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The Nobel Prize: The “Fixing” of Doris Lessing

Virginia Tiger
p. 93-102

Texte intégral

“The Swedish Academy was faced with quite an astonishing number and range of writing. To sum it all up must have been quite formidable, don’t you think? Not easy at all.” (Lessing to Smith)

  • 1 Not only was she the 11th female winner—out of a total of 104—she was as well the coldest ever winn (...)

1Doris Lessing, the 2007 Nobel Literature Laureate was the 11th woman to be so honored,1 her strongest legacy in the Swedish Academy’s judgment having been that she inspired a generation of feminists with her novel, The Golden Notebook. The Academy’s citation defined her as “the epicist of the female experience” (The Permanent Secretary), in my judgment and that of others an egregious simplification, for it slants and limits her work to a single perspective. Defying classification, yet always as imaginatively sensitive as a barometer to the twentieth and now twenty- first century’s complex climates, Doris Lessing has—for the past fifty-eight years—spoken directly to more than one generation’s experience, teaching them about private pain, public chauvinism, the divisiveness inherent in even the least radical of causes. Her fifty-five works—twenty-six copious sometimes disheveled novels, a regiment of short stories, plays, poetry, essays, memoirs, autobiographies, opera libretti and apocalyptic fables—display a wide panoply of themes, ranging from left-wing politics, feminism and sexual license to religious zealotry, schizophrenia, racism, terrorism, the climactic calamities of drought, flash floods, war.

  • 2 In a related context, an essay notes: “A simple Internet search for Doris Lessing brings up over 95 (...)

2Following the award, however, the reception in the media in more than one country “fixed” her reputation. She was a feminist; she was an anti-feminist. She was a Marxist; she was an anti-Marxist. She was a social realist; loathing realism, she was an apocalyptic fabulist. And while I found by way of goggling “Lessing and the Nobel” at least 607,000 hits,2 I also was to learn from The New York Times that “Much of her work in the latter half of her career has not received the critical response of her warmly received early material” (Rich and Lyall). Harold Bloom, the self-besotted literary critic, called the academy’s decision “pure political correctness”, telling the Associated Press what would, in turn, be regurgitated by CNN as well as the International Herald Tribune: “Although Mrs. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable [. . .] fourth rate science fiction” (Associated Press). Note here the dismissive appellation “Mrs”. And recall, by the way, that such an extravagantly mean judgment erases the following works: The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches (1992); Playing the Game: A Graphic Novel (1993); Winter in July: Stories (1993); Love, Again (1996); Mara and Dann (1999); Ben in the World (2000); The Sweetest Dream (2002); The Grandmothers (2003); The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005); The Cleft (2007). And finally Alfred and Emily (2008).

3Joining the Schadenfreude chorus was Fox News which reiterated that Lessing had “received little attention in recent years and [had] been criticized as strident and eccentric” (Fox News) while the International Herald Tribune decried the recent works as “didactic and impenetrable” (International Herald Tribune). More than one response suggested that she “doesn’t mean as much to younger literary people as she does to older readers” (Critical Mass). Age—or rather the aged female—seemed much on the mind. On learning that the eighty-eight year-old author had been honored, Germaine Greer, still the outspoken Australian, trumpeted the Nobel as a “prize for old conservatives”, indeed, “politically very conservative, pro Western, pro capitalist” (Geelong Advertiser). Truculent retorts such as this clashed with the several representations of Doris Lessing as once “an ornament of the Communist party” (Pryce Jones 28). The Sunday Times’ Profile linked her with “the angry young men” literary scene of the 1950s, “to which she was co-opted—hosting tea parties in Hampstead for the likes of [John] Osborne, Ken Tynan, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson” (The Sunday Times 21). As the National Review archly summarized: “For her and her kind, the height of chic was to demonstrate on the steps of the American embassy in central London, making sure to be photographed with the police clearly visible in the background. Along with other famous leftists, she was in the vanguard of the Ban the Bomb marches that were a fixture in the social calendar [. . .]. The clique’s particular aura of neurotic and quarrelsome disturbance lay fog- like over the entire village of literary London” (Pryce Jones 28).

4Less belligerent, the Boston Globe ranked Lessing with those Laureate winning writers—Jean Paul Sartre and Czeslow Milosz—who had chronicled the allure, disappointment and hypocrisies of Communist politics. Along with CNN, this newspaper observed that, like Harold Pinter and Orhan Pamuk, recent Nobel awardees, she too had “a history of political controversy, having been a member of the British Communist Party, having campaigned against nuclear weapons and having once been prohibited from entering Southern Rhodesia, South Africa as well as the United States” (Blume).

5What Pinter and Pamuk did not share with the female Nobel Laureate, however, were the repeated depictions of appearance and presumed personality. “Stout, sharp and a bit hard of hearing” (Rich and Lyall). “Provocative and abrasive” (theblogbooks); “blunt” (Reuters); “strident” (Blume); “typically irreverent” (The New York Times 2008); “prickly” (Weeks) and often contrary in her opinions. London’s Guardian described her a evincing “predictable asperity” at Queen Elizabeth Hall during her first public reading following the award. “Her grumpiness seemed partly meant, partly playing to the audience” (The Guardian). Newsweek’s chime was to depict her as an “unpredictable curmudgeon” (McGuigan). Rehearsing her reaction before the assembled paparazzi and television cameras in front of her North London house—it may be recalled that she muttered “Oh Christ!” on being told of the award– one commentator declared Lessing “expressed neither gratitude nor pleasure [. . .] stomping off indoors in what seemed a sour mood” (Pryce Jones 28). Even Sweden’s Ambassador to England, Staffan Carlsson, presented her as “the least ingratiating of writers” (Carlsson). Is this a damning with faint praise, one has to wonder.

6The majority of media accounts hailed The Golden Notebook as radical for its portrayal of female life, with its encyclopedic study of women. Here women, rather than satisfying male expectations, made demands of men and dared to evaluate their excellence in bed, in conversation, in political morality, in professional ethics. As the Swedish Academy announced: “[t]he burgeoning feminist movement saw The Golden Notebook as a pioneering work and it belongs to a handful of books that informed the 20th century’s view of male-female relations” (The Permanent Secretary). Thus its moniker: Doris Lessing as the “epicist of female experience”. And the President and Chief Executive of Harper Collins, her publisher, declared “[f]or women and for literature, Doris Lessing is the mother of us all” (Rich and Lyall). The Guardian described her as “Britain’s elder stateswoman of feminism” (Allardyce 8). The London Times called The Golden Notebook “one of the earliest and greatest texts of the modern feminist movement” (The London Times). Le Monde agreed: “Doris Lessing [...] a acquis une renommée internationale dès 1962, avec Le Carnet d’or, devenu, sans qu’elle l’ait voulu, une bible pour les féministes [...] et elle-même une icône du féminisme mondial” (Noiville 10). For the International Herald Tribune, The Golden Notebook represented “a moment of self discovery, comparable to Catch 22 for anti-war protesters and The Catcher in the Rye for adolescents” (International Herald Tribune. Salon.com championed the novel’s “explosive effect on several generations of women intellectuals struggling to reconcile the life of the mind, the imperatives of the body and the gender roles inherited from the 1950s” (Morgan Green).

7Yet the “break through novel”, as The New York Times opined, depicted troubled, outspoken, aggressive women (The New York Times). And many October 2007 newspaper accounts renarrated the June 2007 Hay Festival in England whose sizeable proportion of Lessing’s devotees in the audience embraced the classic as their bible, still looking toward her as a banner-waving Jeanne d’Arc for the feminist cause. Here at the Hay Festival (as elsewhere) Lessing distanced herself from the brigands who claimed her as their leader. As the reports recounted, she had gone on record calling “feminists some of the smuggest, most un-self critical people the world has ever seen” (Pryce Jones 30). At a 2001 Edinburgh Book Festival, as the October 2007 reports also recounted, Lessing defended men against the “unthinking, automatic rubbishing by feminists”. “The most stupid, ill educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests”, Lessing was quoted as insisting (BBC News 2001). The reports also reiterated that she had confounded her readers’ base by way of her depiction of 1960s feminists as “having screwed it all up” (The Guard ian). In the context of the Nobel award, the BBC reported its earlier account of a derogatory remark: “I think a lot of romanticizing has gone on with the woman’s movement. Whatever type of behaviour women are coming up with, it’s claimed as a victory for feminism–nor does it matter how bad it is” (BBC News 2001). Another article, “Prizing Doris Lessing: the Nobel Committee Finally Gets it Right”, reiterated Lessing’s surely uncharitable generalization: “ ‘I hated the 1960s feminists [. . .]. They were dogmatists, you see. In comes ideology and out goes sense’ ” (Hitchens). That she provoked the ire of British critics and academics by stating that The Cleft’s reinventing of the origin of the species—female parthenogenesis, with males and unmusky afterthought—did not go unremarked. “‘What are men for?’, she was described as asking. Then to reply: ‘Men are introduced to pep up the slothful lazy world of women’” (BBC 2007). Provocative as these comments were, I suspect that some journalists, in choosing to quote them out of context, sought to tarnish Lessing’s unmistakable and well earned luster.

8So it was with relief that one read responses in the international press, celebrating her international stature. There was The London Times’ wonderful evocation of the moment when Lessing was told of the award: “The Queen of English letters alighting from a taxi like Boadicea from her chariot, apparently more concerned about shopping than the crowning honour of her career” (BBC 2). The Local, a Swedish newspaper, characterized her as “the most cerebral novelist of her generation” while mentioning the speculative fable Shikasta, science fiction being “something of which The Swedish Academy was rumoured to disapprove. This was blamed by some for Lessing missing out on the prize in the past” (The Local). In fact, the Swedish Academy’s secretary, Horace Engdahl, told Reuters that members of the academy discussed her as a potential laureate for years. “She is one of the most carefully considered decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize. She had opened up a new area of experience that earlier had not been very accepted in literature: female sexuality” (Reuters).

9However, other commendations did not so slantingly disfigure her work. The International Herald Tribune remarked that “the variety of work seems infinite—from colonial Africa in The Grass Is Signing to dystopian Britain in Memoirs of a Survivor to a new Ice Age in Mara and Dann” (International Herald Tribune). Frequently, her early depiction of African race relations, so amply displayed in the Children of Violence series, was noted as how she had seized and given weight to one of the majors themes—indeed, burning issues—of the century. In a conversation on the USA’s National Public Radio, the African writer, Alexander Fuller, remarked upon Lessing’s significant influence on Zimbabwean writers. He continued: “She was really the godmother […] because she was a truth sayer. I can’t imagine the courage it would have taken to step out of the very small bubble, that isolated bubble of white writers […] and to fly in the face of parochialism and what was expected of you in colonial Rhodesia at that time” (Neary).

  • 3 More ominously still, Lessing added that she might well have to give up writing novels altogether, (...)

10His is a generous tribute. My question—and it will be a concluding one—is why were there these contentious readings, even re-castings, this “fixing” of the 2007 Literature Laureate? A possible answer. Doris Lessing shares her life with “Doris Lessing”. Someone called “Doris Lessing” has become her representative in the public world, a figure with only a crude resemblance to the original. Yes, secured have been critical, financial and international success. She has seen her work endlessly discussed, analyzed, dissected, under praised, over praised, over flattered, victim of a characteristic 20th and 21st century’s mania for treating living artists as if they were dead, a point made by John Fowles and a process that pleases teacher and students: me, for example and you readers of this essay. But it does something different for the still breathing subject on the anatomy table. She is expected to happily play corpse. I suspect that Doris Lessing—not “Doris Lessing”—recoiled so ungraciously that morning in front of the press because she understood at once that this prize will keep her strapped to that anatomy table. Indeed, some seven months after its receipt she told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row that winning the prestigious ward was “a bloody disaster”. “All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed”3(BBC Radio 4).

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Bibliographie

Allardyce, Lisa, “Saturday Interview”, The Guardian, 13 October 2007, 33.

Anonymous, “Britain’s Doris Lessing Wins 2007 Nobel Literature Prize”, International Herald Tribune, 11 October 2007, http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/10/12/america/NA-US-Nobel- Literature.php.

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Notes

1 Not only was she the 11th female winner—out of a total of 104—she was as well the coldest ever winner.

2 In a related context, an essay notes: “A simple Internet search for Doris Lessing brings up over 958,000 Web links. There are sites in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Swedish” (Moyers).

3 More ominously still, Lessing added that she might well have to give up writing novels altogether, her energies being so sapped.

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Référence papier

Virginia Tiger, « The Nobel Prize: The “Fixing” of Doris Lessing », Études britanniques contemporaines, 36 | 2009, 93-102.

Référence électronique

Virginia Tiger, « The Nobel Prize: The “Fixing” of Doris Lessing », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 36 | 2009, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2017, consulté le 21 janvier 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/3721 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3721

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Auteur

Virginia Tiger

Rutgers University.
Virginia Tiger, Professor and Chair of English at Rutgers University, is the author of four books, the most recent being The Unmoved Target. The Fiction of Wiliam Golding, London: Marion Boyars Inc. She has published scholarly articles in such journals as Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Doris Lessing Studies, and essays in numerous collections, including ‘Sleepers Awake’: The Surfacing of Buried Grief in Doris Lessing’s Love Again. Recently she gave the Annual Humanities Laureate Lecture on Doris Lessing in the Distinguished Writers Program at the University of Calgary, Canada.

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