find a paragraph I didn’t rip off at some point. I mean, just:
There was an electrified fence all around the forest to keep out unauthorized persons. The forest ranger talked about mountain jays, “bold little robbers,” he said, “who will come and snatch the sandwich from your very hand,” but I didn’t see any. Perhaps because that was the weekly Watch Those Surplus Calories! Day for all the women, and so we didn’t have any sandwiches. If I’d seen a mountain jay, I might have snatched the sandwich from his very hand, who knows.
It’s a small thing, I know, but this is how I learned an effect I don’t even have a name for. Repeating a phrase but the phrase is delivered in two different voices. It can be comic or it can be spooky, or, as here, it can be both. I ripped it off from Ursula LeGuin as I ripped off so much else. RIP.