Closer to the Source of Life

Ursula K. Le Guin, Space Crone

Silver Press, 256pp, £13.99, ISBN 9780995716278

reviewed by Sophie van Well Groeneveld

I first encountered Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction last summer. Originally published in 1986, it was reissued by Ignota Press in 2019. I was dubious of its small size, but the bright purple cover appealed to me. As did the title, which elicits both a nugget-sized life lesson, and that the book should in fact be small, since it must be carried. In this essay, Le Guin writes about the human invention of the carrier vessel — which can be anything from a leaf to a net of woven hair, or a pouch — preceding the invention of hard objects associated with mammoths hunting. This perspective enabled Le Guin to feel grounded in being a human. It transformed her approach to her writing, as she rejected the impulse to create heroic narrative arcs of the type commonly found in science fiction. Le Guin’s ideas are strikingly digestible; unearthed but carriable, they hover in the mind.

The same is true for many of the essays gathered in Space Crone, a new volume of Le Guin’s nonfiction writing published by Silver Press. It brings together essays, lectures and several performance pieces from later in Le Guin’s career, showcasing her evolving ideas towards gender, being a woman artist and intergenerational exchanges. The collection, which is arranged chronologically, also includes three pieces of short fiction inspired by her interest in alternative ways of living. Le Guin describes one of these pieces, ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, as a ‘crazy quilt’, acknowledging the many writers, ancestors and audience members at her lectures that have contributed to the evolving material that helped form the fifth version of the piece. Her commitment to refining, amending and collaborating on her ideas is felt throughout these later works.

The collection opens with the title essay ‘Space Crone’, from 1976. Space crone is the name Le Guin gives to the life stage women enter once they have begun the menopause, where she is at her time of writing. Le Guin enjoys the space crone age, one she remarks is supposed to feel like a waiting room, like virginity being a waiting room to get out of. Instead, for her it is filled with fruitfulness. Le Guin’s witty and blunt reflection exposes the grotesque societal gaze that vehemently persists towards the stages of womanhood and the taboo stage of space crone, almost 50 years after it was written.

Later, Le Guin shares her philosophy on the three English languages she’s learned: the first, father tongue, is the language used in public discourse, one of distancing. The second, mother tongue, is the language stories are told in; it’s spoken at home and amongst friends. The third is a merging of these two tongues into a third language she seeks to use in her creative work. In ‘Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)’, Le Guin reflects on how critiques of the misogyny in speculative fiction, and her desire to understand sexuality and gender in her own life, led to her writing her 1969 novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness: ‘One of the essential functions of science fiction, I think, is precisely this kind of question-asking: reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in the imagination.’ Le Guin’s nonfiction writings are often preoccupied with the same questions; reversals of ways of thinking, whether it is conceptions of the ‘taboo’ menopause, or the different tongues she gives to the English language to demonstrate the writing voice she seeks to speak in creative work.

In ‘Awards and Gender’, Le Guin recounts her regrets from her time on a literary jury consisting of three women who felt their shortlist for a prize would be disregarded unless it included a man. So they amended their preferred shortlist. In ‘Genetic Determinism’ she dissects the misogynist ideas in a book by E.O. Wilson. Here she steers towards specific experiences on earth. Some of these pieces display Le Guin’s unrelenting political fervour in her writing, such as her experiencing an abortion in ‘What It Was Like’ or her forward to Murray Bookchin’s The Next Revolutions. The movement between her imaginative ideas, the misogynist realities outside of this, and the occasional interjection of fiction, can feel jolty.

In ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’ Le Guin draws out the silencing around women writers: what does it look like when they write? Where are they writing? Do they have a space to write? Are there children in the room? She moves between an array of authors and their writing settings: Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the kitchen table while her husband had his own room to write in, Jane Austen was able to write in a child free space, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh while raising a four-year-old. Le Guin borrows from Alicia Ostriker to make a case for the creative possibilities that arise when being an artist and mother: ‘The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption.’ Whether it’s concern for space for women to create art or time, the questions around the roles of being both mother and artist, still presupposes a dichotomy.

In a 2019 New York Times essay, the novelist Rachel Cusk posed a challenging question: if the traditional image of the male artist is allowed to be violent, selfish, scandalous, absent from family responsibilities, in the name of making art that enriches people’s lives, can a woman ever be just an artist? Le Guin makes the case for how enhancing it is, creatively, to be a mother and artist. She was able to write her first two novels between the birth of her first and second child; her husband helped a lot with raising the children. When Cusk interviews painter Cecily Brown on these two roles and the constraints of being both, Brown shares her concerns that when she leaves the studio to spend time with her children, would her male counterpart do the same? Cusk reflects, ‘If you can do both, be both, then surely the possibility of formulating a grander female vision and voice becomes graspable.’ Le Guin pushes for this grander vision: to be closer to the source of life is to open up new possibilities as an artist.

Sophie van Well Groeneveld is a writer based in New York. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at NYU.