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Ursula K. Le Guin's son on why he decided to update outdated language in his late mother's children's books

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In a 1973 letter to the editor of The Horn Book Magazine, my mother, Ursula K. Le Guin, took Roald Dahl’s books to task. While acknowledging her own “feelings of unease” about Dahl’s work, she rema…


A great little essay explaining why he chose to update the language to modern standards for some of his late mother's books. A good read, and I think it makes a strong case for updating language in some cases.


Le Guin herself dealt with this. For those unaware, she was a groundbreaking sci-fi/fantasy author on the same scale of importance as Asimov, Herbert, etc. Moreso, I think, because she took on some bigger concepts so long ago (60s and 70s) on things like gender/sex, feminism, race (only revealing near the end of one of her most popular young adult books that the protagonist was a Black youth, something unheard of at the time in fantasy), etc. The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, deals with a society where no one has gender or sex, but roughly once a month everyone gets a random gender/sex for mating purposes. So you might get someone else pregnant once, but later they get you pregnant, etc. The book is outstanding, and in my top 5 for science fiction. It also deals with androgynous friendships, and I think has one of the best person-to-person, non-sexual relationships in literature. And it was written in 1969!



Ursula revised herself throughout her career, notably The Left Hand of Darkness, which takes place on a planet where sex and gender are fluid. Years after publication, during a later wave of feminism, she received criticism for the novel’s use of “he” as default personal pronoun. After some defensiveness, Ursula demonstrated, through essays and revisions of the text, how she might have approached things differently.


Key passage here:



As we began work on the new editions, I received an unexpected note from the editor: “I’m writing to propose several minor changes to the language… to remove words that now have a different connotation than when the books were originally published.” The words in question were “lame,” “queer,” “dumb,” and “stupid,” a total of seven instances across three books.
After deep breaths, and with Ursula’s own revisionism in mind, I contacted a disability rights attorney, a youth literature consultant, a racial educator, and some kids. My advisory group leaned toward change but was not in consensus. I genuinely didn’t know what my mother would have decided. But she left me a clue: a note over her desk asking, “Is it true? Is it necessary or at least useful? Is it compassionate or at least unharmful?”
My mother’s note tipped me toward changing her words. I found substitutes that would retain the original meaning and cadence, and stipulated to the publisher that the new editions would note that the text had been revised.


Good stuff, and I agree that she would have almost certainly agreed to the minor changes.



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1 hour ago, Spawn_of_Apathy said:

Has “queer” become a word only people in the LGBTQ+ community can say? That one particularly stuck out as odd to me, but maybe I’m missing context. 


I think it depends. It's become a reclaimed word within the community with the younger generation, in terms of them using it like "the queer community," or "I'm queer." But using it like "that kid is real queer" is still a slur. And, from what I understand, some older members of the community (who lived through it being used as a slur on the same level as the f-word) don't like it being reclaimed. But every community has discussions and transitions on culture like that, so not for me to comment too much on it. But I also know some people in the community who are fine with non-queer people using the term (like I just did in this sentence). 

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