Nobel Intentions

Lessing actually considers her science fiction series to be amongst her most important work

Feature by Keir Hind | 07 Nov 2007
Last month, Doris Lessing became the oldest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which bothered me slightly because I nearly killed her last year (accidentally) and who'd have gotten it then? But I'll get to that later. Lessing may be the oldest winner thus far, but the laureates have tended to be quite aged for some time now. This is because the Nobel Prize nowadays awards an author's entire writing career rather than any individual piece.

It was not always thus. The Nobel Prize was set up by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, through his will. He left instructions as to how it was to be awarded in each category (chemistry, literature, medicine, peace and physics, with economics added later) with the literature prize to be awarded to "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency". The use of 'work' here can be interpreted as a single work, or as a body of work. The latter is now the accepted trend, but there was a time when a single work could clinch the prize. The Nobel Foundation describe Thomas Mann's award as being "principally for his great novel Buddenbrooks", though he could as deservedly have won for his entire output.

It has now come to be accepted that an award of such importance (it's a lot of money... and prestige) is best given for sustained excellence. Lessing's award citation describes her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". Make of that what you will. But the emphasis on the complete works of a writer has nonetheless left a list which is, especially in the last 50 years or so, made up largely of excellent writers who are worth checking out, Lessing included.

It's amazing that she finally got it, as Lessing herself has said that in the Sixties "they sent one of their minions especially to tell me they didn't like me at the Nobel Prize and I would never get it". The controversy surrounding the prize is more for who hasn't won it than who has. Graham Greene is thought to have been repeatedly denied the prize, which he claimed was either for his Catholicism or his left-wing sympathies. The prizegiving committee has also been accused of being prudish for not (yet) rewarding Philip Roth or John Updike, and never rewarding Vladimir Nabokov. Lessing was thought to have been permanently removed from all shortlists when she began, in the late Seventies, to write a science fiction series: the sequence of five Canopus in Argus novels.

Lessing actually considers her science fiction series to be amongst her most important work - and it is good - but critics generally single out other novels as more important. If you want to read Lessing, The Golden Notebook is often recommended as the place to start. It's a long novel about a female writer, and the structure is complex. A slightly easier start would be the author's first novel, The Grass is Singing, about racial tensions in Rhodesia. But note that these plot summaries are ludicrously simplified. More recent works to consider are The Good Terrorist, which was written in the Eighties and now seems ever-more relevant, and the subtle science fiction novel Mara and Dann.

Which should be enough to start with. I went to see Lessing speak at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and later that day was hurtling out at speed to get my train when I nearly ran over a large coat perched on the walkway beside the exit. This coat turned out to contain Doris Lessing. I'd only just missed colliding into her at a speed that wouldn't have been good for either of us. Happily, she didn't seem to have noticed, and still more happily, she lives on, to win the Nobel and to continue writing quality fiction as she approaches the age of 90. Dynamite Doris! [Keir Hind]
At present Keir has no wish to kill any Nobel Laureates. But he's open to suggestions.