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Friday 19 October 2007

A Critical Affair

Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. I thought I'd mention it, as few others seem to have done so. Or do I do the multi-hued ranks of critic and commentator an injustice? There were the initial announcements, comment on the web, and then - well, very little really. Unless I missed it. I could not have missed the pages of comment on Anne Enright's "stunning" (i.e. unexpected) success in the Man Booker Prize, well deserved, I don't doubt, though I have not yet read the book. It could just be that Doris Lessing is that sort of author (I will come to what I mean by that later), but when you consider that the Man Booker is awarded for one book and the Nobel for a lifetime's work, the contrast of mixed opinion on one hand, and an overwhelming wave of silence on the other, seems all the greater.

If it sounds as though I am comparing either author unfavourably with the other, it is not so. Doris Lessing would approve, I think, the remarks of Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Man Booker Committee, announcing the award, for she it was who famously submitted the first of her Jane Somer novels to her own publisher, but anonymously, then, when, as she obviously knew it would be, it was rejected, she used the fact of that rejection to draw attention to the way the cards are stacked against the unknown author. That alone makes her one of my heroes/heroines. So we might suppose that she would indeed have approved the chairman's criticisms: that too many publishers laud every word of their established authors while ignoring newer talents; that critics shy away from their responsibilities, giving those whom they have decided beforehand are up-and-coming, or even great, their most reverential treatment; and that you can detect when such a reviewer doesn't like the book only when he uses all his column inches to outline the plot. (My own pet hate is when the reviewer devotes pretty much the whole of the article to an author's previous books.)

But why, I wonder do they shy away from committing their true feelings to print (or, as in the case of competition judges, from making a stand)? Do they fear a loss of reputation if time proves them wrong? But worse yet: perhaps they are doing just that, perhaps they are expressing their true feelings, are not able to see the merits in a newcomer's work or the faults in that of an idol. (I am tempted to, but will not, suggest that on occasions they may not even have read the outsider's work.) To praise a book or manuscript when it comes from the pen of one whom all know to be great, may be a safer bet, but it is singularly unhelpful - and may help to explain why 60% of British authors earn less then £10,000 a year.

I promised to elaborate on Doris Lessing being "that sort of author". It was not meant in a derogatory way, but she does strike me as being an author for whom a critic might hesitate to lay his reputation on the line. The Nobel judges praised her "skepticism, fire and visionary power" and spoke of her "vision of global catastrophe forcing mankind to return to a more primitive life", but she has been criticised for being too strident and eccentric, and indeed her appearance on our T.V. sets when told of her award seemed a little eccentric. The judges hadn't been able to contact her before announcing the award because at the critical time she had "popped down to the shops" and generally seemed not to be taking the matter seriously, chuckling with great (and, I think, unaffected) glee and cooing that "I've won them all now!" A healthy enough reaction, you might think. Eccentric some might argue. Too unsophisticated, not to say child-like? To me she seemed the quintessential English eccentric - and none the worse for that -, but could that be why the critics and others have left her alone for so long. Besides, she doesn't help herself: she has written books of sci-fi!

Maybe posterity will give her novels, short stories and poems the sort of critical success that her feminist classic, 'Golden Notebook', achieved. It was a long while ago, but received the plaudits of many, including Joyce Carol Oates.

The Nobel Prize for Literature Committee has done it before, of course. They seem adept at wrong-footing our most seasoned critics and publishers. I just wonder if the inscrutable silence following the announcement might indicate that they are hurriedly reading as much Lessing as possible before deciding on their response. Maybe her day is about to dawn.

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