Early in the careers of most novelists, the critics nag and carp; later, the cold eye of reassessment is cast over their life’s work at the peak of a writing career, which is where Doris Lessing now stands, the years of solid achievement command maximum respect.
A survey of critical responses to Lessing’s books might reveal curious strata of social history. It is hard to remember now that she was once considered very daring and very militant (she insisted that relations between the sexes were difficult and unequal). She has been accused of being a feminist, and then accused by feminists of not being a feminist enough. She has been a communist, but then moved on from a belief in simplistic political solutions to interest in deeper psychological change, touching on themes of madness and of mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness.
Lessing has written clearly into all her work the conviction that we are moving blindly and inevitably toward global catastrophe. Her message seems to be our complete moral and social bankruptcy, particularly in the relations between men and women. Hers is not an angry feminism, though her men are rather poor creatures compared to her bruised but gritty women. Anger may imply a hope that things could be better if only some sense could be knocked into somebody’s head, a hope for a time ‘after the revolution.’ One does not feel that Lessing sees any hope, only perpetual deadlock.
Certainly Lessing has earned the respect accorded to a writer ‘of her stature and productivity’. Doggedly, she has been writing into her fiction signposts and warnings that we need desperately to be reminded of and writing in a way that has been more persuasive and imaginative than if she had been a pure polemicist. But the critic has the problem of distinguishing between what an author says and the way, she says it. The moralist in Lessing, struggling with the very skilled writer, at times has made her writing prolix, clogged, slow—though in her latest novels she has successfully introduced a leavening of fantasy. The fact is that there are writers who in an economical page or two can make us feel our dilemmas more piercingly than she does in a leisurely fictional experience. Missing from her work is that sense of time and space gathered up for a moment between the hands, that sudden shift from understanding to seeing directly, that we expect at rare moments from our storytellers.
The author’s attitude toward Lessing can best be described as one of