Here’s a question for you. You’ve just been told that you’ve won one of the most prestigious awards in the world. How do you react? Are you overwhelmed? Are you gracious? Is it one of the most amazing moments in your life? Or is your first thought, “Oh Christ…”?
That was Doris Lessing’s reaction when she was told she’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s one of those classic moments. The media are waiting for her and can’t even let the poor woman get out of the taxi before they start asking her questions. As it turns out, the Nobel committee hadn’t told Lessing she’d won; in this day and age you’d expect an email or a text to get through first – hell, even FedEx or a pigeon – but no, Doris Lessing is left to hear about it from the media.
And I love her reaction. It’s not just that she doesn’t want a fuss, or her obvious contempt for literary prizes; it’s the audacity of the media to show up uninvited on her doorstep. She’s been out with her son and all she wants is to get back home and they can’t even wait to let her get out of the taxi properly? And just when you think it couldn’t get any stranger, what on Earth is going on with her son? Is he wearing a vegetable as a sling?
But isn’t this the way we all wish we could act sometimes? To have that old-fashioned arrogance and contempt for what your peers think of you? Sure, there’s a lot to be said for accepting an award with grace… but it’s not as much fun. I remember when I was 1st in English and was given a few other awards in school, my first thought was “Oh wow”; my second was “Fuck, I’ve got to climb all those stairs”. I didn’t say it and I smiled and said my thank yous… but believe me, there were a lot of stairs. 😉
What’s really interesting is how the media have used her comments and made them sound completely different. This from news.com.au: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one,” she said as she stepped out of a taxi carrying groceries. “I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot. It’s a royal flush.” Wait – is this the same Doris Lessing? Is this even the same interview? At least the beginning of it is, but you wouldn’t know it.
I like Doris Lessing’s works but I must admit I was a little surprised she won. She was awarded it for her life’s work; as the Nobel committee put it, Lessing is “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. My problem isn’t that she doesn’t deserve the prize, she does; it’s that strictly speaking the prize isn’t meant to be awarded for a life’s work. It’s stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prizes are meant to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. The preceding year. Nothing there about a life’s work.
To me the best novel of the last year is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nothing else comes close to it; it’s one of the most harrowing, painful and beautiful novels I’ve ever read. It would get my vote for the best novel of the last thirty years, not just the last year. And McCarthy’s life work is impressive as well; his work always speaks to the depths of humanity and darkness, life and death, and The Orchard Keeper, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses and The Road make a very powerful reading list.
But Lessing has achieved so much in her career that she definitely deserves the recognition; it would be a shame to think she’d be another to never win the prize like Graham Greene. But there’s one thing that isn’t being talked about much regarding Doris Lessing. It’s the risks she’s always taken with her work, none more so than with Shikasta. For one of the most notable literary talents to go from writing classics like The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook to a space opera like Shikasta and the whole Canopus in Argus series was incredibly gutsy; in the 1970s mainstream fiction deplored science fiction (still does) and SF itself was a heavily male-dominated field. But Lessing didn’t care; she told the story she wanted to tell and along with Octavia Butler, Alice B. Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) and Ursula K. le Guin, transformed science fiction.
Now thirty years later Shikasta is considered every bit the classic it is. And Lessing still doesn’t seem to care. And that’s how she accepted her prize; on the street, with every bit the contempt she’s always exhibited. I can’t help but laugh. Isn’t it fabulous? 🙂