Unpublished Correspondence With Ursula K. Le Guin

The Watch

This week’s big story


In March of 2017 I wrote to the now-dead author Ursula K. Le Guin to request an interview for a story about the Trump administration’s proposal, since rejected, to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts.

The email was one of a few—I cast a wide net, heard back from a couple of them, took an interview from a famous playwright instead, and moved on.

Working at speed for a daily newspaper as I was then, I found that time dilated for me, especially in the early days of the Trump administration. Journalists, always prone to self-aggrandizement, behaved during that period like people told that the building they’re in is on fire: frantically choosing what to save, where to go when home is gone, making sure everyone who can be rescued is accounted for. At that time yesterday was years ago as far as I was concerned, but, two days after publication, I was surprised — and delighted, her books have been with me since childhood — to receive a response from Le Guin.

Knowing that she had written angrily on her blog about the way Trump had turned national politics into an offensive circus, I had asked her if she would comment on what the NEA meant to American life, in keeping with her own exhortation to her blog readers to keep focus on the people Trump hurts, rather than on the vain, self-regarding president himself.

It’s a measure of her skill that even with the horrified brevity of my attention during those early months, when annihilation felt like a near-certainty and journalism felt like a sword with which to fight it, the email below stuck in my head, as her writing so reliably does.

On Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 8:29 PM Ursula Le Guin <redacted> wrote:

Dear Sam Thielman,

Thank you for your generous invitation.   

I wonder if “what NEA means to American life” is quite the question that needs asking.  People conscious of the importance of art in daily life don’t need to read the answer; people uninterested in the arts or who hold them in contempt won’t read it.   

Perhaps the real problem is that people to whom the arts are extremely important — who listen to  popular music, watch movies on screen or tv, or take their kids to the public library — often don’t think of them as arts.   American culture encourages “art” to present itself as necessarily irreverent, revolutionary, distressing, formidable, esoteric, etc.  People whose art is country music or Zits* see NEA as elitist money going to elitist projects — nothing to do with them.  They’re the ones who need to hear that the songs and pictures and stories they value are indeed art, and will indeed be damaged by the malevolence of the Republican leadership toward public support of education and toward independent creativity.  

But I’m a product of the elite side of culture myself, and I don’t know how to reach them.

And frankly, at  87 I’m kind of tired of hitting my head against the wall.

With all good wishes,

Ursula Le Guin

That was the only time I ever had the opportunity to communicate with her; there are other writers I wanted very badly to meet and never had the chance—Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of the New Sun, who died last week, Lloyd Alexander, author of The Prydain Chronicles, who passed not long ago—and an email is, I’ll freely admit to you, an odd thing to treasure. But I do treasure it, and not just in the way I treasure a signed book, but because Le Guin was correct, and in a way that I have not thought enough about.

Her most famous novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, is about humility. It is, at first, an absolutely normal if beautifully phrased and perfectly economical wizard-school story, predating the first Harry Potter novel by nearly 30 years. But unlike Harry, its hero, Ged, discovers his power too early; he misuses it, causes tremendous harm, and is sent away from the campus to learn how better to master himself. It’s something Le Guin’s writing often examines—the way hubris can be harmful, even fatal.

Le Guin had an astonishing knack for keeping the main thing the main thing; she was, in that regard, the anti-Trump. “He is a true, great master of the great game of this age, the Celebrity Game,” Le Guin wrote of the president a few months before her death. “Attention is what he lives on. Celebrity without substance. His “reality” is “virtual” — i.e. non-existent — but he used this almost-reality to disguise a successful bid for real power. Every witty parody, hateful gibe, clever takeoff, etc., merely plays his game, and therefore plays into his hands.”

That strikes me as true. There are good reasons to avoid the kind of stigmatization that Trump’s self-appointment as The Subject We Must Always Be Arguing About creates. It’s very easy to hate Trump’s supporters for his actions, but that’s not the same as seeking to determine who carries out the president’s hideously inhumane policies like child separation at the border, who writes his policies and briefs, and who is hurt by those policies, and how to help them.

There is a swath of America that just doesn’t care very much about politics and is waiting for everything to get back to normal. Art is a way to demonstrate the limits of normalcy, to show that actually, even politically disengaged people have skin in the game—they just don’t know it or have forgotten. Country music, newspaper cartoons, and Clint Eastwood movies are at risk here, too. For better or for worse, Trump’s celebritized presidency has proven that those are the things people care about. They can be used as leverage.

*Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s newspaper comic strip about an adolescent boy, a kind of unofficial sequel to Calvin and Hobbes, less Hobbes. It’s pretty good.—Sam


Marking Time

Odds, ends, and observations


  • Things I am reading/playing/watching/listening to:
    1. Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. It is my first experience reading something by her and it’s good so far.
    2. Just finished Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals, a masterly history of white evangelical America. I recommend it highly, though the last few chapters are almost exclusively about the political organ the evangelical community became and less prominently about the theology. Still, can’t recommend highly enough; it made me less angry with conservative Christians, oddly, and I recommend being less angry.
    3. Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a video game by FromSoftware, notorious for their difficult titles. If you’re playing it like an Uncharted game it is absolutely incredibly difficult and the story is elliptical and hard to uncover, but if you want the video game equivalent of Nabokov, which is to say leisurely, difficult, and witty, I can’t recommend it enough. I don’t know that I’ll buy a better game this year. I may not buy another game this year.
    4. Barry on HBO. Bill Hader, surprise, is a terrific director, and the idea for the show is very funny—a hitman decides to become an actor—and played so straight-facedly it’s all the more ridiculous. Stephen Root is improbably magnetic as Barry’s handler.
  • This Week in Parenting
    1. We took my kid to an auto parts swap meet because his granddad is restoring an old roadster and wanted to hunt for exactly the right distributor cap. He—the two-year-old—had an amazing time. We’ve learned that the best way to deal with the wiggles is to just let him roam a little. Often he wants to walk from table to table in whatever restaurant where the food has lost his attention and greet people like a chef with his name on the marquee making sure the meals are good. Generally speaking people dig it, or at least are nice about it.
    2. I am not a spanker. I was spanked, I know and admire many spankers, but it ain’t my thing. The question, if you were disciplined that way, becomes how to make sure you’re not just duplicating the experience of being spanked by terrorizing your child when he does something wrong. Getting down on his eye level, speaking softly and low to him, and asking him to repeat back what he shouldn’t do next time (“no throw car;” “no run street”) has yielded good results for us so far.

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