Choosing your audience: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

earthsea

“Once upon a time, a publisher asked me if I’d write a novel for teenagers. ‘Oh, no!’ I said. ‘No, thanks very much, but I couldn’t,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Earthsea.

So almost didn’t begin youth fantasy. Before she wrote Earthsea, there was fantasy like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. But nothing for teens.

What was the problem Le Guin had with writing for teenagers? She wasn’t an unpublished author scared of finally getting a chance–she had already published. And it wasn’t like she was a nonfiction author fearful of going public with a novel–she had already published both science fiction and fantasy.

“It was the idea of writing with a specific audience in mind or a specific age of reader that scared me off.” But after considering it, “I thought about it. Slowly the idea sank in. Would writing for older kids be so different from just writing? Why? Despite what some adults seem to think, teenagers are fully human.”

Le Guin continues, describing previous fantasy, whose wizards were all old men with long beards. “Well, Merlin and Gandalf must have been young once, right? And when they were young, when they were fool kids, how did they learn to be wizards? And there was my book.”

How did it sell?

“It was original–something new. Yet it was also conventional enough to not frighten reviewers.” Part of the originality stems from her characters’ races. Unlike the movie, each of the main characters has either copper or black skin–the whites are the bad guys. (Ironically, it was difficult to get an accurate picture on the cover, as readers expected good guys to be white.) Another difference was the lack of wars. “My imagination refuses to limit all the elements that make an adventure story and make it exciting–danger, risk, challenge, courage–to the battlefield…. War…reduce[s] the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad)… This is puerile, misleading, and degrading…. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence.”

She ends by explaining how the story brings Ged “the kind of victory that isn’t the end of a battle but the beginning of a life.”

 

This blog post is based on the afterword of the 2012 edition of Earthsea.

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