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Ursula Le Guin sitting
Getty Images/Dan Tuffs
Refuse to be reduced.
SO WHAT'S THE HEADLINE?

Ursula K. Le Guin knew that a great story doesn’t need a takeaway

By Thu-Huong Ha

The beloved, acclaimed American writer Ursula K. Le Guin died Jan. 22 at 88, leaving behind a legacy of fantasy and science fiction that reimagined societies and challenged our accepted values.

In her essays, she was also a fierce champion of language and its proper use. She advocated against blithely speaking or writing without any regard to art or truth, and for creating with language as an end unto itself.

In ”A Message About Messages,” published in her 2009 collection, Cheek by Jowl, Le Guin railed against abusing art by looking for what we might call the “take-home message,” the “takeaway”—indeed, “the headline”—of a story. “To translate [stories] into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them,” she wrote.

Her fluid criticism of book reviews and SAT questions will also resonate with readers of today’s digital news, who are served daily with 70-character headlines that can reduce stories to service and approach works of art as how-tos.

Le Guin recoiled from being told what readers should learn from her. “Whenever they tell me children want this sort of book and children need this sort of writing, I am going to smile politely and shut my earlids. I am a writer, not a caterer. There are plenty of caterers,” she quipped.

The author of The Left Hand of Darkness criticized the idea that fiction should have some kind of succinct underlying message, moral lesson, or tidbit of advice:

The notion that a story has a message assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review.

If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and plots and scenery and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is the story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make a naked idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easier to swallow? (Open your mouth, dear, it’s good for you.) Is fiction decorative wordage concealing a rational thought, a message, which is its ultimate reality and reason for being?

This is made clear when one thinks of literature as a fine or performing art, wrote Le Guin, like ballet or landscape painting. “We know there’s no way to say all a song may mean to us, because the meaning is not so much rational as deeply felt, felt by our emotions and our whole body,” she wrote, “And the language of the intellect can’t fully express those understandings.”

And since, as Le Guin wrote, “any reduction of that language into intellectual messages is radically, destructively incomplete,” we recommend you read her message in full.