Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, December 7, 2015

Doris Lessing: "Epicist of the Female Experience"

Doris Lessing (Nobel lecture, 7 December 2007)

Born on 22 October 1912, British novelist Doris Lessing published her first novel, The Grass Singing, in 1950.

Doris Lessing, from the
Nobel website
In 2007, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On 7 December, her Nobel lecture, titled "On Not Winning the Nobel Prize," was delivered in a ceremony in Stockholm.

The title suggests that a grumpy, disgruntled old woman (at the age of eighty-eight, she was the oldest winner of the prize in literature), repeatedly passed over the by Nobel committee, might be prepared to launch a diatribe against those who awarded--or failed to award--her the prize. 

The title was as playful and provocative as the work of Lessing. Instead of a personal complaint, however, Lessing's speech was a brilliant explication of global inequities--about all of the writers who, denied opportunity, would not win a Nobel prize.

In her lecture, Lessing seems to recall Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own when she poses what she calls "the essential question": "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you. . . ?" she asks.

She continues, "When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. 'Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?'"

Lessing's words, read originally to members of the Swedish Academy in 2007, speak to us here, now, in a different context, one where women have struggled for so many centuries to find their place in the world: "And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. 'Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don’t let it go.'"

You can read the text of her lecture at the Nobel website--you can also listen to an audio recording as well. (Since she was unable to travel at the time, Lessing's lecture was read by Nicholas Pearson, her publisher.) And while you're at the site, you can read a biography, view a complete bibliography, see the Nobel awarded to her in a presentation in London in January of 2008, view photos, watch a wonderful interview with her from April 2008, and explore "other resources."*

The "other resources" link includes a video of reporters delivering the news to her that she'd won the Nobel prize in literature--just as she's returning home with her grocery shopping. "Oh, Christ," she replied, adding "well, it's has been going on for thirty years." Having paid her cab driver and put her groceries onto the sidewalk, she turns to one reporter: "Right. I'm sure you'd like some uplifting remarks." Then, in some irritation, she tells another, pestering her for her reaction, that she's trying to think of something "suitable" to say. "What do you think I should say?" she asks him, a bit testily."Look, you tell me what you want me to say, and I'll say it."

Lessing in 2008,
interviewed in her London home

The phrase I've used in the title for this post--"epicist of the female experience"--comes from the Nobel organization's statement of "motivation" for the awarding of the prize in literature to Lessing.

Lessing died on 17 November 2013

*Update, 10 October 2023: I just checked and saw that the "other resources" link is no longer available at the Nobel website. If you'd like to see the reporters who ambushed Lessing, coming home from her shopping in a cab, you can find it on YouTube--click here, for example. (You have to click through a crappy ad--sorry.)

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