In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was described by the Swedish Academy as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". Lessing is the eleventh woman to win the prize in its 106-year history, and also the oldest person ever to win the literature award.
Alfred Tayler moved his family to Kermanshah, in Persia (now Iran), in order to take up a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia and it was here that Doris was born in 1919. The family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize, when her father purchased around one thousand acres of bush. Lessing's mother attempted to lead an Edwardian life style amongst the rough environment, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; it was not. The farm was not successful and failed to deliver the wealth the Taylers had expected.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). Lessing left school aged 14, and thereafter was self-educated. She left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid, and it was around this time that Lessing started reading material on politics and sociology that her employer gave her to read. She began writing around this time. In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children, before the marriage ended in 1943.
Following her divorce, Lessing was drawn to the Left Book Club, a communist book club, and it was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group and had a child together, before the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada.
In 1984, she attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to demonstrate the difficulty new authors faced in trying to break into print. The novels were declined by Lessing's UK publisher, but accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf.
On 11 October, 2007, Lessing was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was 87, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She also stands as only the eleventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy in its 106-year history. She told reporters outside her home "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush. In a 2008 interview for the BBC's Front Row, she stated that increased media interest following the award had left her without time for writing.
Lessing's switch to science fiction was not popular with many critics. For example, in the New York Times in 1982 John Leonard wrote in reference to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 that "One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing.... She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz." To which Lessing replied: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer. Unlike some authors primarily known for their mainstream work, she has never hesitated to admit that she writes science fiction. She was Writer Guest of Honour at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), and made a well-received speech in which she described her science-fictional Memoirs of a Survivor as "an attempt at an autobiography.
Her novel The Golden Notebook is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. She also regretted that critics failed to appreciate the exceptional structure of the novel. As she explains in Walking in the Shade Lessing modelled Molly, to an extent, on her good friend Joan Rodker, the daughter of the author and publisher John Rodker.
Lessing does not like the idea of being pigeon-holed as a feminist author. When asked why, she replies:
When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos science fiction series. These books show, from many different perspectives, an advanced society's efforts at forced evolution (also see Progressor and Uplift). The Canopus series is based partly on Sufi concepts, to which Lessing was introduced by Idries Shah. Earlier works of "inner space" fiction like Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Memoirs of a Survivor also connect to this theme.