Award aims to honour imaginative fiction that champions ‘hope and freedom, alternatives to conflict and a holistic view of humanity’s place in the natural world’
Last modified on Fri 22 Oct 2021 05.29 BST
Winning the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2014, the late Ursula K Le Guin spoke of how how “hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope”. Seven years later, a new literary award is being launched by her estate to honour those authors.
The Ursula K Le Guin prize for fiction will be awarded for the first time next year, on 21 October, which would have been the Earthsea author’s 93rd birthday. Worth $25,000 (£18,000), it will go to a work of “imaginative fiction”, with the intention of recognising the writers Le Guin spoke of in her 2014 acceptance speech. She said at the time that she was sharing the medal with “all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists”. When the hard times arrive, Le Guin said, “we’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality”.
Le Guin died in 2018, aged 88. Theo Downes-Le Guin, her son and literary executor said he hoped the prize would “provide meaningful help and recognition to writers who might otherwise not receive it.
“Many will appreciate an irony in that Ursula herself was suspicious of literary awards and prizes. At the same time, she recognised their genuine value in honouring a writer and increasing visibility of good, undervalued writing,” he added. “She also knew that a bit of money, at the right moment and in the right spirit, can be a turning point in a writer’s ability to continue writing.”
Le Guin was the winner of six Nebula awards, eight Hugo awards, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Grand Master award. She was known for works of science fiction such as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and the celebrated and award-winning Earthsea children’s fantasy novels, which are currently being adapted for television.
Her estate said it wanted to honour novels that “reflect some of the themes and ideas that were central to Ursula’s own magnificent and beloved work, including hope and freedom; alternatives to conflict; and a holistic view of humanity’s place in the natural world”.
The new award will be open “to all; readers, authors, booksellers, publishers, librarians, and anyone else can nominate work they believe fits the prize criteria”, said the Ursula K Le Guin Literary Trust, which will create a shortlist of finalists, to be read by a panel of judges including David Mitchell, Luis Alberto Urrea and Becky Chambers.
Cloud Atlas author Mitchell said he was “deeply honoured” to judge the award. “Ursula Le Guin’s visionary fiction entered my head when I was young and has never left. Her novels and stories defined, in part, my understanding of what fiction can do, should do, and why,” said Mitchell. “I look forward to encountering new works of imaginative fiction which, like Ursula’s, glow in the dark.”
Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, agreed. “Ursula Le Guin’s books are what made my younger self want to become a science fiction writer, so I consider it a huge honour to be part of the jury for this prize,” she said. “Fictional futures that give us something to point our compasses toward are a vital thing, and I’m so excited for the opportunity to help celebrate the voices continuing that work.”
The nomination period for the 2022 prize will begin on 1 February next year, with details available at ursulakleguin.com.