Announcing the Shortlist for the Inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction
The $25,000 prize honors a book-length work of imaginative fiction
Today, the Ursula K. Le Guin Trust announces the Shortlist for the first Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. The prize honors a book-length work of imaginative fiction with $25,000. The nine shortlisted books will be considered by a panel of five jurors—adrienne maree brown, Becky Chambers, Molly Gloss, David Mitchell, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The winner will be announced later this year on October 21st, 2022, Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday.
In 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin received a lifetime commendation from the National Book Foundation. In her six-minute acceptance speech, she delivered an elegant critique of capitalism, a call for artistic action, and also a practical demand for the conditions every writer deserves. She criticized publishing houses—including her own—for padding their own pockets by overcharging libraries, for leeching power and profit from editors and writers. She pinched the capitalist thread holding the publishing and artistic worlds together and elegantly, graciously, pulled at the seam. Before receiving the cheers and standing ovation, she turned her speech away from the business of publishing and back to the work of writers. She urged them, as she did in her 23 novels, 12 short story collections, 11 poetry collections, 13 children’s books, 5 essay collections, and 4 works of translation, to remember what all of this was really about. Writing is a calling that delivers its own commendation. That “beautiful reward,” she said: “Its name is freedom.”
How does one find artistic freedom? Money, while not the source of artistic freedom, can perhaps help create the conditions for it. Since Le Guin’s death in January, 2018, her son and literary executor, Theo Downes-Le Guin has been thinking of ways to honor his mother’s work, and share her art and ideas with a new generation of readers and writers. In our conversation earlier this week, Downes-Le Guin acknowledged the challenge of designing a prize in honor of a writer who was outspokenly critical of them. And yet, a prize seemed a fitting legacy because, at the same time, Downes-Le Guin noted, “She certainly believed in giving money directly to writers, with no strings attached, for them to use however they wished to. To create the space and the opportunity to write.”
Here is the Shortlist for the 2022 Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction, followed by a brief interview with Theo Downs-Le Guin. Erin Bartnett discussed the role of literary prizes in writers’ lives, the responsibilities of a literary trust, and how Ursula K. Le Guin’s artistic values shaped the making of this specific literary prize.
After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang (Stelliform Press)
In a future Beijing afflicted by a climate-induced disease, two young men are drawn to each other, and to the city’s dragons. Cynthia Zhang’s debut looks at climate and equity through the lens of connection—to each other and to the creatures whose world we share.
Appleseed by Matt Bell (Custom House)
In three braided stories, Matt Bell uses science fiction, myth, and fairytale in an exploration of how humanity moves both with and against the world. From two brothers seeding the land with apple trees to a distant future in which one lonely being crosses what’s left of North America after climate change, Appleseed is ambitious in its scope and compassionate in its telling.
Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom Publishing)
On a distant planet, an anthropologist in a tower has become part of local mythology—a sorcerer with seemingly incredible powers that might help a Fourth Daughter against a threatening demon. Adrian Tchaikovsky gives equal weight to the way two very different people see their world, showing that both stories—science and myth—are true, and both necessary for survival.
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken (New Directions)
Olga Ravn’s novella is told in a series of reports made by the crew—human and otherwise—of an intergenerational, deep space ship. The Employees is set in a world where productivity has subsumed everything else. There is only work, and what people find in or despite of it: curiosity, attachment to strange objects, and an unsettled relationship with their humanoid colleagues.
The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber (Graywolf Press)
Young Aisha sets out in the company of a talking cat and a boat made of bones to rescue her fisherman father. Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s debut novel is grounded in a vivid sense of place and the way she continuously expands both Aisha’s world and her understanding of it—a world of leviathans, snake gods, and crows whose sharp eyes are on everyone.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (William Morrow)
In 2030, the Arctic plague rewrites the way people live. In How High We Go In the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu imagines what a world shaped by this plague might look like—funerary skyscrapers, a theme park for dying children, new uses for technology—and how humanity could still find love and human connection in it.
The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom Publishing)
Tetley Abednego lives on a garbage patch in the middle of the sea—one of the only livable places left in a flooded world. Catherynne M. Valente’s post-apocalyptic world looks like no one else’s, and despite the hard parts of Tetley’s existence, she’s resilient, wise, and full of hope that we can still make a broken world into a home.
A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido)
A cottonmouth kid making his way in a world of spirits and monsters and a Lipan girl from our near future find their lives intersecting in Darcie Little Badger’s gracefully told young adult novel about home, stories, family, friendship, and the interconnectedness of worlds.
Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil (Soho Teen)
In Michelle Ruiz Keil’s punk-rock fairytale, a girl goes looking for her runaway brother in 1990s Portland, Oregon. What both of them find in the vintage shops and secret corners of the city is something else: Transformation, understanding, and a world more varied and welcoming and strange than they knew.
EB: Imaginative fiction can include a swath of so many kinds of literature. I know it is intentionally a broad category, but why was it important to define the work under consideration as Imaginative Fiction?
TDLG: Of all of the components of the program that we wrestled with, how to define eligible writing was by far the most difficult. Every foray we made into narrowing it and using terminology that might be more familiar and comfortable to people inevitably took us into genre categories that Ursula spent most of her life fighting against. She thoughtfully pointed out the limitations and the bias inherent in those terms, and how that terminology, even if it may start out as an academic or artistic categorization, becomes an ally of capitalist categorization, and therefore very much part of a set of restrictions on artistic freedom that she resisted.
So, we were looking for terms that, if you combine them with a knowledge of Ursula’s art and oeuvre, might have meaning to people who were in the position of nominating or evaluating nominations. Which is to say, I think if you’d never read anything Ursula ever wrote, the term Imaginative Fiction might be vague at best and confusing at worst, but if you know a bit about fantasy, and science fiction in general, and if you know something about Ursula’s work, it starts to have some form. And I think the feedback loop for me was: what kind of work got nominated, and were a lot of those nominations wildly off the mark? And the answer to that was no.
EB: This prize will be given to a writer “whose work reflects the concepts and ideas that were central to Ursula’s own work.” One of those ideas, which feels particularly vital and central to Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, is hope. How did hope show up in the books being nominated?
TDLG: You see patterns of what’s important to writers right now, of course in reviewing a large number of submissions, and hope is very important. I would say that writers, to some degree, are struggling to find a path to it. Because, it’s so easy to run in the opposite direction, and of course we are now a couple of decades into dystopian fiction’s huge influence in genre fiction and in YA. So there are commercial imperatives as well as social imperatives that can point people in the direction of dystopias or semi-dystopias. But on balance, I’m really gratified by how little of that we found. Again, that may be a certain amount of self-screening—people who know Ursula’s work, know that nominating a dystopia is probably not in the spirit of her writing. But I also think there is a larger desire to define paths forward that are, if not pragmatically feasible in the near future, nevertheless have that quality of making us think about other ways of being, other ways of living, that are different from the way of today, and may have more promise for our long-term viability as a species and for our place in the larger world.
EB: How do you imagine and hope this prize will generate freedom for writers moving forward?
TDLG: I don’t want to sound under-ambitious, but the older I get the more I feel that the effect I can have on anything is incredibly limited, and I’ve become more and more interested in effects that I can see and appreciate in the near term. So if the prize goes to worthy recipients—which is a foregone conclusion if we design the process well—and those recipients over a period of years are able to purchase themselves a bit of freedom, then I’m happy. And whether they write something terrific as a result of that freedom or not is really not a concern to me. I have been working in the arts, on and off, for many years now, and I have seen that the effects of a gift like that can be profound but also not immediate. If someone needs to pay off their car with that money, I think that’s great. It doesn’t tie immediately to any artistic “product” but I know that paying off a car or buying a car can be a profoundly helpful and freedom-inducing act depending on who you are and where you live, and that’s just one of many many examples of how $25,000 could be put to use. We tried to design a prize that, even if it wasn’t life-changing in the context of every individual’s circumstances, it is a significant enough amount to provide a positive disruption.
EB: It feels so important and refreshing to acknowledge that financial stress and hardship impinges on a writer’s freedom. Because of course it does.
TDLG: Yes. It would be very un-Ursula to rely on status to make the prize work. For example, I think the Prix-Goncourt is…10 euros? Obviously an enormously influential and important prize, but financially, it is less than an afterthought. That’s a different model. And I think it would have been very difficult to design this prize on that model. Not because her name and reputation wouldn’t uphold it, but because she would have wanted practical, tangible help for writers. And while aligning yourself with a high-status prize is a form of practical and tangible help, it’s a very specific form, and not one that seems in keeping with the way she moved through the world.
EB: Something I’ve been struck by in our conversation is how much you’ve considered what Ursula K. Le Guin would have wanted, and how to honor that. It makes me think about the role of a literary trust more broadly. What, in your experience, have been some of the challenges and rewards?
TDLG: Well, I have been thinking through these questions for the past five years, and I don’t know where I am in the journey of figuring it out. One large part is trying to be imaginative myself about ways to keep her work out there, particularly, for young readers. I don’t have any real concern that Ursula’s work is not going to be read in 20 years. I think if I stopped doing everything I’m doing tomorrow her books would still be read. But she told me a couple years before she died that she was very worried about the history of erasure of women’s writing and that she felt that there was a good chance no one would be reading her books fifty years after she died, possibly less. Because of the mysterious but very efficacious ways in which women’s writing and fantasy and genre writing disappear from the canons. So I obviously heard that, and I really take that as my central mission. To do what I can to counteract those forces. I have complete confidence that her work, in an utterly fair, level playing field, will continue to be read for many generations on the basis of artistic merit. I don’t have to worry about that, fortunately. But I do have to worry about what intercedes between artistic merit and readers, the set of choices that’s put in front of them over time.