Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Golden Notebook, a book review; or, The value of reading things you don't agree with

Stepping away from my usual vitriol and polemics, today I will be writing a book review, something I haven't done in perhaps ten years. I have just finished the 600-page epic novel The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Given its reputation as a "feminist masterpiece" I thought it might be interesting for my feminist-disposed friends to hear about, if they haven't read it already, or to discuss if they have. I hope the following will also be interesting for those who, given its feminist reputation, would never pick it up.

I should start by saying that I borrowed this book from my mum's bookshelves maybe two or three years ago. I had heard it mentioned in the context of the feminist canon or whatever you want to call it, I saw she had a copy, and I thought I ought to read it. It's the kind of book that, if you're anything like me, you think you ought to read. I was put off actually reading it for a long time - put off by the length and the fact that the synopsis didn't particularly reel me in. Having opened the book I very quickly learned that I was, as they say on the internet, doing it wrong. In the preface (written in 1971, nine years after its original publication), Lessing writes:

"...this novel was not a trumpet for Women's Liberation... Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion... This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women's Liberation movements already existed."

"There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement."

In other words, I was wrong to believe it was a feminist masterpiece and I was certainly wrong for wanting to read it because it was seen as a feminist masterpiece. By Lessing's account I shouldn't have read it at at all, but of course, I did.

My reaction to the book isn't straightforward. I'm not going to instantly start listing it as one of my favourites. But it contains so many ideas and concepts and returns to them time and again, lodging them in your brain, making you think about them when you don't mean to. It's what I would call a slow-burner: it's not immediately arresting or gripping, but I expect it to stay with me for a long time, and I expect to have the impulse to reread it in 5 years time or so.

Having said that, it was something of a relief to finish it. It demands a lot of the reader. We have to keep up with a huge cast of characters spanning a number of years, and while the narrative is vaguely chronological, if you fail to keep the portion of the book you've already read in your mind as you continue reading, you miss the point of reading it at all. I am an impatient reader with a tendency to skim rather than to invest in every word (at least that's a quality Lessing might approve of?) and as such it's probably going to take a second reading for me to fully appreciate the work.

So, is it a feminist masterpiece? What does that question even mean? When we give something that label, are we saying that it comes across as having a feminist agenda, that it promotes an overtly feminist message, or is it just that it tells a story which is honest about women and femaleness, that we can point to and say "look, this is what it's like, this is what needs to change"? The Golden Notebook is categorically not the former; you could argue it has something of the latter.

It is fundamentally about a woman and her relationships: her relationships with men, with her close female friend Molly, with her daughter Janet, with herself, with her work, with the British Communist Party, with the turning of the world at large. I feel like it does have that quality of honesty, but it feels like honesty about an era that has passed. Lessing's observations about the way women and men are sometimes feel very dated; you don't get the sense of universality that you do with some other books that deal with similar subjects (I would point to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence as examples; neither of these are necessarily feminist masterpieces, but they are two of my favourite novels, and I suspect part of the reason for that is the way they deal with the subject of femaleness).

I think the way that I read it, the state of mind from which I read it, perhaps made it especially interesting to me. At the back of my mind were always the thoughts: people call this a feminist work; its author refutes that label; would I call it feminist, do I think that it is? By the end of the book I had come to a pretty strong conclusion on that point.

You could call it feminist on the basis that it is female-centric, and concerns a woman who attempts to live an independent, "free" life at a time when it was impossibly difficult for women to do so. I personally am happy to call it a masterpiece, but not a feminist masterpiece. However, I do think it is the kind of book that feminists like me, who tend to seek out "feminist" books, should read.

This is because I feel like the more open and diverse media becomes, the more we work ourselves into the little niche that we occupy, and the more we reinforce our position in that niche through what we read, what media we ingest. For example: as a vaguely left wing liberal and a feminist, I primarily read the BBC for my news, I enjoy reading the Guardian from time to time, I frequent feminist blogs, and I avoid clicking through to anything from the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, Fox News or similar like the plague. I defriend people on Facebook if they continually write loudly and obnoxiously about political views they hold that I find abhorrent (only when they're people I don't know or like that well in the first place, naturally). The people I follow on Twitter overwhelmingly agree with me on most major issues. I justify all this by saying that there are enough things in the world that make me feel deeply angry and outraged, and seeking out things that will make me even more angry and outraged is pretty bad for my mental health - better surely to choose the media that reflects your views and allow yourself to be happy, on the whole.

I think it's a good justification, and I have no particular intention of drastically changing my approach to how I ingest media. However, I know that to do this - to read only what Cass Sunstein called "the daily Me", for political theory geeks - is problematic. When we pick and choose our media to reflect our existing prejudices, our views are rarely challenged by what we read and the chance of us changing our minds and learning something is decreased. Surely this isn't something we want to endorse, surely there should be some element of the media people ingest that doesn't just tell them what they want to hear.

Which brings me back to The Golden Notebook. Part of the reason I have enjoyed reading it so much is that it wasn't straightforwardly feminist. I never thought "yes, this is exactly how I feel! This is what I try to communicate!" It's ambiguous in its discussions of women and gender relations - there were parts I could approve of and parts I couldn't. But it was interesting to feel that way. We get stuck into only responding to two kinds of things: things we agree with (see above), and things we despise and seek to destroy (see: the Daily Mail). It's too easy to approach everything we meet with either a stamp of approval or a withering glare. We need to appreciate and seek out the middle ground, the grey area, the pieces that we agree with up a point but which then challenge us and make us re-evaluate our position, even if they don't cause us to change our minds.

That's why I would recommend The Golden Notebook to feminists. Not because it's an obvious feminist masterpiece, but because it isn't.

It also holds interest for so many other kinds of people than just feminists. The book offers excellent commentary on the state of left-wing politics and British Communism in the 1950s, and the concepts of sanity, madness and "cracking up" are all central to the narrative. It's structurally unusual and engaging, and it's quite fantastically well-written. It's something of a shame it has become so exclusively associated with feminism as I suspect this puts a lot of people off reading it who might enjoy it - or who might at least have something interesting to say about it.

The next book I plan to read is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Metro calls it "a heartbreaking account of racism and injustice... Moving and magnificent". It looks very good and I've been keenly looking forward to reading it. But I don't expect my views to be challenged by it. Perhaps, after that, the next book I read should be something that drags me back into that ambiguous grey area.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't say my views were challenged by Henrietta Lacks... but I thought perhaps the author's opinions on what had happened were slightly different to mine so I did find it a little challenging. Also, I found it very sad and I'm not someone who enjoys sad books!