The Nobel imperative

In the discussion about Doris Lessing’s Nobel for Literature, pundits have weighed in on various aspects of her life and career, including the furious declaration that here is a woman who wasted considerable talent on (gack, spit) genre fiction. Oh, woe.

But there’s another thing that came up that I thought more interesting, and that was how, “feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her,” (as her official bio puts it) she abandoned her husband and two young children in order to write. From the interview:

Were you surprised at the criticism you received after writing, in your first book, about leaving the kids from your first marriage behind you?
Of course I wasn’t surprised. The thing was that this was a terrible thing to do, but I had to do it because I have no doubt whatsoever if I had not done it, I would have become an alcoholic or ended in the loony bin. I couldn’t stand that life. I just couldn’t bear it. It’s this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate. Nobody can do it without going crazy. My husband was a civil servant who became increasingly high in the ranks. He couldn’t afford a wife who had [radical ideas]. I wouldn’t have lasted. I became friends with the kids later, and the grandkids, and so on. I’m not pretending that anything terrible didn’t happen.

Is it necessary to become a hard-edged bastard in order to write fiction the world listens to? Must a writer narrow down her (or his—and there are a lot more guys who do so) view of the world so intently that she simply cannot see the needs of others? Do I have to be so self-important I can’t hear self-recrimination?

I do not know the details of Lessing’s history: her husband might have been perfectly capable of being both father and mother to their children, she might have seen them regularly, certainly she seems to see them now. But isn’t having children an implied contract? At nineteen, she no doubt had no idea what she was getting into, but who does? Does self-preservation take precedence over one’s responsibility to others? How long should a woman permit herself to be smothered, before she is permitted to walk away?

I would not trade my own kids for anything. Having them, raising them, shaped me into the person I am today. But the question remains, for any woman who both works and runs a family: Would I have gone further in my profession had I done what Lessing’s bio would call resisting the biological imperative, and remained unattached?

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  1. dancing crow on October 18, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I read the interview you pointed to. It sounds like she is a very intense person, regardless, the kind of person who is hard to live with and hard to get along with.

    I think I was lucky that I got to think about whether or not I really wanted kids before I had them. If I had been assumed into MarriageandKidsandHousekeeping before I chose it for myself, I can see how it could be a horrendous burden. On the other hand, men up and leave a family much more frequently, and get much less flack for it. They do it for some of the same stated reasons too, so do the reasons just sound different from a male throat?

  2. Phil the Badger on October 18, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    If your life is “destroying you”, then your kids are are going to lose you anyway; through desertion, drink of lunacy. In that case, you might as well salvage what you can (i.e. yourself) immediately, and hope to salvage something more later.

    But judging other people’s choices is always a perilous business.

  3. Younger Son on October 18, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    “Is it necessary to become a hard-edged bastard in order to write fiction the world listens to?” One certainly hopes not, but that’s not the same as knowing it. Mark Twain, I do know, was devoted to his wife and daughters. I can’t imagine him being more listened-to. On the other hand, we all know of many writers who at least neglected their children. Obsessionality drives some people to art, and art rewards them.

    “Do I have to be so self-important I can’t hear self-recrimination?” The way you load the question tells me you agree with me: Such an attitude is forbidden us. “I’m not pretending that anything terrible didn’t happen” — a free-floating “anything” — is not quite a humble confession. (Did she ever make such a confession? I wouldn’t demand a mea culpa of her every damn time she spoke of it.)

    The suggestion that “I had radical ideas” presented an insuperable obstacle to getting along with her husband does seem self-important to me.

    “Does self-preservation take precedence over one’s responsibility to others?” If you mean literal self-preservation, and mere responsibility, then yes, of course it does. We allow self-defense. But Lessing’s case was less (one assumes) than one of self-preservation, and went (one hopes) beyond responsibility, to love. We expect parents to love their children enough to knock some pieces off themselves.

    “Would I have gone further in my profession had I done what Lessing’s bio would call resisting the biological imperative, and remained unattached?” May I take the liberty of suggesting you aren’t screwed up? You are not obsessional. Priorities other than writing are possible/necessary for you. It’s who you are; I’ll venture it’s how most people ought to be. If you were a writer without a family, you’d fill the space in. You’d acquire a family, or take up some eleemosynary work, or whatever. The choice between 100% writing and 60% (or whatever), is for you a false one. You’d starve at 100%.

  4. Kerry on October 18, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    I think Phil is on to something. Clearly, the answer to the question depends on the individual. I look, for example, at my own mother, who was woefully ill-suited to life as a classic Doris Day stay-at-home mother. Her alcoholism wasn’t solely a function of being completely stifled, but was surely exacerbated by it; my sisters and I are still dealing with its effects. I don’t know that she could have done things differently, or whether my sisters and I would ultimately have suffered any less had she done so. I do know that living that life was, in many ways, unspeakably difficult for her, especially because it was a time when even admitting to conflicting desires was simply Not Done.

    I can’t imagine having left my own daughter, but I never had to make a choice between her and education, career, and an otherwise rich and fulfilling life. I was lucky beyond words.

  5. Kerry on October 18, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    P.S. — my career trajectory was certainly very different than it might have been without a child (to address the last of Laurie’s questions). I’m an academician; because of my family obligations, I short-circuited the research part of my career and focused on teaching. I certainly paid a price in terms of financial well-being and job security, and all that follows from that. And the unfortunate fact remains that, in my field anyway, women almost universally suffer in their careers when they elect to have families.

  6. Sara on October 18, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    This is very reminiscent of the dilemma Russell has in MREG, no? Career? Marry? It is obviously a ‘biological imperative’/social expectations/personal goals mixture- not a pretty stew, as it were. But as it has echoed throughout generations, hopefully we can learn from those who came before.

  7. elleemmiss on October 19, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I am going through some self-examination regarding these issues. I am leaning more towards finishing my education and finding something fulfilling to do for a career. I feel that due to my upbringing that I would make a poor wife and parent. I sometimes feel that I might up and leave a family if I felt trapped and smothered to the point where my sense of self would be obliterated. I saw that happen to my own mother, and my dad was not helpful either, so I have no positive role models for a good marriage or for being a good parent. I don’t like the damage that was inflicted upon me, and I choose not to inflict it on anyone else, especially a child. I think it’s just a shame that Ms. Lessing wasn’t able to recognize this about herself before she got married and had children.

  8. corgimom on October 20, 2007 at 8:08 am

    Excelling at anything to the extent that strangers recognize and reward you for that excellence requires a certain amount of selfishness. My partner is a well known cancer researcher and in demand at conferences around the world. Growing that reputation had us living all over the country the past 15 years and keeping that edge in her career means long hours of writing and research as well as five trips this year away from our young son. Our paths have quite luckily been considered and chosen, not thrust upon our souls.
    Ms. Lessing didn’t come of age in an era that encouraged female independence, nor did it have easy access to legal means of birth control. If both had been available to her we might not have her kids and grandkids (and her choices) to bandy about in our debate.

  9. Dicentra on October 20, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Heard a lecture recently in which a reference was made to C.S. Lewis’ belief that any human being was worth more than the complete works of Shakespeare.

    [Sorry, I cannot cite the exact reference, but have given the idea some thought, especially when encountering the harder-to-appreciate members of the species.]

    Don’t personally believe that going further in one’s profession is now or will ever be the ultimate value attached to one’s lifetime achievement. On the other hand, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” — David O. McKay

  10. Yellow Cat on October 22, 2007 at 1:12 am

    For writers, the family-raising years conflict with the learning-the-craft years, not the making-great-literature years–sorry, but young folks just haven’t had the time to get the depth. When the kids are raised, if the writer still has energy, then we see something…you go, Laurie, you haven’t peaked yet.

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