Doris Lessing and the prize

As many of you probably know by now, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in literature. Unfortunately, my knowledge of her is as follows:

Still, I’m heartened by and want to read Lessing’s novels because of an op-ed in The New York Times:

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.


A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

I very much want to keep quoting, but if I continue I’ll copy the whole thing. It also marks her side on a list I’ve started keeping, with writers who believe in art for art’s sake on one side (some Romantic poets, Lessing, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov) and art being inherently political on the other side (many academic literary critics, Orwell). The debate is unending, and I fall more toward the art for art’s sake end of the spectrum.

In addition to Lessing’s piece, read Christopher Hitchens’ comments about this year’s choice in Slate. Hitchens is right about the many weak picks in the Nobel Literature prize, but he goes too far by calling many “time-servers and second-raters.” Then again, if he didn’t go too far he wouldn’t be Hitchens.

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