Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

 

With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Source: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

by Ursula K Le Guin

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

Then came use of elements of the mythos in drama and opera, free adaptations for modern readers, and the appearance of increasingly familiar tropes in books for young children, cartoons, graphic presentations, animated films, and so on. A luxuriant growth indeed from the few, fragile stems of medieval manuscripts, one of which lay hidden for several centuries in a barn in Iceland.

Their survival is remarkable, for the Norse tales are about as un-Christian as you can get: no all-powerful creator deity, no human virtue rewarded but courage in battle, and on the Last Day, no salvation for anybody. Their fascination for us may be this near-nihilism: a world created essentially by nobody out of nothing, an existence of endless warfare and the rivalry of brutal, dishonest powers, ending in defeat for all. In contrast, the classical myths retold to us through centuries of splendid verbal and visual art can seem pallid. The stark cruelty and essential hopelessness of the Norse stories suits the artistic taste of the last century, our hunger for darkness.

Neil Gaiman tells us that he first met the Norse tales in the graphic narratives that we go on calling comics or comic books, a stupid name considering the breadth of their subject matter. It is a medium well suited to the material: vivid, sparing of words, long on action, short on reflection though given to pithy wisdom. Heroes, shape-changers, battles, superpowers and superweapons – a half-blind wizard, an eight-legged horse, the battlements of Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge – all are perfectly at home in the world of comics.

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

The language of books loved in childhood retains an authority it is useless to question even when impossible to justify. I grew up with Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, published in 1920, and the stories exist for me in the fine cadences of his prose. Gaiman’s version is certainly a worthy shelf-partner to Colum’s, and perhaps a better choice for a contemporary child reader, used to a familiar tone and a “friendly” approach.

Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like – seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.

It all comes back to the matter of interpretation. In her 2011 book Ragnarok, AS Byatt used the Norse mythos to express her own childhood experience of world war and as a parable of the irrational human behaviours that result in mass ruin and destruction. Such interpretations are perfectly valid in themselves but don’t serve well as a retelling of the myths. They are more of the order of meditations on a religious text, sermons on the meaning of biblical stories. Gaiman does not use the Norse material this way; he simply tells us the story, and tells it well.

What finally left me feeling dissatisfied is, paradoxically, the pleasant, ingratiating way in which he tells it. These gods are not only mortal, they’re a bit banal. They talk a great deal, in a conversational tone that descends sometimes to smart-ass repartee. This chattiness will be familiar to an audience accustomed to animated film and graphic narrative, which have grown heavy with dialogue, and in which disrespect is generally treated as a virtue. But it trivialises, and I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.

The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.

 

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BBC Radio 4 Extra – Ursula Le Guin – Earthsea

A tale of wizards, dragons and magic by Ursula Le Guin.

Source: BBC Radio 4 Extra – Ursula Le Guin – Earthsea

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Up the Amazon with the BS Machine

Up the Amazon with the BS Machine,

or

Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Source: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/06/01/up-the-amazon/

Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my business anyhow. My only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.

Best Seller lists have been around for quite a while. Best Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive. How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable. Their questionability and their manipulability was well demonstrated during the presidential campaign of 2012, when a Republican candidate bought all the available copies of his own book in order to put it onto the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List, where, of course, it duly appeared.

If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.

If it can find its audience by luck, good reviews, or word of mouth, a very good book may become a genuine Best Seller. Witness Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which for quite a while seemed to have immortal life among the Times Top Ten. And a few books work their way more slowly onto BS lists by genuine, lasting excellence — witness The Lord of the Rings, or Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories. Not products of the BS Machine, such books sell because people actually like them. Once they get into the BS Machine, they are of course treated as products of the BS Machine, that is, as commodities to exploit.

Making a movie of a novel is a both a powerful means of getting it into the BS Machine and a side-effect of being there.

Read the rest: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/06/01/up-the-amazon/

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Literary or Genre fiction?

How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction

The book war is over. The aliens, dragons, and detectives won.

Source: http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/?fb_ref=Default

Literature or Genre fiction?

Literature or Genre fiction?

The writers Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula K. Le Guin are having a highly old-fashioned debate about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. Ishiguro started it, in an interview with The New York Times about his latest novel The Buried Giant, when he asked “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Le Guin didn’t like the tone of that last remark and fired back, “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears the author takes the word for an insult.” Now Ishiguro has defended himself, rather meekly, by saying, “I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.” The whole spectacle is very odd. It sounds like a debate from another era. What writer today would feel any need whatsoever to separate him or herself from fantasy or indeed any other genre? If anything, the forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.

Only idiots or snobs ever really thought less of “genre books” of course. There are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books. All of these distinctions are vastly more important than the distinction between the literary and the non-literary. Time has a tendency to demolish old snobberies. Once upon a time, Conan Doyle was embarrassed by the Sherlock Holmes stories; he wanted to be remembered for his serious historical novels. Jim Thompson’s books—considered straight pulp during his lifetime—are obviously as dense and layered and confounding as great literature. Correction: They are great literature. Who really thinks, today, that Stanislaw Lem isn’t a genius, that he’s “just a science fiction writer”?

Rest of the article: http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/?fb_ref=Default

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