Last week I had a blog post with the admittedly provocative title Is The Left Hand of Darkness Sexist? My answer was No. But in the comments, various people raised issues from the decades that ensued of examination of, argumentation over, and engagement with the novel. For my money, that's an indication that the book was a success.
The longest response, almost an essay in its own right, came from Judith Moffett, who unintentionally triggered the post, long ago when she let Gregory Frost and me teach her class in her absence. It was so thoughtful (and, I must confess, so in line with my own thoughts on the book) that I'm reposting it here so everybody can see it.
You can read the original post here.
And you can read the comments here.
And what Judith Moffett had to say was . . .
Hmm. I may have worshiped at UKLG's altar so ardently that those students may have felt they wouldn't get a fair hearing if they brought their issue up in class. That's too bad. But I didn't only teach content. When I first read the novel, in 1973, I was utterly blown away by the androgyny trope, it's true, but also by the beautiful prose and a taboo-busting love story that moved me personally more than I can say. I hadn't been reading sf for a dozen years or so, but while I wasn't looking the genre had grown up. I taught the book all of a piece: form, theme, style, structure, like you would teach any mature and serious work of fiction.
I was not disposed to quibble over pronouns while reeling from my initial encounter with Le Guin's Gethenians. But later, when I read "Is Gender Necessary?", the essay Mary Anne Mohanraj mentions, included in The Language of the Night (1976 version) and then in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1987 version), I agreed absolutely with what Le Guin says in the second revision. Later still Virginia Kidd let me read in ms. a screenplay treatment Le Guin had written, in which she attempts to rectify her mistake by inventing and applying the neuter pronoun English lacks and needs. The pronoun is "un" in nominative and accusative cases (Un invited un to the dance), and "uns" as a possessive (Un did uns homework and went out to play). Not such an easy problem to fix gracefully, alas.
I don't think it makes sense to label the book "sexist" or "homophobic." It may look those things from a contemporary perspective, and my students may have called it sexist for reasons that made sense to them in the 80s, but in 1969, its year of publication, Left Hand made a groundbreaking assault on traditional gender attitudes and entrenched homophobia. Change has to begin somewhere. Fair enough to see and say that the novel is grounded in the moment of its appearance; not fair to dismiss the many more ways it burst through that moment to carry feminist consciousness forward, to the point where people can look back and mainly see, not the revolutionary message, but the flaws!
Judy is best-known in science fiction for such highly-regarded novels as Penterra and her Hefn on Earth trilogy -- she should be forgiven the punning ubertitle -- but she's also the author of the suburban homesteading nonfiction classic Homestead Year, and various critical works and translations of poetry. I'm a particular fan of her second (I think) collection of poetry, Whinny Moor Crossing.