Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their
lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live
in the daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like
poetry, speaks the language of the night.
An acquaintance directed me to an article
recently, which led me to another (better) article,
which referenced an essay by Ursula K Le Guin called “Science Fiction
and Mrs. Brown.” The topic of the essay intrigued me, and so I went
looking for it. I had gone out of my way to acquire a bunch of Le Guin
non-fiction a few years back, and I quickly located the essay in a
collection called Language of the Night, which had been sitting on my
shelf for almost four years. The essay was so good that I decided to
read the entire book cover to cover.
Seven years ago, when I got serious about my writing and was looking for
resources to help me understand and hone my craft, the primary advice I
received was to read Steven King’s On Writing. I found that book next
to useless. Language of the Night, on the the other hand is a treasure
trove. Le Guin reinforces many principles that I have learned the hard
way over the last seven years.
One example is that writing is a very ‘free and open’ craft. There are
very few rules. Each writer has to make up their own structural rules,
their own style. Attentive readers can tell immediately when one’s style
is stilted or awkward, or if one violates (knowingly or not) the
patterns one builds within a work. A dictionary and basic grammar
reference contain the only hard and fast rules. Everything else is a
matter of style.
Another major thread that my reinforces my experience is that of science
fiction and fantasy being themselves primarily literature. Despite genre
traditionalists who snub their nose at the genres, and despite pressures
from within to keep SF/F as stylistically and intellectually decrepit it
was during the so-called “golden age of science fiction” (more of a dark
age, if you ask me), science fiction and fantasy are primarily literary
genres, which reward intellectual investigation.
And finally, the essay “The Stalin in the Soul” is a superb exploration
of what it means to be free as a writer. Its principles are especially
important to remember in the age of digital publishing and Amazon
advertisements, Kindle free days, and all such things. Freedom does not
just mean the lack of a censor. People can censor themselves. If the
writers spends all their time optimizing their categories and their
keywords, and crafting their writing to the market, and spending their
money on digital advertising—all that is time and resources that they
weren’t using to craft something expressive, something nuanced,
something complex, something important. A writer doesn’t need a Stalin
throwing them into a gulag in order to end up in a situation where they
have never written the work that only they can write. We all carry
around the ability to oppress ourselves.
This isn’t to say that I’m against digital publishing or Kindle sales or
anything like that (I just completed a Kindle sale, for those who are
keeping track). What is important is to remember that these activities
are only useful in as much as they support us in the really important
work of producing the best stories we possibly can and communicating
those stories to readers. We, as writers, should grow attentive of
ourselves and learn to recognize when we are sliding into the unhealthy
habits of focusing primarily on promotion, attention, and/or money
rather than the writing.
I own the 1989 hardcover edition of Language of the Night. This
unfortunately appears to be the last printing, which is really too bad,
because this is easily the best book on the craft of writing I have ever