The reluctant feminist

Nobel-winner Doris Lessing has shrugged off feminist interpretations of her work -- with good reason.

Published October 12, 2007 1:30PM (EDT)

One can't help admiring a woman who greets news about receiving a Nobel Prize with the words: "Oh Christ! ... I couldn't care less."

If this seems like the slip of an old woman who had had a long day and didn't want to be bothered by reporters at her front door, it's also vintage Doris Lessing. In the Associated Press story, she told reporters that her almost getting the Nobel prize "has been going on for 30 years."

"I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all, the whole lot, OK?" Lessing reportedly said. "It's a royal flush."

Then, once the news sunk in, she added: "I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise." Lessing continued, "I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off."

Doris Lessing's iconoclasm has served her well. Author of some 55 books over 60 years in a wildly diverse range of genres, she has tackled everything from early '60s communism to race relations in Africa, terrorism to sci-fi dystopias. But being the voice of unpopular opinions cuts both ways. Hailed as a feminist icon since the publication of "The Golden Notebook" and repeated today ad nauseam in articles reporting on her new $1.5 million Swedish prize, Lessing has often shrugged off feminist interpretations of her work, and with good reason. Although she's no doubt a thoughtful, complex thinker who cares deeply about social justice issues and the intricacies of human morality, her attitudes toward women have long been mediated by some curiously atavistic ideas.

Sometimes shrouded in her fictional characters, her ideas became more explicit in 2001 at the Edinburgh Book Festival, when she gave a speech that might have warmed the cockles of Ann Coulter's heart. She told her audience that feminism had been taken over by a "lazy and insidious" culture in which women "continually demeaned and insulted" men.

As the Guardian quoted her: "I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed.

"Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation."

Back up there -- equality on pay and opportunities? On which imaginary planet is she residing? And what about domestic violence, rape and the scores of countries in which women are quite literally second-class citizens? As evidence of this ubiquitous male-bashing, Lessing recounts being in an elementary-school classroom in which a teacher was telling her 9- and 10-year-old students that wars are a result of men's innate violence. Yeah that's pretty stupid stuff, but ... can we really extrapolate on the failings of feminism from the silly comments of an elementary-school teacher?

Last year, Ursula K. Le Guin's critique of Lessing's recent novel "Clefts" also called into question Lessing's ideas about gender. In the mythic parable, the book chronicles the history of some seal-like she-creatures who reproduce through parthenogenesis, then evolve through procreating and keeping house with some of their mutated offspring -- the adventurous and masculine "squirts."

In Le Guin's words: "If we are offered the story as an origin myth of human sexuality and gender, I can't accept it. It is incomplete; it is deeply arbitrary; and I see in it little but a reworking of a tiresome science-fiction cliché -- a hive of mindless females is awakened and elevated (to the low degree of which the female is capable) by the wondrous shock of masculinity. A tale of Sleeping Beauties -- only they aren't even beautiful. They're a lot of slobbering walruses, till the Prince comes along."

This isn't to lambaste Lessing: She's a literary treasure and remarkable woman by any standard. It's also healthy for every ism to be subjected to ruthless scrutiny. But it's worth noting that Lessing's ambivalence about labels isn't simply a contrarian conceit: Maybe it's because they just don't fit.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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