Doris Lessing: writing against and for

The Nobel literature award honours an eternal outsider whose critical distance from orthodoxy fuels her work's remarkable "predictive" quality, says Susan Watkins in this 2007 article.

Susan Watkins
17 November 2013

This article was first published on 12 October 2007

At the end of the second world war, Doris Lessing made the long boat trip to London from southern Africa with the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing, in her suitcase. Returning from what was at that time the British colony of Southern Rhodesia to a place that her white-settler parents called "home" was a disturbing experience that made her reflect on what it really means to be "English". In the memoir/essay, In Pursuit of the English, that describes her first few months in England, she casts an outsider's eye on white working-class culture in 1950s London. That exile's perspective on the world around her has been important throughout her writing career; she has made it her business to challenge some of the social conventions and cultural norms that we live by and to refuse - sometimes to the chagrin of her admirers - easy and familiar political affiliations.

In the 1950s, Lessing was one of the few women writers associated with the "angry young men" literary-political tendency. She was briefly a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and has often spoken (increasingly wryly) about the impact of communism on her early thinking - particularly during her last years in southern Africa, where in her milieu the local party was the only organisation dedicated to ending white rule. Her departure from the party was a traumatic experience that she admits made it difficult to engage in other political and cultural movements with the same energy.

A different journey

Since that early period of radical political commitment, Doris Lessing has always been reluctant to be associated with high-profile or fashionable public causes. Yet she has been "taken up" by first one and then another movement: socialism, feminism and anti-psychiatry among them. It was The Golden Notebook that led to her adoption as a (somewhat reluctant) sister by second-wave feminism. The novel has been described as "the first tampax in world literature" for its frank treatment of female sexuality and domestic labour and its attempt to define what it means to be a "free woman". However, the novel's achievements have as much to do with the attempt to think beyond realism as a way of writing and grapple with the structural complexities necessitated by the heroine's writer's block and emotional breakdown.

The Golden Notebook was undoubtedly a significant breakthrough for Lessing personally and for fiction more generally. The acclaim it received also became for her something of a burden: she lamented the fact that critics often seemed to want her to write the same novel over and over again. Instead, her work in in the 1970s and 1980s developed in very different directions that confounded the expectations of both her readers and the literary establishment. Her five-volume sequence of science-fiction novels, Canopus in Argos: Archives, was widely disliked, although it may well have found her a fresh audience. In 1983, she initiated one of the best-known hoaxes in literary history, publishing the first of two novels that used a pseudonym (Jane Somers) as a "test" to see if anyone would recognise her authorship.

These ventures provoked disappointment and misunderstanding, though in a larger perspective they reveal the same preoccupations - with outsider status and colonial displacement - as does her earlier fiction, even if their frameworks of power (inter-planetary conquest, personal autonomy, ownership of identity) are subversive in different ways.

Also in openDemocracy on recipients of the Nobel literature award:

Harold Pinter, "Democracy" (13 October 2005)

David Hayes, "Harold Pinter and Margaret Thatcher" (13 October 2005)

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow" (7 April 2005)

Ron Singer, "Nigerian futures: interview with Wole Soyinka" (25 August 2006)

Roger Allen, "Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world" (31 August 2006)

Trevor Le Gassick, "Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute" (1 September 2006)

Anthony Barnett, "Orhan Pamuk's prize: for Turkey not against it" (13 October 2006)

Hrant Dink, "Orhan Pamuk's epic journey" (16 October 2006) Lessing's move into science fiction and the hoax can also be understood as part of her broader attempt to resist what she saw as regressive developments in the literary culture: what was even then becoming the increasingly commercial and niche-market-driven publishing and book-selling industry, and the snobbish distinctions that critics offered between "serious" fiction and "lowbrow" genre novels.

A border exploration

It was also in the 1980s, against the background of continuing violence in Northern Ireland and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that Lessing tackled the subject of terrorism. The Good Terrorist portrays the unsympathetic (despite the title) Alice Mellings as a figure whose attachment to a minor leftwing group of social misfits leads to her estrangement from her family and gradual involvement in militant activity, culminating in a bomb attack that causes civilian injuries. The clever manipulation of the reader's feelings about Alice's actions allows Lessing to address a difficult subject in ways that bear revisiting in the current global political climate.

Indeed, Lessing often appears to write about things before they actually happen; this apparently "predictive" quality in her work has frequently led to her being labelled a "prophet" or "seer". In the 1990s, well before it was the hot topic it has become, she began writing about climate change; in Mara and Dann, for example, she vividly imagined the impact of a second ice-age. Her long-term interest in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam (reflected in her championing of the work of Idries Shah, for example) may suggest that in her later years she has recovered a belief in the relevance of a grander "world vision" or (more modestly) a "way" to follow.

In the past, critical opinion has often been equivocal about Lessing on the grounds that it does not consider her to be a stylist. Readers and reviewers have expressed dismay at some of her recent work, particularly The Cleft, with its apparently clumsy representation of a human pre-history peopled exclusively by parthenogenetic females who appear to endorse every female gender stereotype going. What is often missed is Lessing's interest in experimenting with genre and narrative perspective. The Cleft, after all, is narrated by a Roman historian, who himself makes assumptions about empire and gender.

The award of the Nobel prize for literature recognises that some of Doris Lessing's most interesting work has involved writing along the borderlines between realism, fantasy and science fiction; she makes as much use as she can of the potential for shrinking and then increasing the distance between the reader, narrator and character of a novel. Her continued interest in the borders and limits of concepts and ways of writing suggests that the exiled, outsider view apparent on her arrival in England has been the defining quality of her life's work.

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