[Blog Review] Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize Laureate

On Oct. 11, the Swedish Academy announced that Doris Lessing (87) had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Most bloggers reacted to the news by recounting meetings they have had with Lessing and by discussing the influence her writing has had on them as individuals and as writers.

They also discussed some of Lessing’s books and the themes she explores in her writing.

A few reacted by reviewing what has been said in newspapers about Lessing and her books. An even smaller minority, like T. K. Kenyon, the author of Rabid — used the news to launch a diatribe against the “self-appointed literati and men” who had unfavorably criticized Lessing’s science fiction.

There was an almost unanimous agreement that the award was well-deserved and long overdue.

Nury Vittachi, author of The Feng Shui Detective responded by revealing how, a few years ago, he had gone to a book signing Doris Lessing was hosting and about how she was holding one of his books when he approached her table.

“So it ended up with her signing my book and me signing hers,” he says.

Writing in the Guardian Arts blog, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and author of How Novels Work, recounts the impression Lessing had on him when he went to interview her for the Guardian Book Club. He also tells us of the impression she had on others who met her.

“She was the first writer at a Book Club event to earn an ovation simply by dint of entering the room. When those attending asked her questions it was clear that she had one requisite of the Nobel Prize winner: readers who believed that she had changed their lives.”

Mullan goes on to review two of Lessing’s books, The Cleft and The Golden Notebook.

He describes The Cleft, as an “unsettling dystopian fable of maleness and femaleness… The very faults that some found -- the book’s freight of ideas and its intellectual ambition -- were unusual enough to appear virtues to me.”

He identifies The Golden Notebook, as one of those books that defined the feminist movement because it explored arguments between and by women about what it meant to be “Free Women.”

“For 1962 it was audacious stuff. It brought to the English novel a heady brew of new material: political debate, psychotherapy sessions, disastrous sex. It is the earliest novel I know of to include matter-of-fact mentions of pre-menstrual tension and tampons,” he writes.

J. Carter Wood, author of Violence and Crime in Nineteenth Century England analyzes how the media in Germany covered news of the award. He or his wife (between the two of them it is not very clear whose views these are) suggests that most supporters, detractors and journalists who commented on the news misjudged Lessing because they had not read much of her work.

He takes particular offense at an article which appeared in the S├╝ddeutsche Zeitung, which suggested that Lessing was “politically correct.”

“No, Lessing has not been indulging in the facile pleasantries of political correctness… In fact, she has spent much of her career mauling the self-comforting, self-satisfied ethical certainties with which she is now being falsely associated,” he argues.

He does not explicitly explain what it means to be politically correct.

He draws on the many turns Lessing’s life, writing and ideas have taken and analyzes Lessing’s novel, The Sweetest Dream, and uses these to show how Lessing has dismantled the political ideas that she had held earlier.

“There is nothing utopian or politically correct about Lessing’s protagonist. Frances is Everywoman, trying to make do in a world of radically different individuals with conflicting interests and expectations, only to realize that, however hard one tries, there will always be plenty of loose ends left over,” Wood writes.

Robert Stikmanz, author of Prelude to a Change of Mind says he has read about 20 of Doris Lessing’s books and that half of these were her science fiction.

“There is no novelist I admire more, nor one who has had more influence on my own work. Her Canopus in Argos series was more of an inspiration for The Lands of Nod than either Tolkien or Casta├▒eda,” he explains.

He finds it odd that in the U.S. and in the U.K., media coverage on Lessing’s award has downplayed the science fiction.

“One claim shared by all the press has been that she is “best known for” The Golden Notebook,” he observes.

He suggests that The Four-Gated City is “a more remarkable book” but does not explain why he holds this view.

Matthew Cheney discusses Doris Lessing in relation to his experiences with J. M. Coetzee, Harold Pinter and Joyce Carol Oates.

He tells us that while he was most affected by The Golden Notebook, The Four-Gated City and Mara and Dann, the books he remembers most clearly are The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in the World.

“The first is a knockout of a novella, a profoundly disturbing and alienating book. The second recasts the whole thing, as if one writer had written both Beowulf and Grendel. Taken together, the books are marvels of manipulation, and show just how severely a writer can reconfigure our sympathies,” he writes.

He discusses the challenges he faced when he tried to read The Sweetest Dream and notes with amusement that by Lessing becoming a Nobel Laureate, it “gives us the first Nobel Prize in Literature winner who was also a Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention (in 1987).”

Lizz Shepherd develops this theme further when she expresses the hope that Doris Lessing’s win will lead to a change in how science fiction is perceived in literary circles.

“I love me some sci-fi, but it’s rare to see the genre taken seriously as literature. I hope this signifies a change in its literary reputation,” Shepherd writes.

This article was first published by OhmyNews International.

Related article:

[Blog Review] The Mind of a Working Writer, Conversations with Writers, October 22, 2007.


Popular posts from this blog

[Interview] Rory Kilalea

writers' resources

[Interview] Lauri Kubuitsile