I like Le Guin. I do. I’m no fan, though. In fact, I’ve only read the obvious novels previous to reading this collection. I really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness for both its world-building and characters. I found The Dispossessed to be ok. Technically good but it left me a little wanting. Can’t put my figure on it. So with that, I set out to read The Unreal and the Real Volume One: Where on Earth, Selected Stories of Ursula K Le Guin. Le Guin introduces the collection by saying she selected these particular stories herself. She also says this isn’t her favourite form of presenting a story. As the title suggests, these are set on Earth. Maybe not all of them are our Earth, but close enough. So these aren’t her science fiction tales. These range from realist to magical realism with a hint of dream and fantasy thrown in.
There are many ways to tell a story. There are many thoughts to what a story actually is. To me, it is a narrative that takes the reader from one point to another via a character or characters. A story is primarily to entertain with a strong secondary raison d’être to inform. It is generally accepted that most stories consist of extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances or the reverse, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, it seems to me that this collection fails to entertain as it consists mostly of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
I love a short story. I don’t read enough of them to be honest, and I try to write them on occasion. I believe, however, that they should fulfil the job of any tale, which is to have a beginning, middle and end, and yes, not necessarily in that order.
Endings. Interesting creatures. A Cambrian Explosion of evolution has defined the story ending as almost indefinable. Which is fine. I love an ambiguous ending or an unreliable narrator. The conclusion to a short can be the birth of something bigger or the death of hope. Personal preference leads me to look for darkness, unease, bleakness and doubt. But I want to see what I’m looking for. And I certainly don’t expect and want a happily ever after to what I read. What I do need is the satisfaction of understanding the point of the story. When researching this piece I found something that Ali Smith said in a 2010 interview, which makes sense to me:
“The thing about the story form is that it is completely wide open. Its end is never an end, it’s always some kind of middle or beginning. It just is. It doesn’t trace an arc in the way that a novel does. It’s a different kind of journey.”
But to me, the end of a short story should be clear. It might be the first step on a new path, but that path shouldn’t need hunting for.
I recently read a collection of short stories edited and chosen by Neil Gaiman. Each of the stories introduced the main characters and the world with efficiency and clarity. They took the reader on a short journey during which the reader learned something about the characters and the world they lived in, the imagination was fired and in almost all cases, a little light was shed on the nature of humanity. Each concluded with a satisfying full stop. In some cases, I was intrigued enough to wonder what happened beyond that point, as I am with any length tale, but mostly I felt it was a tale well travelled and the destination – whatever that place looked and felt like – was reached. So to me, a short story should be a way in to a wider world, whether it has been written about or not.
In this collection, the ‘realist’ stories aren’t just ineffective, but are plain dull. Technically, Le Guin writes beautifully, with well crafted sentences and well realised fine detail. However, in the first few stories, I just wasn’t hooked in. I couldn’t care less about the characters and their lives. I was bored. I don’t expect to be bored when I reading a technically well written story. This is a confusing dichotomy. How can good sentences make a bad story? I had to read passages more than once because I’d drifted away, and I still wasn’t sure what was happening. Or I didn’t see the point. Or I just didn’t care what was happening to the characters. Maybe it was the characters. Not interested. Is that my fault, or Le Guin’s? I tried to care about them or at least be interested in them, but now I couldn’t care less. In the entire collection, only one story worked for me and while yes it was the most fantastical, it was also the most coherent: Buffalo Girls, Won’t You Come Out Tonight. Simple, effective, beautifully told, meaningful, conclusive. Nowhere near the best short I’ve ever read but miles better than everything else in the collection. Others had moments of quality and imagination which I liked, but mostly I found this book an exercise in style over substance. There are a couple of pieces towards the end which feature short character vignettes, which show how well Le Guin can switch character voice and still build a coherent world. She understands, more than most, the importance of detail and she is versed in many a style, from fairy tale to historical tale. But I just didn’t understand the point of the stories. In fact, I’m not sure most of them were stories. Essays, exercises, random thoughts? But maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe I don’t relate to reality.
Afterthought: Le Guin’s collection is not for me at all. That much is clear. I do like magic realism and have enjoyed Borges, Bulgakov, Rushdie for example. It is not the theme but the stories. However, in the old adage that you should leave the reader wanting more, Le Guin has succeeded. I want to read her next collection to see how I feel about those.