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.

Sady Doyle

Doris Lessing, who famously told reporters she 'couldn't care less' about winning the Nobel Prize, died November 17 at the age of 94. (Elke Wetzig / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.

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 con­tribut­ing writer. 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.
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