Rejecting (and accepting) Lessing

James Lasdun was the anonymous publisher’s reader who rejected Lessing’s pseudonymously titled The Diary of a Good Neighbour:

“I don’t remember what I wrote (presumably my report is somewhere in the Cape archive), and I don’t remember anything about the book itself except that I felt completely unrepentant about not recommending it. Cape did, in fact, publish plenty of first novels by genuinely unknown writers, and as far as I was concerned the only reason they didn’t go for this one was that it wasn’t good enough. “Good” for me at that time meant tight and clever and stylistically showy. The idea that failing to see the merit of “The Diary of a Good Neighbour” might have been a reflection of my own limitations rather than the book’s had no resonance for me at all. My mechanism of judgment was as ruthless as it was narrow.”

The blowback from this decision put him off reading Lessing for years, until he eventually plucked The Golden Notebook down from a ‘wall of staff picks’ in a bookshop in Brooklyn …

“I won’t try to describe the experience of reading it 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.”

Particularly interesting, perhaps, in its acknowledgement of the effectiveness of Lessing’s style, which so often gets so much flak …


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