It would seem, at first, that the only thing linking Ursula K. Le Guin and Mark E. Smith 1 would be that they died within forty-eight hours of each other. They had little in common in terms of biography 2, and attitudinal approach 3. But they had similar, if inverted, effects on the world in terms of the overarching effect of their work.
Ursula K. Le Guin dealt steadfastly with being born a woman in 1929. She was born less than a decade after women earned the vote. Her work deals intractably with gender, and her famed essay “Introducing Myself” begins with the words “I am a man”, explaining that she “predate[s] the invention of women by several decades,” and that “when [she] was born, there were actually only men. People were men”, and going to include all of the reasons why she should be taken seriously, considered as a person, and therefore, given the societal requirement for inclusion, as “a man”. Her most famous work, The Left Hand of Darkness 4 is her attempt at seeing “what was left” of society after she removed gender from consideration.
Later in her life, she wrote extensively about the trouble with the ghettoification of “genre” fiction. She preferred, insistently, that she be considered as a writer of books, rather than as a science fiction writer 5 or a fantasist 6. She wanted all authors to be taken seriously in a basically equal fashion with regards to genre – she insisted upon her title as “author” in exactly the same way that she insisted that she be categorized a “man” for purposes of the weight and consideration given to her words and ideas.
Mark E. Smith’s battles, on the other hand, were tied to his working-class roots, and what he saw as the devouring nature of post-industrialism, which he watched greatly reduce the humanity and livability of his beloved Manchester, England. Simon Reynolds, in his history of post-punk, Rip and Up and Start Again, quotes Smith as saying “there are two kinds of factories in Manchester: the kind that make dead men, and the kind that live off a dead man.” This is partly a dig at Factory Records, the much-storied record label founded by Grenada television personality Tony Wilson, who Smith felt was running his label on the money and goodwill from fellow Mancunians Joy Division, and that’s usually how it’s thought of. But the other part of the idea – that factories “create dead men” was the real source of the dread and anger that fueled Smith’s music. Far from wanting to be considered something else in order to be accepted, Smith was insistent on being only himself – with all that “himself” entailed. Furthermore, since he felt that the system itself was broken and corrupted, irretrievably placed out of reach of the common people, he wanted no part of it. Rather than fight for his own acceptability, he drove off the beaten path, carving out his own space to be the only person he could be.
Smith would go on to steadfastly make sure that he made it very clear that he was apart from any team, any side, any group, even ones that he seemed to be inarguably associated with. He wrote and performed for feminist groups, anti-racist groups, and leftist causes in general, all the while refusing membership or any association other than the one he had created from moment-to-moment. He was Mark E. Smith, the person. The one and only group he would avow was his band, The Fall, which he never stopped insisting was a group much larger than him, despite his being (or possibly only seeming) the strongest voice, and despite him being the lone constant member.
Thus between the two you have a sort of line. Le Guin, born into a world that didn’t think she mattered as much as she deserved, fought to be a part of that world, and then fought to have her ideas about how that world should accept her, and her work, and her self, recognized in and of themselves. Smith, by contrast, was born into a world in which his acceptance was theoretically possible (he did, after all, eventually become somewhat famous and presumably wasn’t doing so badly financially), and which he wanted no part of. Le Guin wanted to change the system from within, Smith wanted there to be no system at all.
Interestingly, this contrast, the thing that separated these two people who had never met each other 7, has a direct parallel in what might be Le Guin’s greatest work, The Dispossessed. In that book, capitalism – in this case represented by a society where the people that have been deemed lesser are in political conflict with the patriarchal powers that be, called Urras – and anarchism – represented by Anarres, which contains its own oppressive seeds by forming strict proscriptions on people and their actions – are in direct conflict, and the novel is about the seeking of a balance between the two.
Le Guin was a person who smashed in the door, who got accepted and respected by being a genius, who took on what she saw as the Urrasian world into which she was born, and tried to move it toward Anarresian 8. Smith was a person who left the fight entirely, taking the world that he saw as stultifyingly Anarresian – told that the way to survive and thrive was to join up with a heterodox “team” and be raised by the rising tide of fortune – and left the whole thing, succeeding in a Urrasian sense, by allowing his talent and force of will to lift him out of the entire conflict.
They would, then, have met in the middle. Ultimately, by this comparison, we arrive at the things that they have in common. They were both ruthless critics of the things they thought were bad or stupid or even just not to their taste. Although even in their chosen critical venues, they were unfailingly themselves: Le Guin was a literary critic semi-professionally 9, and her criticism was collected in published volumes. Smith was not any kind of official critic, but a cantankerous coot who was asked often his opinion of other bands, which opinions he was more than happy to give freely and vociferously. And even in these approaches, we occasionally see glimpses of what the two might have in common: in the above-linked “Introducing Myself,” Le Guin digs at Burroughs and Hemingway, and Smith was more than willing to work with people that he had expressed distaste for, appearing on records by Damon Albarn (in the form of The Gorillaz) and the execrable Inspiral Carpets (among many others).
In both cases, however, their biggest legacy will be as the best kind of influence: the kind of artist who is not copied stylistically, but rather philosophically. Trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin is like trying to sing like Mark E. Smith – it seems easy to do, given the presence of an easily-identified style, but doing so will only make you sound like a pale imitation of the original, to your own detriment.
It is also, perhaps, not going too far to point out that they’ve always come from a similar place. Either of the artists was able to talk effusively and effortlessly about the influence of the Californian nutjob Philip K. Dick on their own lives and work. Le Guin was Dick’s contemporary 10, and she was a tireless booster of his work, which probably helped raise his profile enough to keep him in the public mind so that Mark E. Smith could, some years later, read and appreciate it. Le Guin and Dick both share a fascination with outsiderism, with worlds that are bigger than they seem, and with the limits of the human mind. Dick’s actual output, however, resembled Smith’s more: both men wrote shambolic, high-energy works that either soared on the strength of their ideas or collapsed utterly under their underdeveloped frameworks. The Fall made records in exactly the same way that Dick made books – quickly, relentlessly, and with very little regard for either how it fit into their oeuvre, how they would be accepted, or how they could possibly be better.
Or perhaps it’s more instructive to talk about their relationship to J.G. Ballard. Ballard was a huge influence on The Fall’s crosstown rivals Joy Division 11, and Smith claimed to only have enjoyed The Drowned World among all of Ballard’s work, despite the two men having functionally-identical worldviews. Le Guin, by contrast, revered Ballard (near as I can tell, she loved every single word of it, and there’s a lot of words there). Perhaps this is also indicative of their approaches: Ballard’s mindset and output were familiar to Smith’s, as they were very much like his own, and he didn’t need people that wrote like he did. He needed people that worked in other ways 12 to react against. Ballard’s hopeless isolationism, then, would have said something very different to Le Guin, acutely aware as she was of just exactly what “outside” was.
Rather than get further afield, I’ll simply say this. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her approach and philosophy, represented the best of what we could be: she wanted every voice heard, every person considered, every idea evaluated on its own merits regardless of the classification it came from. She fought against that classification every day, and in every piece of work, be it bound to race or gender or politics or the sort of artistic stratification that kept people whose minds worked a certain way out of the conversation. Mark E. Smith represented the best of what we could be: he wanted to be able to be what he could be, and never turned away from the messy truth of what that meant – he could be awful to people, he could be needlessly cruel, he was as willing as anyone to point out that these flaws existed and that they were a part of the whole thing, to be taken as it is. He also wanted everything and everyone considered, and believed that it was everyone’s job to consider it individually, rather than societally.
To say that the world would be lesser without the two of them is true. To say that I would be a fundamentally different person without the two of them is also true. The latter is probably the best thing I can say about either of them, and I’ll say it again: if it weren’t for Mark E. Smith and Ursula K. Le Guin, I would not be who I am. And if who I am falls short of who they were, well, it’s not for any failings on their part.
- other than their shared use of a middle initial, of course. ↩
- Le Guin was formally educated, American, the daughter of academics, Smith was English, working-class, and dropped out of school. ↩
- Le Guin was genteel, well-thought-out, insistent, consistent. Smith was abrasive, mercurial, and seemingly governed by an internal compass that pointed in directions that were nearly impossible for anyone else to figure out. ↩
- and, ultimately, the entire Hainish Cycle, of which TLHoD is the first part, and which includes The Dispossessed, about which see below. ↩
- she was one of the SFWA (the body that grants the Nebula Awards) Damon Knight Memorial Grand Masters ↩
- she was more a fantasist than a science fiction writer, although she forms an enormous part of where the ability to distinguish between the two falls apart. ↩
- I would even place money on Le Guin not even being aware of Smith’s existence, honestly, although I’m sure that Smith knew who Le Guin was, see below. ↩
- although, given her lifelong study of the Taoist ideas of balance, she probably would have stopped well before it actually got to to Anarres. ↩
- by which I mean that it is one of the things that make up her profession, not that she semi-professionally criticized literature ↩
they went to high school together, in fact
- the extent of which rivalry is now consigned to hearsay, and the vagaries of history. ↩
- if this seems at odds with my previous account of the similarities between the output of PKD and The Fall, understand that what I mean is that Smith avoided that which was philosophically similar to him under most circumstances – the primary exception here seeming to be Albert Camus (from whose work his band takes its name), who Smith loved – and that his way with words and way of expressing his philosophy are both very, very similar to Ballard’s. ↩