Doris Lessing still battles labels

The new Nobel laureate defies convention – and confounds fans – with the breadth of her oeuvre.

Doris Lessing is a difficult author to define – and she likes it that way. Ms. Lessing writes with the political passion of Karl Marx and the unflinching eye of Henry James. She chronicles the woman's experience the way Virginia Woolf did and has even explored other planets and dimensions, à la Ray Bradbury. The recent Nobel Laureate has published roughly a book a year for more than half a century.

And as she celebrates her 88th birthday, Lessing is at work on a new novel. Her best-known work, "The Golden Notebook," published in 1962, is considered a watershed text for the women's movement.

But Lessing, who has always bridled at being categorized as a feminist or anything else, has called "The Golden Notebook" her albatross because it labeled her as a feminist writer. Even "Nobel Prize winner" seems uncomfortable for her. Her response on learning of the award: "I couldn't care less."

Lessing's refusal to remain a known quantity has taken something of a toll, both critically and with readers. Many of Lessing's biggest fans from the 1960s and '70s stopped reading her as she began to transition from traditional fiction to sci-fi.

"Lessing's probably the most politically incorrect of all writers," says Margaret Moan Rowe, a professor of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who has written extensively on Lessing. "She's offended almost every group, including feminists. Something's high art, something's pulp…. These are categories she just rejects."

If Lessing's work is difficult to pigeon-hole, her life is even more so. She spent much of her childhood on a farm in what is now Zimbabwe, where she witnessed the brutal realities of apartheid. She dropped out of school at age 14 and became impressively self-educated, reading everything from D.H. Lawrence to Dostoevsky.

She eventually moved to England, married twice, joined and dropped out of the Communist Party, and embraced Sufism. Sandra Singer, who teaches Lessing at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says the writer's life is an essential part of her ­oeuvre. "Because she has such a range built into her own biography, it's brought a tremendous complexity to her writing." But whatever she writes about, says Singer, "There are constant sources of insight about the color bar, male-female relationships, settler-servant relationships. Those are always there."

Rowe says, in part, it was a desire to really explore these issues that led Lessing to science fiction. "She fantasizes about the perfect city where different races live together in harmony," says Rowe. "She looks at all of these political issues…. Sci-fi gives her a chance to really stretch all of that."

In "The Golden Notebook," Lessing writes about the many sides of protagonist Anna Wulf. Many said the book exposed the contradictions of what it meant to be a woman in the early '60s. Reader Joan Toohey Wesman remembers the impression the book made on her in college. "At the time, there were not books that really talked about a woman's experience, a woman's body, about sex and relationships," says Wesman. "And it did it in this really unromanticized way." Hers was "a really different voice in the culture."

Lessing has made one concession to the Nobel: She says it might encourage more people to read her books. Although she's remained a prolific writer, many younger readers have never heard of her.

Despite the density of her work, Lessing could win a solid new audience, predicts Rowe. Her work will always resonate, Rowe says. because Lessing explores themes inherent to the human condition. "Lessing is always challenging dogma, and she has a willingness to look at herself and her own ideas. That's in short supply. Lessing's questioning … I don't just find interesting, I find it heroic."

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