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Ursula K. LeGuin: Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

© 2015
– Nov. 4, 2023

Up front disclaimer: I have no memory of ever having read anything by Le Guin, outside of that I started Malafrena and stopped after 30-odd pages because I found it uninteresting. I did, though, just buy a copy of The Dispossessed and plan to give it a go soon. But her reputation is very high, so I thought to give Steering the Craft a try.

It's a small book, clocking in at a mere 141 pages. Smaller yet in that there are ten chapters, ten subjects, sometimes more than one subject per chapter. Smaller yet in that each chapter has three parts: the discussion of the subject, then also example texts taken from other books (which can be quite lengthy, but are well chosen), then writing exercises. In the end, far too little of the book is discussion (only about a third). And it shows. A good example is where she talks about "expository lumps" (96), which I have always heard called "information dumps." She very briefly describes it, and describes why it is a problem, but then says as a solution: "Crafty writers (in any genre) don't allow Exposition to form Lumps. They break up the information, grind it fine, and make it into bricks to build the story with." What the inquisitive learner is meant to do with that is left entirely to them.

Another example is where she goes into the difference between story and plot. Commonly, those who breach the subject give importance to plot, saying, in essence, plot is story with a guiding principle. Le Guin says plot is just a kind of story, and the ultimate importance actually lies in story.

I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) that moves through time or implies the passage of time and that involves change.
I define plot as a form of story that uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and that closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax. (122)

This is an intriguing idea, and, if I accept her definitions, I too push emphasis upon story over plot. Unfortunately, by the middle of the next page Le Guin has moved on to two associated ideas, focus and trajectory, both interesting and also deserving of lengthy discussion, but by the middle of the next page, it is all over. There simply is not enough depth to the ideas to give them any real body. And I am made to wonder how helpful much the book would be to a person who has never before ventured into the discussion about the craft of writing.

Which is not to say the points she makes are not worth making. Not at all. For example, her discussion of point of view is important if you have never thought about that before. It is something that needs to be thought about. But it is so brief.

Now, the exercises, which she used in her writing classes, are interesting. Most of them are oriented about getting you to think, hands on, about a technique or an idea. For example, in the chapter on sentence length, she offers this exercise:

Part One: Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments! Each sentence must have a subject and a verb.
Part Two: Write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence. (32)

You can see how the exercises would make you a little more aware of technique and effect with short and long sentences. They are meant to be in-class exercises, something that only takes half and hour to an hour, so they are not long assignments, full explorations. But, if you have never thought about their subjects, like sentence length, they might be helpful. They also would work simply as writing challenges.

Is the book worth the price of admission ($15.99) for those exercises? Perhaps, if you were leading a group. And perhaps, if you were the kind of person to feed on such things. But, be aware, Le Guin does not offer that much discussion about what those exercises are meant to explore.

I should also note that Le Guin and I are of different philosophical slants. While I find her idea of story and plot interesting, she also says, "Story is change" (xiv). I don't agree with that. As she says plot is a type of story, I am tempted to say "change" is also a type of story, but not necessary thereto, not unless you were to broaden the idea of "change" almost to the point of meaninglessness. (A good example of books without change would be Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable trilogy. Perhaps also Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.)

As well, she positions herself mostly against the art of literature. A brief example:

In poetry a line, a few words, can make the reader catch breath, cry, stop reading in order to feel the beauty, hold the moment. And many people admire the elaborate, ornate prose of writers such as Nabakov, which I find difficult to get through because it's always stopping to be admired. (22-23)

She does say prose writing should give "pleasure to the ear" (23) and such. (Which I wish she had much more emphasis on.) But unlike her, my interest in literature is in the art of literature. She very much is about the story, the story above all. Art, to her, should serve the story. I say the story should go to the creating of art. It's a philosophical difference, but one which did color my reading of the book.

In sum, I'm not sure I would recommend this book. I found it mostly frustrating in her unwillingness to go deeply into any subject, even if some of the ideas presented I did find interesting or valuable at face value. For example, Le Guin's idea of story and plot I find very interesting. It is quite the shame she didn't go into them, because it is almost impossible now to explore them without risking – or committing – going afield of what she intended, because after two or three steps, what she intended has to be guessed at. But if you want something at-times provocative but mostly rather light in substance, someone who will pat you on the back and say "there is nothing wrong with long sentences" but mostly leave it at that, this is for you. Particularly if you are interested in doing the exercises.