Book Review: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

The loss of Le Guin was like having my grandmother die last year all over again. She was such a comforting presence that it is hard to imagine the world without her. But her death sparked people to post so much about her — quotes, pictures, book covers —  that I soon realized how little of hers I’d actually read. This was a small and approachable book that I inter-library loaned. I read it more for her insights into the publishing world and literature. They are in there, between the long quotes from other stories given as prime examples of this or that (securing the copyright for those excerpts must have been chore) and the contrived writing exercises.

I mostly ignored the exercises in the book, though I did read over some. This book is based on a workshop she would do. I’m not convinced I would have liked attending her workshop. Or any workshop. I’m not fond of the movement toward workshops or this “literary community” that Daniel Green has expertly critiqued (I mean, some of the best stories in our history were never workshopped or written by authors who attended workshops). The novel and the short story been around much longer than the creative writing class.

That was my bias going into this. However, if you’re going to read a book about workshopping, it might as well be one from Le Guin. That’s what I say.

But between the exercises are these little windows of opinion. I particularly enjoyed how she took down those who tell us not to write in the passive voice:

“There’s no such thing as ‘the passive tense.’ Passive and active aren’t tenses, they’re modes of the verb. Each mode is useful and correct where appropriate. Good writers use both.”

Her observations about sexism in writing were also what made this book worth reading. She talks a bit about how, when she started writing, she tried to write as if she were a man and how that changed her voice. How, when she stopped doing that, her stories and narration changed. Her story’s perspective changed. She talks about how women are reviewed (unfairly) in comparison to men. How the literary novel is viewed as some sort of hyper-feminine thing even when men do it and so men try to change how they approach the literary. How women are “supposed” to write for certain audiences. How the way we write is often inherently filled with sexist history and penchants:

“‘Rules’ about keeping paragraphs and sentences short often come from the kind of writer who boasts, ‘If I write a sentence that sounds literary, I throw it out,’ but who writes his mysteries or thrillers in the stripped-down, tight-lipped, macho style – a self-consciously literary mannerism if there ever was one.”

I do recommend this book if you are mourning Le Guin.

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