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Doris Lessing Unlabelled

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On Saturday, I ripped out the ‘Property of Manchester City Council’ label from a library book I had no intention of returning. A day later, I heard that the author of that book, Doris Lessing, had died.
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
She was the writer of ‘feminist bible’, The Golden Notebook, and yet repeatedly refused to be defined as a feminist. This is perhaps partly due to her insight that feminism is a privileged concept – feminist issues do not even begin to touch the world’s poorest women. Nevertheless, critics have attempted to define her texts as being either feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist or political in context. By refusing to label herself, or her writing, Lessing instead acknowledged the interconnectivity of these issues. Consequently, she was not being obtuse when she refused to label herself, rather, she was refusing to place limitations on her writing, and therefore her readers.

The irrelevance of labels is something Lessing’s own personal biography highlights. Having left school at 14, she has been described by some as ‘a high school drop-out’. How can this be appropriate for such a respected writer of short stories, novels, poetry, operas and plays? She became the winner of countless awards which she herself described as irrelevant. For her, even winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was a ‘bloody disaster’ because it detracted from her work.

Doris Lessing

If not in terms of awards, how can we measure the value of her contribution to 20th century literature? How can we define a good book? It’s something many literary prize giving teams have been loath to do. The Guardian’s Rick Gekoski, however, has suggested that great works of literature can be identified by the ‘high quality of the language, complexity of theme and detail, universality, depth and quality of feeling, memorableness, [and] re-readability’. He’s got that right. Doris Lessing had it right too, her works possess all these features. 

And this is perhaps what has lead me to claiming the library’s copy of The Grass is Singing as my own. As I place it amongst my permanent collection of books, I won’t feel too guilty – I’ve ordered the library a replacement already – because this novel meets my definition of a great book. One in which I cannot resist making notes in the margins, one which I read in the shower. In short, one which I cannot possibly return to the library. So I may have ripped the label out and thrown it away. But then Doris Lessing was never one for labels anyway. 

Caroline Matthews is a Mancunian, wife, mother, student and writer. You can follow her on Twitter @CarolBMatthews

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