British Author Lessing Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

October 11, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: And finally tonight, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to British author Doris Lessing. We begin with a report from John Sparks of Independent Television News.

JOHN SPARKS, ITV News Correspondent: Five o’clock this afternoon, at Doris Lessing’s home in London, wine to celebrate, but she was in a contemplative mood.

NOBEL PRIZE COMMITTEE ANNOUNCER: The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2007 is awarded to the English writer Doris Lessing.

JOHN SPARKS: Eight hours earlier in Stockholm and the big announcement. Ms. Lessing had been on the short list for the world’s biggest literature prize for years, yet the duty of informing the prolific author fell to a journalist outside her home.

JOURNALIST: We’re photographing you. Have you heard the news?

DORIS LESSING, Nobel Prize, Literature: No.

JOURNALIST: You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


JOHN SPARKS: Ms. Lessing’s first novel was published in 1950. Dozens of works of fiction followed, along with plays and non-fiction and autobiography. She was a child of the British Empire, born in Persia and raised on a farm in Rhodesia. There was little formal learning, but her parents loved books.

DORIS LESSING: Well, they also read and told stories, and my mother ordered books. Now, we’re in the middle of Africa, you understand, ordering books from England. So I had the most wonderful list of books as a child.

JOHN SPARKS: Doris Lessing inspired a generation of feminists with her breakthrough novel “The Golden Notebook.” Women were depicted as they really were and as they can be: angry, bored, aggressive. For many, it was a revelation.

DORIS LESSING: When I wrote “The Golden Notebook,” and I wrote these things that women were saying, apparently it was absolutely astounding to everyone. “My god, what an extraordinary revelation!” But I was writing down what women were saying.

What surprises me is that everyone reading that book would have heard women saying these things, but they weren’t listening to what they were saying.

JOHN SPARKS: She’s attracted her fair share of critics, labeled at various times the black writer, the communist writer, the mystical writer. The series of science fiction books written in the 1980s were judged harshly by some.

DORIS LESSING: This is what one has to expect from the literary establishment, I’m afraid. Well, they didn’t like my so-called science fiction. Why should they? It was absolutely outside what they were used to. But in my view, my personal view, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done. And when they get around to noticing it…

JOHN SPARKS: Still, Ms. Lessing, who’s 88 this month, has won most of the big literary prizes. Now she says she’s got the royal flush.

DORIS LESSING: Well, I feel a bit like the icing on the cake. That’s what it is. I mean, no one — I mean, it’s such a glamorous prize, and so many good people have won it, so you can’t say you don’t care about it.

Lessing's focus on conflict

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with me is Margaret Soltan, professor of literature at George Washington University.

Welcome to you.

MARGARET SOLTAN, Professor of Literature, George Washington University: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those not familiar with the work of Doris Lessing, what themes stand out?

MARGARET SOLTAN: She's interested in conflict. She hates conflict, but she's interested in the ways in which lives inevitably seem to resolve themselves into conflict, either conflict between men and women or conflict between nations.

But she generally in her novels and short stories focuses on people under pressure, people who've tried to live meaningful lives and made certain decisions towards a meaningful life, but somehow everything is falling apart and the basis of their existence is under question.

So, for instance, in her most famous novel, "The Golden Notebook," the main character has been a very committed communist in England in the 1950s and she begins to realize this has been a terrible error. And the novel really is sort of anatomizing how it is she goes about recognizing the error and fixing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a distinctive Lessing style? We heard how prolific she is. Is there a distinctive style, or has that changed over time?

MARGARET SOLTAN: Her style has changed a lot over time. She's been at this for more than 60 years, and she's a compulsive writer. She says she can't stop writing. And, I mean, she gardens, and she goes to the opera, but basically she just writes.

She's essentially a realist, in the tradition in England of someone like George Eliot. She doesn't do particularly experimental fiction. She experiments with theme, and her science fiction novels, obviously, are very surreal in various respects.

But the novels that I think she's best known for and the short stories are essentially realistic in nature. It's not fancy prose. It's just strong, confident, beautiful prose.

Autobiographical elements

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much of her own biography -- we heard about growing as a girl in Africa -- how much of that appears in the work?

MARGARET SOLTAN: Tons. She's a very autobiographical writer. Even when the context is science fiction, you can tell that she's incorporating her life into it.

"The Golden Notebook," again, is profoundly autobiographical. She, herself, of course, was a member of the party and underwent this kind of traumatic choice to leave it, with all that that meant.

Her sexual relationships, her marriages, her having lived in various countries, and her always, I think, trying to lead a committed political life, as well as a committed and meaningful personal life, is inherent in all that she writes.

JEFFREY BROWN: "The Golden Notebook" has this status as a classic, a feminist novel, and yet it sounds as though she herself didn't want that tag, or that she was at least ambivalent about it.

MARGARET SOLTAN: That's right. I think not ambivalent. You know, she's pretty annoyed about, as I take it from reading interviews with her, about that status, the sort of feminist icon novel. And I think it's for a couple of reasons.

One is simply that all serious novelists want to be taken as dealing in universal themes. So I think you'd find Philip Roth being unhappy about being called a Jewish novelist. And you'll find Lessing unhappy about being tagged as, in some sense, a feminist writer.

She wants universal themes. And then, too, her attitudes toward feminism have changed radically over the years, and she has lots of trouble with it, considers it to be a species of political correctness and to have dehumanized men. She sees it as sort of founded, fairly or unfairly, founded on a certain kind of male-bashing, which she objects to.

So, no, I think it's quite true that she doesn't want to be known as a...

Assessing Lessing's legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: We heard her in that clip tossing aside the criticisms that have come from some in the literary mainstream, but they have been there, certainly the last couple of decades, and certainly with some of the science fiction that she's written.

MARGARET SOLTAN: Sure. And about that I would say that I think, like Norman Mailer, who she resembles in some respects and who she admires, she's a writer who has a long history of writing and a long history of engagement, and serious engagement, and maybe on some level somewhat naive engagement in intellectual questions and moral questions.

And I think anyone who's a serious fiction writer who has 60-plus years of engagement in various modes of existence and various spiritual ideas -- you know, she's interested in Sufism, et cetera -- is going to look silly sometimes and is going to be subjected to some ridicule.

But, I mean, you know, talk about Blake, or Whitman, or D.H. Lawrence, or any of them. You know, they're people who are forging new ideas, and trying out things, and they're very vulnerable, and they specialize in human vulnerability in their work. So I'm not surprised she's been attacked.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we only have a short time here, and you teach 20th century literature, I know. Where do you put her, in terms of her overall legacy? What will last? What will stand?

MARGARET SOLTAN: I think what will stand out is "The Golden Notebook." I think what will stand out are her short stories, which are brilliant and beautiful. You know, even when she was very young, writing short stories, really good.

Among those, listeners might be most -- viewers might be most aware of "To Room Nineteen," which is a story about a woman who commits suicide. And it's much anthologized and discussed. It's really a gem of a short story.

And so I think she'll be remembered as someone who wrote brilliant short stories and who accomplished "The Golden Notebook," and all that it has in terms of literary qualities and also in terms of global impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret Soltan on Doris Lessing, thanks very much.