October 1938: Orson Welles strikes fear in the hearts of radio listeners everywhere with his fiendishly lifelike report of highly improbable events.
Archives for December 16, 2003
You and I both are under the gun this week. I just finished writing a review of Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers, due out in January, and it was a book that almost finished me. Going into the assignment, I didn’t have anything against Lessing particularly. I duly read The Golden Notebook as a college senior, and if my memories of it are now vague, my fat little Bantam edition bears the cracked spine and dog-ears that are reliable marks of absorption. But this new book was a tremendous slog. Several times I thought I was within an hour or two of finishing it, but an hour to two later found myself maybe 20 pages along.
I found Lessing’s writing here very mannered and schematic, and I find myself wondering about her reputation. I can’t think of any of my contemporaries who count themselves as her fans, and I know a few who don’t like her at all. Talking to the well-read, discriminating OFOB (Our Friend on the Block, from whom we’ll be hearing more in the nearish future) about the book earlier today, I said “she’s like spinach.” OFOB protested: “But I like spinach!” Is Lessing one of those writers who speaks strongly to their own generation but then does a slow fade into obscurity?
In the course of writing the review, I consulted a few references to help me get a fuller sense of Lessing’s reception. I looked at my dog-eared old Golden Notebook, the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, and a fun, bossy, out-of-print reference book I picked up some years ago used, Martin Seymour-Smith’s Who’s Who in Twentieth-Century Literature. The Seymour-Smith is very like your and my perennial favorite, David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, in approach, if not execution: it’s fiercely opinionated, seldom wavers, and is bracingly unapologetic about its judgments. It’s fun to disagree with.
None of these sources (of course not the paperback cover) betrays any discontentment with or doubt about Lessing at all. Seymour-Smith and the Salon reviewer, Laura Morgan Green, treat her with a rather grave and unwavering respect. But both they and folks like Irving Howe who give blurbs on the paperback tend to describe the value of her work in terms of truth-telling. Very little is said about how she tells the truth in her fiction: about, say, her style or voice. What matters, according to these accounts, is simply that she is truthful. The conspicuous silence on aesthetic questions makes me a bit suspicious of all this praise, and it definitely resonates with my experience of The Grandmothers, in which the writing was very unbeautiful (I tripped over one sentence that turned out to have eleven commas) and pleasure seemed not only out of the question, but beside the point. If important truths were told in the book, I’m afraid I was too distracted by aesthetic undernourishment to catch them.
Who knows, maybe there are some fervent Lessing fans out there who will rush to her defense, but at the moment I’m having a hard time imagining it. Even the advocates I’ve cited sound more dutiful than passionate.
Looking ahead, I have two more days in Chicago before heading off to Detroit, from which fair city (don’t believe me? see Out of Sight!) blogging will continue. It’s the meantime I’m a little worried about, since I really am going to have to move heaven and earth to get everything done that needs doing at my day job. But I’ll try to poke my head in now and again, and hope to see yours too.
I stayed up all night writing a piece (to be exact, I went to bed at 5:30 this morning), and I have to go to a play tonight, so you probably won’t hear further from me today.
I think OGIC has posting plans. Otherwise, read what’s there, and I’ll see you tomorrow.