Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize

Doris Lessing was on the short list for the Nobel Prize for Literature for so long, she assumed she'd never win. Now at 87—she turns 88 next week—she's become the oldest writer to receive the honor. The medal, which comes with a check for $1.6 million, will be awarded in a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10. The Swedish academy cited her best-known novel, "The Golden Notebook"—required reading in women's studies courses since the 1960s—as a pioneering work that "belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship." But her vast literary output—more than 50 books—has included not only novels and stories, but nonfiction, two volumes of her autobiography and two books about cats. Most of her work explores in some way cultural, racial or social clashes—and her Nobel citation noted the "skepticism, fire and visionary power" with which she "has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."

Her own life experience across divided civilizations makes her a surprisingly apt choice in today's global culture. She was born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents who moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to take up farming when she was 3. Though the family failed to prosper, Lessing had a rigid English upbringing in the African colony and read avidly from books sent from London. But she felt stifled and restless from an early age: at 13, she ran away from a convent school and never resumed her formal education. At 19, she married a man 10 years her senior in the capital of Salisbury (now Harare) but later abandoned him and their two young children. She then married a left-wing German émigré, had another son and finally took the baby and a manuscript and sailed for London. The manuscript became her first published novel, "The Grass Is Singing," a critique of racial policies in Rhodesia. But her breakthrough was her 1962 novel, "The Golden Notebook," in which her alter ego, Anna Wulf, is a writer struggling with the conflicts of work and motherhood, sex and politics. Lessing, ever the contrarian, always hated the label "feminist icon" that came from the success of that book, and she has frequently been quoted attacking her most ardent fans. "If you are a woman and you think at all, you are going to have to write about it, otherwise you aren't writing about the time you are living in," she told the Guardian newspaper in London earlier this year. "What I really can't stand about the feminist revolution is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible."

Lessing's more recent novels have ventured into science fiction and mysticism—to the chagrin of some critics—but she remains concerned with issues that dog society. She recently told a reporter that her most imminent concern was the environment. "We are living in decadence," she said. "People did believe the world would become a better place. I'm very disillusioned. I don't believe anymore in utopia."