Lessons from Lessing: In Search of My Golden Notebook

I can’t remember who recommended Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) to me as a teen, but I read it during a period when I was glutting myself on mid-20th-century British authors (Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble being two other stand-outs; Beryl Bainbridge, I’d meet only in my late 20s). The Golden Notebook is most commonly known for illustrating how the imposition of gender roles based on sex characteristics impacts artistic, economic, political, and relational outcomes, but I strongly resonate with Lessing’s frustration around the work being pigeonholed as a “feminist classic”, with all the unwitting reduction to simplistic binaries that such a term invites. In some of her non-fiction texts, like the CBC Massey Lecture, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, and her 2007 Nobel Prize speech, “On not winning the Nobel Prize”, Lessing made plain her dissatisfaction with many rhetorical conceits we conflate with genuinely transformative activism, along with the injustice of even many of our strongest movements for change.

(Hers is my favourite Nobel Prize speech, by the by, because it focusses on what keeps most human beings from being able to contemplate similar platforms and accolades. May all creators given high honours similarly call attention to the unjust systems that create these plateaus of achievement and possibility in the first place.)

When I first encountered Lessing’s work, as a teen, what I adored most about The Golden Notebook was its highly nuanced depiction of how major movements for change can fail from internal bodies of injustice, due in large part to how colonial racism and class shape the nature, intentions, and outcomes of many of these supposedly radical spheres. I hadn’t lived firsthand through the whirlwind of communist movements from the ’30s through ’50s, nor the quiet terror of middle-class and academic decline, but through Lessing (and Murdoch, and Drabble), I gained a body of literary exposures that thereafter allowed me to contextualize present-day events within vast cyclicalities of human striving to build a better world.

The Golden Notebook was able to do all this work, though — weaving together class, gender, art, and the politics of war and revolution — because it was expressly tackling an issue that many writers face: how to unify the many spheres of thought that any given life contains. The central conceit of the book, after all, is an attempt to unite Anna’s four other notebooks: black for her experiences in another country; red for her experiences in the Communist Party; yellow for a fictionalization of one ill-fated love; and blue for a journal of her private, ongoing emotional life. Taken together, and interwoven with work of another nature altogether, we have the titular “Golden Notebook”.

It’s a touch ironic, then, that although Lessing’s protagonist successfully forms a fifth text out of the observations and narratives that sustain these other notebooks, Lessing herself was never witness to her canon being seen as a cohesive whole. Although many of her themes proved consistent throughout everything she published, the readers of her ambitious postmodern-realist novels (such as this highly acclaimed classic) rarely read her deeply science-fictional texts, which explored similar sociopolitical issues on far-flung worlds. Conversely, avid readers of her Canopus in Argos series (1979-83), a set of five space novels exploring differents facet of unjust state-building or states of societal decline, were not as interested in her more realist accounts of the same ideological discourse.

As another writer of philosophical and justice-seeking science fiction, I find myself thinking about this literary incompleteness, the self-admitted folly of one’s search for a unifying canon, while processing one of the most delightful “wins” a writer can hope for: the securing of an agent, an advocate for my current and future writing career.

This week, I signed with Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Hannah has an exceptional powerhouse of a client list, but what leapt out most to me is that she and I are both outspoken and active existentialists: me, a secular humanist with a strong focus on improving human agency (including through this press, when my legal status is stable enough to contemplate a hard launch); her, drawing on her Christianity to inform a praxis of prison abolitionism and restorative-justice advocacy. This justice-seeking overlap is what brought to mind The Golden Notebook: and in particular, its dangled possibility of a literary life that truly unites all one’s varied spheres of interest and concern.

The book of mine that Hannah now represents is a space opera inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and because she is highly confident about the state of the manuscript I first sent her, we’ll be pitching it to publishers sooner rather than later. This means that, as a represented writer, my responsibility is now to “get my house in order”: organizing my other projects in such a way that will create a coherent direction for all the work to come.

Right now, that means pressing pause on the publishing of my Menagerie Mysteries, a series of sci-fi mystery novellas with strong socioeconomic themes. I knew when I wrote them that the first three were going to be a fix-up novel at some point, but now that I have an agent, it’s extremely important that I run all my publishing decisions through her. (I will, however, release Book 3: The Stars, at Last Count, to buyers of the first two — in thanks for their support!)

This new task also means revisiting my first (unpublished) novel, Then Raise the Dead Man High, to get it ready for her review and verdict. That Soviet-era alt-fiction might not find a home for years, but I hold out hope all the same.

And it means looking at other spheres of my literary practice, including this intended press, my humanist column at Patheos, the wide range of book-length projects (a history of stellar evolution? collected essays? short stories in Spanish?) that I’ve considered on my Patreon, to decide what work will be the best use of both our time.

These are exceptionally privileged decisions I get to make, which is why I take them very seriously. An agent is not just a megaphone but also a network, a person with the ear of many prominent figures in publishing (and in Hannah’s case, film and TV, too). The allure of the agent is so powerful in literary spheres that it grossly distorts general perception around authors who have them. “Wow!” some people are quick to think, “this person must be a good writer, because they landed an agent!” …instead of the unvarnished truth, that “this writer, one of many who happens to be ‘good’ in the ways that are currently favoured by our markets, has received an ally in the industry, whereas many other, similarly ‘good’ writers have yet to receive the same.”

This is an important difference, which is furthered by the stark disparities for minoritized persons in Western publishing. Although Lessing was by no means perfect, then, still I would count myself fortunate if I can manifest a similar groundedness throughout all my work and potential industry successes to come. After all, just like Anna from The Golden Notebook, I am more than all of this aforementioned writing, and perfection is a charge for which I will never, ever be found guilty. Rather, I contain multitudes, and many of them are a muddle — especially right now, as I grapple with ongoing legal-status precarity in my chosen home of Colombia.

In the “honeymoon phase”, though, of this overnight switch from “writer with no advocate” to “writer with advocate”, it’s easy to be tempted by the hope that something more cohesive may well emerge from my work ahead with Hannah: that I will be able to gather together the many threads of my literary life, my justice-seeking life, and my general(ly messy) personal life of emotions, into a “golden notebook” all my own.

What I hope to remember, instead, is that the author of this aspirational “golden notebook” was herself a figure who, for all her accolades, never attained such a unity of vision in the public view. Nor was she someone who would have looked upon such an external unity, if she had attained it, with anything but suspicion — as a sign, perhaps, that her radicalism had been assimilated into the very systems she’d spent a lifetime learning to deconstruct from within.

Our world is made up of a great many promises of “arrival” at some greater and more cohesive state of ideological and material being. If we do [X]. If we achieve [Y].

And most of these promises are propped up by iniquity and injustice.

This week I was gifted an ally and the possibility of a greatly increased platform for my writing, and my humanism.

The aim now is not to give anyone — least of all myself — the impression that having a “louder” voice should be mistaken for having more definitive, cohesive, or important things to say. A platform should never be a pulpit, so much as a stage for conversations that stand to raise up as many other voices as possible.

Onward, then, to the next phase of the humanist muddle for this writer of human struggles.

May we ever and always be allies in the fray.


M L Clark talks Lessing, The Golden Notebook, and the dangerous self-deception of having “arrived” when writers make any great leaps within the field.

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