Features » November 21, 2013
We Don’t Have to Love Doris Lessing, But We Should Admire Her
After her death, critics have paid more attention to Lessing’s personality than her prose.
Lessing’s own complexity and flexibility—though it may have occasionally looked like perversity or simple crankiness—was her best asset. She was cynical, unsentimental, and possessed of a frighteningly keen eye for dishonesty and self-delusion: a brilliant woman whose greatest talent was calling bullshit.
Whatever else British novelist Doris Lessing will be remembered for, it is undeniably true that she is the source of one of the greatest lit-related YouTube clips of all time. The clip in question, which emerged in 2007, shows the then-88-year-old writer disembarking from a cab, grocery bags in hand.
“We’re photographing you,” a reporter explains off-screen. “Have you heard the news?”
“No,” she says, in a tone that says she doesn’t much care to hear it.
“You’ve won the Nobel Prize,” the reporter says. “For Literature.”
Lessing looks to the heavens, rolls her eyes with mighty disgust, and sets her bags down.
“Oh, Christ,” she says.
Throughout her subsequent interviews, Lessing never got any more impressed or reverent. When informed by Time that the Nobel committee had called her “the epicist of the female experience,” she responded, “Well, they had to say something.” Journalists asked her how she felt about winning the prize itself; she answered, “I couldn’t care less.” For those who had skipped out on her 50-plus works, it was a harsh introduction to a defining feature of Doris Lessing’s persona: Lessing really, genuinely, did not appear to give one single damn for public opinion, even when it was in her favor.
It probably came in handy: People frequently disliked her. Joan Didion, in a stunningly condescending review, once declared that “she does not want to 'write well' … Mrs. Lessing writes exclusively in the service of immediate cosmic reform.” Harold Bloom, meanwhile, accused her of a “crusade against male human beings.” Following her death on November 17, she's been subjected to the sort of harsh scrutiny that it’s hard to imagine a male author of her rank receiving. The obituary in the New York Times, for example, went into detail about her various infidelities, and remarked, with chilly censoriousness, that “seeking what she considered a free life, [Lessing] abandoned two young children.” (In fact, as Lessing said in 1997, she had to leave her first marriage because it was severely endangering her mental health, and she was on good terms with those children.) The obituary goes on to quote extensively from the criticism of J.M. Coetzee and Michiko Kakutani; following Lessing’s 1994 autobiography, Kakutani called Lessing “self-absorbed and heedless,” and Coetzee apparently thought it “depressing” that she would dare to personally delve into the subject of her family at all.
Compare this to the reverent treatment the Grey Lady gave Lessing’s contemporary John Updike, who had a failed marriage of his own, wrote enough steamy-pantsed descriptions of adultery to make a genre out of them and was subjected to torrents of criticism from feminists and fellow writers alike. Of his notorious and toxic misogyny, the obituary mildly noted that “some readers complained about his portrayal of women.” Apparently, the fact that Lessing won the Nobel and Updike didn't is less important than their respective genders. Updike, as a man, gets posthumously evaluated in terms of his work, whereas Lessing, as a woman, is evidently primarily interesting in terms of her sex life and whether or not everybody thought she was a nice person.
In fact, for at least one outlet, delivering arguably unflattering opinions of Lessing's personality appear to have taken precedence over basic fact-checking. An ABC news story on Lessing’s death, for example, explained, “The prolific author, feminist, communist and social commentator was famously abrasive.” Two of the adjectives in this sentence are factually wrong, and that last bit is a matter of opinion.
Lessing identified as a Communist as a young woman, largely because the Party provided a way for her to connect with other writers and readers— “the local Reds were the only people that ever read anything,” she told Bill Moyers in 2003—but spent her later years insisting that socialism was dead and characterizing the ideals of her fellow progressives as a form of mass hysteria.
“We were mad,” she said to Moyers in the same 2003 interview. “We genuinely believed that … 15 years after the [World War II], Paradise would reign in the world, you know, Utopia. Everything bad would be banished, you know, capitalism, and that cruelty, and the unkindness to children, and unkindness to women and you name it. And we believed this rubbish.”
In fact, her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook dealt with the decay of the Communist party and the resulting disillusionment of her radical peers. It was widely championed by second-wave feminists, who loved its focus on women’s internal struggles and who felt that it captured their own disenchantment with the sexist Left. Without apparently meaning to, Lessing found herself with an opportunity to claim a prominent place within one of the largest and most effective political movements of the 20th century. And so, naturally, she spent the rest of her career saying nasty things about the feminist women who’d turned her into a household name—and about feminism in general.
“I don’t think that the feminist movement has done much for the characters of women,” she told the New York Times in 2008. “I mean, [our society] has produced some monstrous women. What has happened is that given the scope to women to be critical and unpleasant, by God they have taken it, so men are suffering from it.”
It’s deeply ironic that Doris Lessing thought she could complain about “critical and unpleasant” women. (When people like Harold Bloom attacked her for being too angry and anti-male, she rebuffed them, noting that “apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.”) But her critiques weren't always without merit. When she wasn’t calling her feminist fans “monstrous,” after all, she was also prone to (correctly) pointing out second-wave feminism’s exclusive focus on privileged women. And even as she dissociated herself from organized movements that opposed capitalism, racism and sexism, she remained intensely critical of all three.
Lessing’s brilliance and radicalism both sprang from her resistance to the idea of “belonging” to, and therefore being limited by the worldview of, any one group or ideology. She rejected Communism, feminism and even literary fiction itself: In the middle of her career, when she’d gained a substantial amount of credibility as a realist, she promptly blew it all on writing critically panned science fiction. One gets the sense that Lessing preserved her perpetual outsider status simply to keep her voice uncontaminated by third-party wisdom. A quote from her 1997 Salon interview seems to cut to the heart of Lessing’s distrust of collective authority:
[There is a] need to oversimplify. To control. And an enormous distrust of the innovative, of new ideas. All political movements are like this—we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility.
Lessing’s own complexity and flexibility—though it may have occasionally looked like perversity or simple crankiness—was her best asset. She was cynical, unsentimental, and possessed of a frighteningly keen eye for dishonesty and self-delusion: a brilliant woman whose greatest talent was calling bullshit. You could argue that this made her “abrasive,” sure. Or you could describe her in terms we tend to reserve for equally opinionated men: Bold, brave, iconoclastic, uncompromising, daring, self-possessed, strong.
But whatever set of adjectives we use for Doris Lessing, the fact is, the world needs writers—particularly female writers—like her, who are willing to swim against the current. The mainstream narratives our society faces are still dangerous and harmful, and women, who spend their lives being indoctrinated with the “feminine” traits of sweetness and politeness and general un-disruptiveness, need strong willpower to oppose them. As the publishing industry changes and becomes ever more dependent on clicks and self-policing sectors of interest, there’s an increasing amount of pressure to simply reinforce what readers already believe, and to echo what they come to the table wanting to hear.
We have a greater capacity than ever before to advocate for our collective interests, but every collective needs its watchdogs and cynics: people like Lessing, who stand to the side and blow raspberries at the accepted truisms and popular memes. Whether or not Doris Lessing identified as a feminist, her sheer dogged commitment to always making up her own mind, to believing something only when she had been fully, entirely, independently convinced to believe it, provides a vibrant example for women—and for writers, period.
Doris Lessing was not always lovable. But it was nearly impossible not to admire her. Even when she was wrong, the force of her independence, and brilliance, stood out—and will stand out, for generations to come.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady