This week, we read a great article at Slate about Ursula K. Le Guin and the genre distinctions (or lack thereof) in her work. This article portends an even greater event, the publication of Le Guin’s new self-chosen best-of collection, The Unreal and the Real , later this month, so we’ve decided to take a look at Le Guin and other authors who have found themselves neatly boxed and categorized by the collective consciousness — but shouldn’t be. Click through to check out a few great authors we should all really stop pigeonholing, and if we’ve missed one, add to our list in the comments!
Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is known (and well-revered) for her science fiction, but her more realistic mode is often unfairly ignored. In her new collection, The Unreal and the Real, she titles the first volume Where on Earth and the second Outer Space, Inner Lands — “I think the two titles are sufficiently descriptive and need no further explanation,” she writes in the introduction to the first volume. “Some people will identify the first volume as “mundane” and the second as “science fiction,” but they will be wrong.” Indeed — there’s nothing mundane about these stories. Here’s hoping the collection will open a few new eyes to another of Le Guin’s many talents.
Though Verne often gets a nod as the “father of science fiction,” in English-speaking countries the author tends to be pigeonholed as a children’s author, a writer of cheap adventure stories for middle-grade boys. In France, however, Verne is part of the literary canon, studied and discussed for his remarkable prescience and, in his lesser-known works, a dark satirical streak not at all suitable for young boys.
Bradbury’s name is most often tied directly to science fiction — understandable, of course, but totally reductive and basically inaccurate. He indeed wrote sci-fi (and fantasy, and horror, and mystery, and and) but his interest was more in the weirdness and contradictory nature of the human condition than in thinking up complex future technology. It comes down to this: his writing is so great that it pretty much defies genre, for good or ill.
Like Verne, London’s contemporary reputation is that of an author of rugged adventures meant to be given to boys who resist reading. This (if authorial intention can be at all considered, and perhaps even if it cannot) is a mistake; London’s books were written for adults, and their themes reflect this. Plus, his real power, if Dale L. Walker can be believed, is in his now relatively obscure short stories. As the historian writes, “London’s true genius lay in the short form, 7,500 words and under, where the flood of images in his teeming brain and the innate power of his narrative gift were at once constrained and freed.” What a pity we only think of him as writing about wolves for kids.
What do you think of when you think of Roald Dahl? An absurdist but basically cheerful children’s book author, who penned many perennial classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. But the author actually wrote even more books and story collections for adults, including several that are very much for adults, macabre and highly scandalous. And these are great too.
Though the public may pigeonhole Lewis as simply the man behind Narnia and scholars as a Christian apologist, but though he was certainly both of these things, his work ranges far beyond them, often satirical and sly, concerned with the nature of language as much as the nature of man.
Before writing publishing Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne was a prolific writer of novels and plays, all for adults, and had a particularly good reputation as a playwright. But with his new success as a children’s book author, he grumbled that he had “said goodbye to all that in 70,000 words” — indeed, by the late 1930s he had become nigh unmarketable for anything but writing for children, an effect that, obviously, quite bothered him. We suggest trying The Red House Mystery on for size.
Like many of the authors on this list (wonder why that is?) Ballard is often pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer. The truth is, however, that Ballard was rejected early on from the sci-fi community, too different for many tastes. Indeed, as The Guardian reports, the author has explained that he “wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that,” but instead “the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television – that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.” His later worked moved even further from the sci-fi label, but the author couldn’t seem to shake it, whether in his lifetime or since. “By calling a novel like Crash science fiction, you isolate the book and you don’t think about what it is,” he said. Preach.
This one’s a little more speculative, because it’s still in the works, so we’re going to proactively tell you not to pigeonhole dear old J.K. Rowling. After reading and loving The Casual Vacancy, Ann Patchett wrote, “So when on the morning of this fine novel’s publication I read the scorching review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, I felt both irritated and dismayed. If this book had been written by anyone other than J.K. Rowling, it would have been heralded as a triumph, but Rowling has been too successful, too rewarded, and now people are anxious to take her down a peg.” This is, of course, not quite the same as pigeonholing, but it is close, and if left unchecked could very well lead to the real thing. We just need to think outside the Harry.
Nowadays Smith is most well remembered for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians — though probably as source material more than as a book on its own — or perhaps for I Capture the Castle. She’s widely considered a children’s writer, but not only did the woman write as many books for adults (or at least what could now be called YA) as she did for children, but she was a prolific playwright, and several of her plays have been adapted to film.