In the matter of Doris Lessing and her two pseudonymous novels there are several points to be made, not all of them quite as flattering to Lessing as she apparently would like us to believe. She says she published the novels under the name of Jane Somers "to dramatize the plight of unknown writers," as one wire-service report put it, but on the evidence presented there seems to be a good deal more to the story than that.
"I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that 'nothing succeeds like success,' " Lessing said. "If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.' As it is, there were almost no reviews, and the books sold about 1,500 copies here in England and scarcely 3,000 copies each in the United States." But Lessing also says that she pulled her little trick for a "frankly, if faintly malicious" reason: To settle scores with reviewers who had disliked her "Canopus" quintet of science-fiction novels.
There's an obvious contradiction here. If Lessing's first point about famous authors is correct, then it stands to reason that when reviewers saw the "Canopus" novels with her name on them they would have said, "Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful" and given them favorable notices regardless of their actual merit. But that did not happen. Instead, after reading the novels a great many reviewers said, in effect, "Oh, Doris Lessing, how terrible." One can't help but wonder: Is it the success syndrome that really bothers Lessing, or is it that reviewers refused to be seduced by her name on the "Canopus" novels and picked them to pieces?
Certainly a success syndrome exists in the book industry, and reviewers are susceptible to it as well as publishers. But it also exists in the minds of writers, an aspect of the situation that is conveniently ignored in Lessing's argument. If it is true that famous authors too often get free rides from publishers and critics, then it is equally true that famous authors expect free rides. The ego of an author can be a monumental thing -- especially, need it be said, that of a famous one -- and it can lead the author to believe that everything he or she writes is a work of genius. This, as it happens, is not always true, but one constant remains: Famous authors expect all their books to be published, to be praised and to sell.
This expectation is entirely human, as is the publishers' desire to make more money off authors whose names assure substantial sales. But the result is that a great many bad books get published under the names of famous writers. When the first of the "Canopus" novels crossed my desk a number of years ago, I scanned it for a while and concluded that had Lessing's name not been on it, it never would have been published. Ditto for "Deadeye Dick," by Kurt Vonnegut, "Good as Gold," by Joseph Heller, "God's Grace," by Bernard Malamud, and any number of works by Norman Mailer, Anthony Burgess and Ernest Hemingway.
Not merely do these bad books get published, they get reviewed. The reviewers have no choice; these authors have large followings, and their readers want to know how their new books stack up against their old ones. Since judgments of that sort can't be described very informatively in a couple of dozen words, it follows that a fair amount of review space is devoted to what even Lessing describes as "not very good books by established writers." This is not a matter of willfulness on the part of book-review editors, or of hostility to the work of new and unknown writers, but of simple journalistic necessity.
If anything, the Lessing case proves that the unknown but serious writer stands a reasonable chance of getting review attention, if not vast sales. The Jane Somers novels were reviewed by all three major American newspaper book-review supplements, which hardly justifies her complaint that "there were almost no reviews." The editors of those supplements obviously were able to spot the work of the unknown Jane Somers on their shelves, to recognize that it deserved a thoughtful reading, and to assign it for review. Jane Somers got pretty much the same treatment as any unknown novelist receives, and that treatment is neither as unfair nor as indifferent as Lessing imagines it to be. Her contention that book-review editors spend insufficient time looking for good books, regardless of the identity of their authors, is simply without foundation; the search for good but undiscovered books is what keeps many people in a business that too often presents them only with bad or mediocre ones.
Lessing's American editor, Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, was right when he told The New York Times: "My view . . . is that what's worthy sooner or later surfaces. If a writer is really good and keeps on writing, it doesn't stay secret." Which raises the obvious and interesting question: What would have happened had Doris Lessing kept on writing as Jane Somers? Rather than spill the beans all over the newspapers and television, what if Lessing had given real weight to her experiment by carrying it to the end? To publish two pseudonymous novels and then almost immediately declare one's authorship is no genuine test of anything except the public's appetite for literary tempests; but to have kept plugging away as Jane Somers, that would have been a real test.
But for Lessing to continue to write as Jane Somers would be less a test of whether an unknown writer can make it in the cold, cruel world than of whether Doris Lessing herself is still capable of work equal to that upon which her reputation rests. Surely Lessing knows that anything with her name on it will find an eager publisher; but to remove her name from it and subject it to the clinical, objective scrutiny of editors and reviewers -- that is another matter entirely, and one that any established writer would be loath to risk for fear of considerable, if private, embarrassment.
That Lessing chose not to follow this course is understandable and she deserves no criticism for failing to do so. But with a paperback edition of the two novels under the title "The Diaries of Jane Somers" now about to appear, bearing Lessing's name on the cover and including a new introduction by her, the sight of Lessing chasing after newspaper reporters and television interviewers to leak her story is something less than becoming. Were it not for her unsullied reputation for high solemnity and ideological rectitude, it would look for all the world as if the woman were staging a publicity stunt.