Literary editor Robert McCrum assesses Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing's 60-year career

The marvel is not that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize last week but that she didn't win it decades ago. Here our literary editor assesses her 60-year career and, below, fellow writers pay their tribute

Some years ago, at a literary dinner party in Sweden, Doris Lessing found herself sitting next to 'a little grey chap from the Nobel committee' who turned to her and said, with that Nordic baldness for which Swedes are renowned: 'You'll never win the Nobel prize. We don't like you.'

So when, last Thursday, Lessing's name was read out among the gilt and mirrors of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, the gasps and whoops of surprise and delight were as much for a secretive organisation that had belatedly come to its senses as for the tough-minded octogenarian grandmother whom so many English readers above the age of 35 hold in such passionate regard. For them, indeed, this trophy is long overdue.

You don't have to be a diehard Lessing fan to see the logic in the citation of her 'visionary power'. On closer examination, Doris Lessing is an absolutely natural, and brilliant, choice for the world's premier book prize. (Yes, it's a lottery.)

Forget Philip Roth, Claudio Magris and Milan Kundera, all of whom have been tipped often. Forget, too, that obscure Szechuan storyteller with the unpronounceable name published by Serpent's Tail or the Hayseed Press. Here is a great contemporary woman novelist and London intellectual who has dedicated her long life and impressive body of work to the tireless and unflinching exploration of man's (and woman's) place in the world, together with issues of race, gender and social justice. This prize finally acknowledges what has been true for at least 40 years: that she is one of the most important literary voices of her generation.

Lessing joins the Nobel club not only as its oldest ever winner but also with a prize-laden oeuvre spanning half a century in which English Nobels have been thin on the ground (Pinter joined a sparse Brit contingent two years ago) - or contentious (Winston Churchill in 1953; William Golding in 1983).

There are three essential phases to Lessing's colossal bibliography. First, in the 1950s, influenced by her youthful experience in Rhodesia as a committed communist, and after her famous debut with The Grass is Singing, she addressed radical and social themes in the Children of Violence sequence. (Revolutionary politics was a theme to which Lessing returned in 1985 with The Good Terrorist). The character of Martha Quest, a woman identifying herself as a rebel, became an icon of late Fifties fiction.

Second, in the 1960s, she began to explore states of mind, especially and most hauntingly, among women. In a spirit of daring realism she published The Golden Notebook, a masterpiece charting with arresting candour the inner life of Anna Wulf, another Lessing woman who wants to live freely. This often experimental exercise in postmodern fiction is, to her continuing irritation, now seen as a seminal classic of early feminism. 'What the feminists want of me,' she complained to the New York Times, 'is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is "Ha, sisters, I stand with you in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more". Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.' Whatever the critical consensus on The Golden Notebook, it established Lessing as one of the giants of her time.

In the 1970s, after the publication of another experiment, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Lessing immersed herself in Sufism and science fiction and published a quintet of 'space fiction', Canopus in Argos, an exploration of a genre that provoked the critics to complain about the waste of her gifts, and drove her readers mad either with exasperation or obsessive joy. Indeed, her career went so badly in the early 1980s that she published two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers.

That was a typically contrarian move from Lessing, who says somewhere: 'Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.' She retains a sublime indifference to conventional wisdom, literary or otherwise, and remains agreeably rooted in the everyday. She was visiting her son in hospital when the Nobel news broke and responded to the inevitable media razzmatazz with a characteristic blend of merriment and common sense. 'Oh Christ !' was her first response to the intrusion of television cameras, uttered with an unmistakable southern African twang.

With Lessing, laughter and wisdom go together and can be filed under the general heading: Nothing New Under The Sun. Lurking among her obiter dicta is the observation that 'laughter is healthy', and also her definition of happiness that 'all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel heat strike the skin'.

As you might expect from a shamanistic writer, Lessing exhibits down-to-earth wisdom about the human condition. Of the old age in which she finds herself, she says: 'The great secret is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all.'

That's an understandable verdict on life from a woman who has experienced most of the vicissitudes of the 20th century, from interwar depression to the Second World War, austerity Britain, the Cold War, then the counterculture and, finally, millennial globalisation. Lessing has seen it all. More surprising perhaps, from one who likes to confront humanity in all its exotic crookedness, is the modesty with which she downplays the role of experience in a life of extreme social and psychological fascination. She says she has been given 'every conceivable label. I started off as a writer about the colour bar, and then I was a communist, then a feminist, then a mystic'. And now? 'What I always was. Just the same.'

Like her two fellow English Nobel laureate contemporaries, VS Naipaul and Harold Pinter, Lessing is an outsider, the child of the British Empire. Born in Persia (as it was) in 1919, Doris May Tayler subsequently grew up on a hopeless farm in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her father was a traumatised Great War veteran; her mother a heartbroken expatriate who 'should never have left England'. She had virtually no formal education, dropped out at 14, and owed her childhood reading to her mother's foresight in ordering quantities of books from England.

Young Doris grew up hating Salisbury, Rhodesia, which she found to be a mixture of Tunbridge Wells and the Wild West, but found an antidote to boredom in Dickens, Scott, Stevenson and Kipling. 'I was just thinking about how to escape, all the time,' she says. She was married at 19 in a brief, and disastrous, flirtation with convention. Soon after, she walked out on her husband and two children to make a 'political marriage' to a German internee, Gottfried Lessing. In some interviews Lessing expresses remorse for this move but told The Observer: 'I'm very proud of myself that I had the guts to do it. I've always said that if I hadn't left that life, the intolerable boredom of colonial circles, I'd have cracked up and become an alcoholic, or had a mental breakdown.'

Lessing and her second husband parted in 1949 and she emigrated to England with her son Peter and the manuscript of her first book. She has worked in England ever since, moving house some 60 times. For the past 30 years she has lived in a rambling, pleasantly cluttered family house in West Hampstead, surrounded by her beloved cats, a favourite subject.

To those for whom last week's Nobel prize reintroduces this great English writer to their current reading, Lessing, now approaching her 88th birthday, is an appealing figure, and a deeply committed one. She says that 'writing is something I have to do. If I had to stop, I would probably start wandering the streets, telling myself stories out loud.' Lessing has an almost primitive view of her art and believes that narrative is hard-wired into our consciousness. 'I'm just a storyteller,' she says.

'I like her best when she's being bad-tempered'

In praise of a free-thinking, inspirational trailblazer

As Byatt


I'm absolutely delighted. When Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005 I was very worried that Doris wouldn't ever win it. My favourite work of hers is The Good Terrorist. I like her best when she is being bad-tempered or gets mad about something. I also love her novel Love, Again, about the dreadfulness of falling in love when you feel you've reached an age when you might be able to not do that again. It's a brilliant subject for a novel, and I can't think of anyone else who would have done it quite like that. It made me laugh in a sort of grim way when I read it. I always feel that about her books, of course: 'Ah yes, that's the next thing.' I don't really think she has influenced or affected many writers because what she does is so inimitable.

Lisa Appignanesi


I think it's a wonderful accolade and very much deserved. Of the Nobel winners in recent years, she's the one who is probably most loved by readers around the world, with a huge readership outside the English language-speaking countries. And of course it is hugely overdue. I remember writing a Nobel letter for her 10 years ago. She was one of the people in the Eighties who broke out of the fiction form, rupturing the novel and breaking away from a realist idiom without ever losing her observational powers. She's constantly critical and sceptical about everything, which is what's refreshing about her. The sheer scope of her writing is worthy of an accolade too. Through The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest series she charted women's individual experience. Quite a lot of American women's exploration fiction is indebted to her.

Arnold Wesker


I'm absolutely thrilled. I can't think of anyone else who is more deserving; her back catalogue is just enormous. I remember finishing one of her novels on the bus and being so overcome with emotion that I immediately bought my mother some flowers. I can't remember what the book was or why the connection, but she has that ability to move. On another occasion I was up until 4am reading one of her books in my home in the remote Black Mountains and went for a walk afterwards as the sun was rising, and the two seemed to perfectly complement each other. And of course I love The Diaries of Jane Somers. I have adapted it for film, and I'm hoping that now it will get made. Apart from being a great storyteller, she's a great chronicler of her times, and of the human condition. I think her novels will be read in years and years to come.

Maggie Gee


She takes on themes - like climate change or racism - that in other people's hands would be wooden, and she turns them into amazing mythic narrative. She has that extraordinary ability both to plug into what's happening in the present and to put it in context. A lot of contemporary fiction seems incredibly shallow compared to hers. We don't have that many writers who are fearless and tough-minded, and that's what she is. I think she knows that she is a great writer and that probably helps her to write well.

Russell Hoban


I've only read some of Doris Lessing's short stories, but even in those her greatness shows through. She's unmistakably a great writer and I've met her a few times and she's personally loveable, which is a nice touch for a Nobel laureate. Through her political attitudes and courageous writing she's a socially responsible woman, dedicated to the idea of a better world. A short story of hers that stuck in my mind for a long time was about a dung beetle rolling a ball of dung. I always say if you write truthfully and completely about anything, you write at the same time about everything, which she did with this story. I congratulate Doris heartily and think she is most deserving.

Jane Davis

Editor, The Reader

She should have won it back in the Seventies. She has been a very important influence for women of my generation, now in our fifties. I wrote to her after reading Shikasta and said 'Help! You've changed my life. What do I do?' I was a single mother in my twenties. Doris wrote back and said: 'You need to read books. If you don't have any money, I will help.' And she provided me with a list. She is a free thinker, a typical outsider, and these people don't usually get the establishment recognition they deserve. I really hope the effect of her win is that people revisit her back catalogue. Her early novels such as The Grass Is Singing are really superb and the Canopus in Argos books are also unduly overlooked. Although Lessing is comfortable with the term 'sci-fi', I think it's wrong to call her work genre fiction. Her work is about the experience of being a human in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Lynne Segal

Feminist Academic

She deserves to win for the impact she's had on women around the world, particularly in the Sixties and Seventies. She was writing about a new type of consciousness, when women were thinking about what it is to be treated as men's equals. Strangely and sadly, when feminism came along, she fairly early rejected it. Young feminists loved her, but she was not ready to love us. She came from a very different world where women's struggles were so much harder. This comes out in her later writing such as The Sweetest Dream as an enormous bitterness towards younger women. In the Sixties I rented a flat in Maida Vale that Doris had been living in. I was a rather young, bewildered single mother and I don't think she approved of people like me. But I have a friend who lived nearby who was sitting weeping on the doorstep one day because she couldn't pay her rent and Doris came across her and gave her some money, so she could also be very generous to younger women. She fostered Jenny Diski, of course. Even though she turned her back on the feminist movement, she continues to write about what it is to be a woman as she lives and ages. She is incredibly important, not only to women readers. She writes so personally, yet she can weave politics into it. Her writing is very moving and remains significant.

Philip Hensher


I like all her work but I love the science-fiction quintet. You don't really think of her as a stylist, because she's so interested in ideas, but those are books that have an incredible musical weight to them; they come at you in great waves. And The Good Terrorist really bangs a nail into the coffin of the far left in such an unanswerable way. People often react to her books in a fascinated but infuriated way. It would be a strange reader who could agree with absolutely everything Doris has said, but, God, you engage with her.

Interviews by Katie Toms and Ally Carnwath

· This article was amended on Sunday October 21 2007. An error introduced at the editing stage renamed Winston Churchill 'William'. This has been changed.

Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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