In my most popular poem, ‘Sex Tips for Literary Bad Boys’, I reference Ursula Le Guin as the most-likely favourite novelist of the gently chauvinistic “literary male”. I felt comfortable doing that as I had only read one Le Guin before, and I fucking hated it.
It was one of her sci-fi novels with a very overstated political message, and I found its comically-clear attempt at influencing the minds of its readers very off-putting.
I didn’t like the idea of it – I found the plot too obviously allegorical to invite engagement, and I found its message (championing care and community as opposed to aggressive individualism) rather unrevelatory: I know the ills of the capitalist society we live in, and being treated as if the parallels with reality were meant to be subtle made me feel patronised.
Then again, though, I probably wasn’t the fucking target demographic, was I? I’m not a right-wing misogynist North American from the mid-20th century who reads sci-fi for escape from an unhappy reality I will never acknowledge is the result of anti-socialist (and thus anti-social) political movements that I happily support, am I? No.
I’m already, politically, on Le Guin’s side (note to self: look up and confirm this before publishing this post in case it turned out that she was also extremely racist/homophobic etc.), and thus reading a novel that is meant to subtly influence a political position vastly distant from my own using only narrative analogy felt pointless. Also I don’t really like science fiction that doesn’t have time travel in. Also I was incredibly fucking depressed when I read it, so there were multiple factors working against it.
All this meant that I didn’t expect to ever read another book by Ursula Le Guin, but then I found a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea in the street during that long summer of 2018 – as far away as the world will likely ever be from two seasons of Game of Thrones/Game of Thrones spin-offs – so I picked it up and took it with me to Spain, then read it in fits and bursts as I drove back from Barcelona to Madrid to Bilbao to London (that last journey during one punishing 14 hour day, extended by a #giletjaune protest just outside Calais), finishing it finally while sat on the familiar Victoria line on a late December afternoon. This introduction is too long. A Wizard of Earthsea is not.
I’m back in London for about 36 hours and feeling myself quickly ooze towards depression. It is grey, so grey here. Not like Spain. Not like Spain.
Overcast, it is cold and dribbling little pissy waterdrops from the sky. It’s too cold, too wet, and I have too many bad memories of almost every single street in this fucking city to feel happy or relaxed walking around it. Worse than that, though, is that I’m leaving it to go onwards to the only place I’ve ever been almost as unhappy: the grey, damp, West Midlands. For obvious reasons, my teenage lows were never as low as my London lows (because I was but a teenager and naive as to the world), but it is not a place I associate with any kind of happiness.
Guffawing in childish naïveté at best, bar a few (tainted) pleasant moments during high school, the Birmingham commuter belt is the only other place in the world I explicitly don’t want to be right now, and it is the only other place I will be for the next week. It feels like failing, because in many ways it is. I am in England, and all I have achieved is one thin book of poetry and a couple of bylines on the Metro’s website – it isn’t quite nothing, but at 30 years old it’s certainly not much.
I needed, then, some escapism from this great, grey city of my past but likely not my future… I needed something where the “threat” was unrealistic, where the protagonist was experiencing no peril or anguish as a result of unpleasant class-conflict or the cruel effects of physical decline and degenerative illness. I wanted magic and dragons, and though I would have preferred it with a smattering of hyper-violence and some heady flirting (i.e. Game of Thrones), A Wizard of Earthsea did the fucking job. In fact, I really enjoyed it. I want to read its sequel. I think I want to read more books about things that aren’t real.
Maybe I’ve secretly always wanted this for myself: maybe I’d have dived into a fantasy novel sooner if I’d seen any since childhood that didn’t look like they’d take more than like twenty hours to read. I hate long books. Please do recommend me short fantasy novels and I will eat them up: I think this will be my 2019 resolution.
Because I really fucking enjoy – like everyone basic, I fucking get that – Game of Thrones the TV show, and maybe I would have enjoyed reading Game of Thrones the book if it wasn’t a million pages long. Maybe not, though, maybe I had to wait until I was weak and vulnerable and tired enough to allow my glorious literary mind to be sullied by this family-friendly fairy tale… But weakness or slip or error or not, I’m glad I did read this Le Guin, because though A Wizard of Earthsea doesn’t have any meaningful literary value, it is far from unenjoyable and the kind of film or TV series I would feel no shame in watching when hungover/drunk/depressed, the three unwelcome states that still constitute too much of my life.
A Wizard of Earthsea is about a young wizard becoming powerful. It is sweet and it is fun and it is scary and it is great. It’s not literature, it’s not life-changing, it’s not “the best thing I’ve ever read”, but it’s well-constructed, it’s escapist, and it’s about as far as you can get from Christmas in a boring town with depressingly ailing relatives. It’s a little treat book, like a tasty chocolaty treat: you couldn’t live off it, you couldn’t read it every day, every week, or even every month, but I certainly enjoyed the experience and will likely return for more of the genre, as long as it’s short.
Recommended, surprisingly! (Look, no spoilers!)
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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Life is full of surprises. After reading your review of The Dispossesed, I thought you will never even touch a Le Guin book. Glad you liked it!
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