Thursday, July 25, 2013

Literary conversion experience: rejecter of Lessing novel becomes big fan

The person who famously turned down Doris Lessing's The Diary of a Good Neighbour (albeit written under a pseudonym) when he was a reader at Johnathan Cape has now decided she may be a bit of all right. James Lasdun tells the full story of his about face on a New Yorker blog. (Jeez, has it really been 30 years since that titillating incident?)
I won’t try to describe the experience of reading it [The Golden Notebook] except to  say that it is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. And that it contrives to make the most ordinary situations—a couple arguing, a woman cooking a meal—into epicenters of weather systems stretching from McCarthyite America to apartheid South Africa to Stalinist Russia. And that there is a vein of brilliant acid comedy flowing through it that nobody had warned me about. And that it is as great for its plainness of address—all the stylistic and vocal jigs it doesn’t dance—as it is for its structural originality and staggering psychological insight.
I massively regret that I didn’t read it when I was in my twenties. Even if it hadn’t helped solve the problems of my intractable novel, it would have shown me things—about life as well as writing—that I could have made much more use of at that formative age (to be crudely utilitarian about it) than I can now. On the other hand, it’s a thrill to be reminded that there are still books this grand and powerful waiting to be read.
I’ve ordered the Jane Somers novels (there was a sequel), and I await them with only slightly queazy eagerness. There’s a line in Lessing’s introduction to “The Golden Notebook” that seems to have been written expressly for me: “Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty.”
I’ll be bearing that in mind.
Makes me want to get out my vintage, unread paperback of The Golden Notebook off the shelf and dive in. Have you ever spurned a writer and then changed your mind and found you loved his or her work? Or came to appreciate a novel you disliked in your youth?


  1. I can't imagine not loving Doris right off the bat:) Strangely, it was her dysfunctional masterpiece "The Fifth Child" that lured me in. My biggest and most most shameful oversight would be Whitman's "Leaves Of Grass." I fled from literally everything required in High School! Years later, I've righted my wrong (5 times or so!). For the sake of debate, I stand by my initial panning of both Faulkner AND Hawthorne. All these years later, they both elicit incessant yawns/shrugs, haha!

    1. I have never read Lessing, though She is on my list. Maybe this conversation will bump her to the top.

      I'm picking up what Wilhelm is puttin' down. I was always skeptical of required reading until I read it, but I usually ended up loving whatever the classic was when I finally did read it.

      Except Chaucer.

      I was really skeptical of Shakespeare. I didn't think he could live up to the hype, but he is pretty cool I guess.

      I do like Faulkner, though I would not read him without a buddy. He is difficult sledding for me.

    2. "The Fifth Child" is how I first became acquainted with Doris Lessing. I bought "The Golden Notebook" a few years ago but after reading a few pages it's been collecting dust on my book shelf for some time now. I picked up Bukowski's "Ham On Rye" recently after years of shelving it away.

  2. As long as Faulkner is on the table, I can add that I read The Sound and the Fury and would not go back to any Faulkner work. Life is too short.
    But he is like chicken-and-mango; I "get" the dish--I just don't care for it.
    To reverse an opinion of a work one has read and fully understood would indicate a change in the reader him/herself. Will I love chicken-and-mango in 20 years? I doubt it.
    One book I have never been able to finish or tolerate is Ford Madox Ford's Some Do Not. There is something deeply illogical about the writing that repels me so much, I have abandoned the book twice at Page 50. I can't get by it.
    If you catch me in 20 years eating chicken-and-mango and loving Ford, please call an exorcist!

  3. Have you ever spurned a writer and then changed your mind....

    What's interesting to me – to change the subject – is when you read, say, the first 12 books by a writer and completely love six of them, and can't stand the other six at all. Which happened to me with Kurt Vonnegut. I also found it amusing that in that 12th book, Palm Sunday, Vonnegut rated his books, and the one he gave the lowest grade (Slapstick) was just about my favorite.

    Although he did give his other D to Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which was pretty bad, and awarded his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, an A+, so at least – in my humble opinion – he got those right.

    1. It would be stranger if you liked everything a particular writer wrote!

  4. Rejection slip collectorJuly 26, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    James Lasdun says good for him was "tight and clever and stylistically showy". Through such a fine sieve even Shakespeare wouldn't pass.
    Isn't it just a struggling writer's fate to have in the seat of first judgement someone least qualified to decide?
    Lasdun is older now and wiser, but I doubt he is reading first manuscripts anymore. He doesn't exactly say he misjudged "The Diary of a Good Neighbor",but the title of his article shouts that, while one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, publishers may judge a manuscript by the author's name alone.

  5. Among Faulkner’s heavy-hitters, skip “The Sound and the Fury” and “Absalom, Absalom.” Read “The Reivers,” “As I Lay Dying,” or “The Unvanquished” to get an idea of his quirky sense of humor and his compassion for his fellow man. As for me, I can’t imagine ever getting old enough to like Doris Lessing, but who knows? I fervently agree with Nabokov’s wholesale dismissal of “novelists of ideas” (some of whom I really liked when I was 23.) Examples include Jean-Paul Sartre, Herman Hesse, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Orwell (a wonderful essayist, however), and Albert Camus. And lest anyone think Hawthorne belongs on this list, I will refer you to his hard-hitting and morally ambiguous short stories. Among 19th century writers, only Chekhov could spin a finer tale.

  6. I loved The Diarys of Jane Sommer! You are in for a great read. I have read The Summer before the Dark, but haven't yet tackled the Golden Notebook. I am going to now thanks for reminding me that I want to read it. Lessing is like no other writer I have known, smart, feminist, honest, she had an amazing empathy. What a writer!