Thinking back over my wide reading in the canon and pop genres, I often muse on how lucky I am to be surrounded by books. After a lifetime of buying books, I have an eclectic library that is better than many bookstores. I’ve grazed happily in ancient and modern literature: Aeschylus to Austen, Catullus to Colette, Tolstoy to Elizabeth Taylor, Dickens to Drabble. But I must admit that Doris Lessing is the writer who has influenced me most.
Lessing was exasperated that The Golden Notebook was considered a feminist classic. It is primarily an experimental novel about the breakdown of personality in the fragmented post-war society. It may not be a feminist novel, but it certainly inspired feminists.
Lessing has always been a controversial writer. She was a member of the Communist party, until she (and many others) discovered what was going on in Russia. According to the Guardian, MI5 spied on her for 20 years, “listening to her phone conversations, opening her mail and closely monitoring her movement…”And the political aspects of her work that appealed to women readers in the ’60s and ’70s seem to be lost on future generations.
I never understand the attacks on a writer’s personality anyway. We read their work, but surely do not expect them to be perfect people. That’s why they’re writers after all: to express ideas that might be extremely unpopular or unappealing if we had to listen to them drone on in person. But nothing they dug up on Lessing seemed terrible to me. They were determined to turn her life into a celebrity gossip column. After all, she was a former Communist and an outspoken woman.
At Goodreads, the average star rating of The Golden Notebook is 3.8. That’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not what I’d expect. I wonder if she is less read and understood now: only 30% of the world’s population today was alive in 1962 when The Golden Notebook was published. But then again, this is a complicated experimental novel. It’s a lot of work to read.
Honestly, if I ever again see a headline like the following, “Doris Lessing: from champion of free love to frump with a bun” (The Spectator), I am writing a letter of protest to the editor.
4 thoughts on “The Doris Lessing Effect”
“I never understand the attacks on a writer’s personality anyway. ”
With Lessing, I think that many readers – and admiring readers especially, perhaps – thought of some of the books as being entirely autobiographical and read them as if they were intended for – or aimed at – them personally, so they read them in that way.
Yes, some elements are autobiographical, but readers do tend to over-identify with her characters. People have strong feelings about Lessing, though honestly I have met very few people who read her. What surprised me was the number of women who went after her for being “a bad mother.” The 21st century is a bit like the 1950s.
I’m often surprised by how much readers want to know of authors, as if having read a novel is not enough. This is one that I’m looking forward to reading. You’ve certainly tempted me with this review.
Yes, the writing and the writers aren’t quite the same! This is a classic, and one of my favorite books.