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Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’

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As Ursula Le Guin receives the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she talks to Hari Kunzru about alternative fictional worlds

Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’

Ursula Le Guin cries freedom as she is honoured for contribution to literature

Ursula K Le Guin lives along a winding road in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Walking uphill towards her house I find the way spectacularly blocked. A bridge is being rebuilt and the road is broken by a steep drop, forcing me to pick my way along a trail down into a ravine, then back up the other side. This small detour feels auspicious. There ought to be more adventure on such a journey than an airport security queue and a taxi rank. I am resisting the temptation to use the language of the quest here, or get into any dubious comparisons between writers and wizards or witches. I didn’t have to change myself into a hawk or cross over into the land of the dead.

I have rarely gone to visit a writer bearing so many messages of love and admiration. People want to thank Le Guin. Many readers discover her young, through her Earthsea sequence, now acknowledged as one of the great works of 20th-century fantasy. This week, 40 years after the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, won the National Book award in children’s literature, Le Guin has been awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented to her by Neil Gaiman in New York. One of my friends, a Le Guin fan of great depth and seriousness, remembers being nine years old, in pain and distress as he recovered from open heart surgery. “Reading the Earthsea trilogy saved my life,” he wrote to me. I don’t think he was being altogether rhetorical. Escape is derided as the cheapest of literary pleasures, “escapism” the name for a particular kind of aesthetic cowardice, a culpable flight from the real. But there are situations when what you need is teleportation. You need to get out of the surgical ward. You need to stay in Earthsea for as long as your imagination can float its little open boat.

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