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Well, yeah, but how well do they read in Swedish?

Not very well, apparently, must be the thinking of partisans of John Updike and Philip Roth who watched their undeniably phallocentric favorites bypassed once again by the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We know that Joyce Carol Oates translates pretty well into Swedish because Nobel-watchers have been offering her for decades as a fave of Swedish Nobel committees. Not as well, though, it seems as Doris Lessing who, at 87, became the oldest writer to win the world's greatest literary prize on Thursday. (She will be 88 in two weeks.)

"That epicist of the female experience" the prize called her. And you can say that again. And again. It is likely that no Nobel literary laureate has ever been identified as a feminist the way Lessing has, despite her increasing unease with being pigeonholed.

Here is former New York Times Book Review editor John Leonard on Lessing 15 years ago: "Any prize for literature that Doris Lessing hasn't won, including the Nobel, embarrasses itself ... Almost the first book I reviewed for Pacifica radio in 1962 was Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook' ... What I felt was (that) I'd been found out. I saw myself on her pages an unattractive other."

Back in 1982, Lessing declared herself impatient with such thinking to the New York Times in an interview. She wondered if feminists "really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women. In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to that conclusion."

Not that the subject of men and women has ever left her. In her latest novel, "The Cleft", Buffalo News reviewer Karen Brady wrote that "its story stems from a remark she saw in a scientific journal that 'the basic primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later as a cosmic afterthought.' "

You know--an afterthought kind of like giving the world's greatest literary prize to a woman who's been a determining influence on world literature and thought for 45 years.

--Jeff Simon

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