The Nobel imperative
In the discussion about Doris Lessingâ€™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 thereâ€™s another thing that came up that I thought more interesting, and that was how, â€œfeeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her,â€ (as her official bio puts it) she abandoned her husband and two young children in order to write. From the Salon.com 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 hisâ€”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 canâ€™t hear self-recrimination?
I do not know the details of Lessingâ€™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 isnâ€™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 oneâ€™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?