Ursula K. Le Guin will receive National Book Foundation award

Celebrated science-fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin in front of a portrait painted by Henk Pander.
(Benjamin Reed / For The Times)

Science fiction-fantasy legend Ursula K. Le Guin will be awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the group announced Tuesday. Le Guin, 84, will be the 27th winner of the medal and the second science fiction-fantasy author to receive the honor (after Stephen King in 2003).

Portland, Ore., novelist Le Guin is a familiar name not just to fantasy fans but to pretty much everybody in the literary world. She’s perhaps best known for her groundbreaking 1969 science fiction novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” widely considered one of the best novels in the genre as well as a landmark of feminist literature. It’s also the source of one of her best-known quotes: “One voice, speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time.”

Others know her as the author of the “Earthsea” books, a fantasy cycle written for young adults but admired by readers of all ages. Her latest novel, “Lavinia,” was published in 2008.


Although Le Guin is mostly known as a science fiction-fantasy author, she has a complicated relationship with those labels. In a 2008 interview with author Alexander Chee, Le Guin noted, “I am shortlisted for major awards, but the awards go to people like De Lillo and MacCarthy who also write science fiction, using the tropes and loci and metaphors of science fiction, but fastidiously keep their literary skirts from being defiled by the name of genre.”

Past recipients of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters include Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Updike, Judy Blume and Oprah Winfrey. Le Guin will receive the medal on Nov. 19 at the National Book Awards. It will be presented by Neil Gaiman, another genre-bending author known for his work in science fiction and fantasy.