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It doesn’t matter that Ursula K. Le Guin has been winning awards for writing about aliens, wizards, and imaginary worlds since the 1960s — the label “science fiction” gives her the willies. “It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose,” she said to The Paris Review in 2013,

so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

For someone who hates the pigeonhole, Le Guin can be awfully defensive of it. Last year her tentacles got a workout in another round of the so-called genre wars, when she harangued Kazuo Ishiguro for worrying that his book The Buried Giant, which features a cast of knights and pixies, would be stereotyped as “fantasy” — a case of the pot calling the kettle black if ever there was one. It’s not as though Le Guin has been denied literary recognition. Thirty years ago, no less a snob than Harold Bloom wrote that her novel The Left Hand of Darkness “raised fantasy into high literature”; more recently, in this column, Zadie Smith praised Le Guin’s “majesty” and enthused that she “writes as well as any non-‘genre’ writer alive.”

“On Myth and Magic No. 5: Eclipse, 2009,” by Wendy Given. Courtesy the artist and Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta

“On Myth and Magic No. 5: Eclipse, 2009,” by Wendy Given. Courtesy the artist and Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta

After suffering through THE COMPLETE ORSINIA (Library of America, $35), it is my duty to report that Le Guin also writes as badly as any non-“genre” writer alive. Clunky exposition, extravagant figures of speech, leaden characters, wooden dialogue, false profundities, ponderous narration — these roost merrily in any nest. The first of what the Library of America promises will be a multivolume Le Guin edition, The Complete Orsinia contains early works of literary fiction set in a made-up Central European country. The novel Malafrena chronicles a political uprising in the late 1820s, and Orsinian Tales, a collection of short stories, extends the narrative into the twentieth century with slice-of-life accounts of love, war, labor, music, and state oppression. Let no one accuse the author of having a sense of humor. “They say one gets used to being a millionaire,” Le Guin intones in one story, “so after a year or two a human being begins to get used to being a woman. Rosana was learning to wear the rich and heavy garment of her inheritance.” Or this: “ ‘The idea of celibacy terrifies me,’ she replied, and he wanted to stretch out on the ground flecked with elm leaves like thin oval coins of gold, and die.” Me, too.

Malafrena was the first novel Le Guin drafted. She rewrote it several times before it was finally published, in 1979, and it has been mostly out of print since. I can only hazard that a sentimental attachment to the writing of her youth, as well as her desire to prove that she is “a novelist,” motivated her part in the publication of this book. It is harder to fathom the Library of America’s excuse. The press was founded to select and keep in print American writers of significance, classic works, and neglected masterpieces. The only other currently living novelist in the LOA canon is Philip Roth, who was treated to a complete edition. Perhaps Le Guin will be, too — that’s what comes of having leverage. Still, there are very few writers whose every word merits preservation, and in any case, the editors do readers no favors by leading off the series with what must be her worst work.

Scholars or superfans will take due interest in Le Guin’s early treatment of themes she would return to throughout her career — freedom, power, desire, and the confinement of gender. But literature is not a matter of treatises. Orsinia is a bland no-place, especially when compared with the lively and seductive worlds that she built in the Earthsea series, or even the dry but ethnographically rigorous Left Hand of Darkness. How I longed for a wizard or two to burst through the sagging pseudo-Lawrentian prose! By the time the revolutionaries of Malafrena failed, I had long stopped caring whether they ever tried again.

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