Doris Lessing, Nobel Laureate

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As you may have noticed, I love a good controversy,

and I certainly got one last Thursday when the Swedish Academy honored prose writer Doris Lessing with the 2007

Nobel Prize in Literature.

But before the complications, the good part: Lessing, at nearly 88, is the oldest winner

(not entirely surprising, since the prize can’t be given posthumously) and only the 11th woman

out of 106

(not entirely surprising, since, as we well know, female-friendliness isn’t a typical “Academy” quality).

The other good part? Lessing’s initial response to reporters asking about the win was to say, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.”

Also, “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot, OK?” And finally,

“Now I’m going to go in to answer my telephone. I swear I’m going upstairs to find some suitable sentences, which I will be using from now on.”

Right on, Doris. In the unlikely event that I ever find reporters on my doorstep informing me that I have won something besides my latest game of spider solitaire,

I’m stealing that last line.

The Academy describes Lessing as an “epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has

subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” And so begins the controversy; the author is nearly as famous for her

refutations of feminism

as she is for feminist text The Golden Notebook. Still, she

acknowledges

that Notebook contains “feminist ideas,” regardless of her intentions at the time, and some of her

complaints

— that feminism has ignored “poor and working women in the Third World” — are now standard criticisms of the earlier movement.

A related controversy stems from the fact that Lessing’s recent efforts haven’t received anything like her earlier critical acclaim, and since

the disapproval sometimes comes from fellow sci-fi writers like

Ursula Le Guin,

it’s not strict genre snobbery. King of the Ivory Tower Literary critic

Harold Bloom describes her win as “pure political correctness,” and even the crew at Gawker’s

Femiladyism say that it reeks of

affirmative action girl style.”

Recent criticism aside, Lessing’s talents and the Academy’s qualifications

(to honor writing with “idealistic” tendencies) indicate that the win is more than a patronizing pat on the collective female back.

Her formal experimentation was as novel as her feminism, and it makes sense to award an artist who writes against misogyny, as well as against

racism and colonialism (The Grass Is Singing),

social trauma (Memoirs of a Survivor) and environmental degradation (Mara and Dann).

While I question the exclusivity and bias of institutions like the Academy, that’s a debate for a different place — for now,

I celebrate anything that brings literature front and center.

If more people will read Lessing, then award away, Academy. But don’t listen to me. Dan Kellum at The Nation

says it better:

In order to scrutinize, one must take risks [.... Lessing] makes her missteps, but at the end of the day she is still asking an all-important

question — in an age that values the individual, how is the individual supposed to stem the tide of what appear to be the increasingly catastrophic forces that threaten our

world?

If that’s not enough to make one run out and get a Lessing book, I don’t know what will be. Anyone else out there reading?

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