Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Resting Here:

OK―I must admit that if The Golden Notebook had randomly dropped off the bookshelves and bumped me on my unsuspecting bookstore-browsing head, I probably would not have purchased it. I might have picked the book up. I might have caressed its front cover. I might have read the back cover with great interest and even excitement. I might have plopped myself down on the bookstore’s carpeted floor and pored over the first chapter to see if the writing would pull me in. But, pages into it, I would have realized that―despite its socialist bend and “classic feminist text” hype―this novel is about a woman who obsessively complains about the men she refuses to live without. And I would have put the sucker down. I would have purchased something by Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison or another Doris Lessing novel instead.  Because as both a feminist and a reader, I don’t find stories that claim a war between the sexes relevant or useful. I cringe when a writer insists that men are idiotic, innately cruel and hopelessly so. I want to read about politics, humanity and love, yes. I want to read stories that show me how the hyper-capitalist patriarchal system makes it hard for all people―whether they have penises or vaginas or both―to be full human beings and true lovers. I want to read stories that inspire men and women to triumph over the real-life systems that break and fail our hearts. I want to read stories that offer affirmation or balm.

Maybe this is because I am not yet 30 years old? Or because I am a hopeless romantic? Or because I’ve been seeing and enjoying too many signs that read “Yes We Can” and “Hope.”

Nevertheless, I found The Golden Notebook to be both dated and―dare I suggest?―abusive. Somewhere in the middle of the text, I started joking to friends that “You almost couldn’t pay me to read this thing.” I disliked having to pick it up everyday. And as I diligently plowed through page after page of the central character’s pessimism, homophobia, gender self-loathing , muted racism and madness, I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex of nihilistic despair. I find it telling that although I am not white or straight or rich, weeks after reading the book, I have been renting a series of cheesy, optimistic romantic comedies about white, straight and rich people just to balance some of the bummer images the novel pushed into my psyche.

What can I say? I need to believe in love. I need to believe that love is possible between people despite their differences. I need to believe that men and women, rich folks and poor folks, the straight and the queer(ed), the mainstream and the marginalized have that mysterious, wonderful love thing in common. We are so well-rehearsed in anger, hate and spitting debate. I am going to fight for love in life and in literature.

The Golden Notebook pushed my race-class-gender-sexuality-wanna-be-Buddhist-Third-Wave-feminist buttons. I would not call this book feminist. And, frankly, Lessing herself wouldn’t call this book feminist. Feminism is not about women complaining about the men they refuse to live without. I am a feminist because I care about gender, question power and work for equality. I hold concern for women’s bodies and all bodies that are “othered.” Do we feel safe in our bodies? Are people denying or disrespecting us because of the labels they tag onto our bodies? Are we healthy? Have we eaten? Do we have shelter? Are we sexually satisfied? Do we feel that our bodies reflect who we are on the inside? These are my feminist concerns. I think about how systematic racism and classism collaborate with and even depend on gender oppression. I think about how patriarchy undermines the complex humanity of my little brothers and father and former step-father and grandfather who feel great shame when they cry. I want to read stories about men who weep in the face of injustice, as loudly as the women have been allowed to weep. I am interested in new models of masculinity because the stiff, warring, W. Bush, invincible, Marlboro Man act bores me. I want to love all the characters in a book, regardless of their sex or gender, and to see myself in them. I so struggled to identify with Lessing’s portrait of Anna. And I struggled to identify what attracted Anna to all the men she couldn’t stop pining after, resenting and serving. I worry that people will read this book and think, “This is what women think of men.” Anna is not every woman.

I am lucky to have more options than Anna had. I am grateful to the brave women who came before me, who worked with other women and alongside men against various forms oppression . I am grateful to those who continue to work for social change.

The Golden Notebook often made activism seem so futile…

But as painful as it was for me to read my physical copy of this very thick, very sad, very violent book, I had a good time logging in and sharing my thoughts, reading fellow readers thoughts and responding to each other. I think of the seven featured readers as a team. We didn’t have a uniform or a united goal. There was no opponent or scorekeeper. But we were a kind of team, yes? We all met in person―once―before the project went live which helped me to become curious about the members of our circle. I couldn’t have participated without that initial face-to-face meeting. I might have participated more if we had met more than once.

I explained this to someone recently: I love this project but I prefer live group discussions for their casual, unedited and unapologetic spontaneity. In person, a participant’s meaning is reinforced by gesture, intonation, ellipses and eye-contact. As a theatre artist, I find this invaluable. When I can see who I’m talking to, I feel freer to process things aloud, to ebb and flow between eloquence and incoherence, to go off on tangents, to joke and to riff. I also find that live listeners are more forgiving than online readers. The web-world seems a bit more impatient and judgmental. I think it’s because we often use the internet to garner and share information. Online readers demand brevity and accuracy. Even social networking sites have a summarizing efficiency. When I contributed to The Golden Notebook Project, I often felt a self-imposed pressure to be precise, clean and clear. I felt this, in part, because I knew there was a wider audience
tuning in. For me―against our best efforts―communicating with each other online always felt formal. It would have been different (more intimate? less formal?) if the seven of us had sat by a fire three times a week to hash out our thoughts. As of now, I’m still not convinced that a conversation about a book is possible online. A discussion? Yes. A conversation? Not yet.

I think The Golden Notebook Project works because the novel is something a diverse group of readers can still get riled up about. First published in 1962, Lessing’s text flaunts controversial ideas about gender roles, sexuality, class and activism. Her main character Anna is consistently maddening―always making a grotesque or grandiose statement that I just had to log in to kvetch about. I was always curious to see if other readers felt my sadness, sympathy, confusion and outrage. I think the “curiosity to see” is the key.

I often read, considered and sometimes referenced forum comments but I didn’t contribute to the forums as much as I hoped to. This time, it was too much for me to fully engage with the potential thousands of faceless wonderful people visiting the site. Next time, it might be easier. Unless they are in a course that requires the text or are in a book group that requires me to log in to TGNP, I’m not sure how much fun it is for forum participants to read what seven random women writers have to say about this book. It might have been more interesting if there were podcasts  available or if both featured and forum readers had the option to video blog.

I think there should be a Round Two. I think it would be interesting to have the seven of us come together again to read whatever the opposite of The Golden Notebook would be. But I’m not yet sure what I mean by “opposite.”

In the meantime, I’m going to go re-read one of my favorite stories: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Author avatar

Lenelle Moïse
on February 16th, 2009 at 9:26 am

On the process

It’s been very interesting to read everyone’s thoughts on the process.

I think that, coming into the project I was the person with the most experience writing online (even though my own blog is sadly neglected, I was lead writer for a long-running online story/game). So I guess it was quite easy for me to get into the habit of posting regularly; I’m used to the way that online writing works.

Having said that, I did find it difficult to get over the concern that my comments weren’t incisive enough, and this led to some self-censorship. I wonder if the other readers felt the same. I think it was partly because I hadn’t read the novel before: my feeling is it’d probably be better for all readers to be in the same boat, either having read the novel or not having read it and approaching it ‘blind’. Added to this, posts to our forum were sometimes startlingly negative. I know that trolls are inevitable, but I was surprised at the ratio of negative-to-positive.

I suspect that what some of the other readers have suggested is true: this kind of project is much more fun to participate in than to read! I think a logical extension of the project, and one which would have a lot of value, would be to make the platform open to other (out-of-copyright) books and reading groups. It really was exciting to be waiting for comments, to feel we were reading all together, to get into arguments and indeed to learn more about the history of the female orgasm! It enriched my understanding of the book, and made me engage with it much more deeply. It’s a very valuable reading experience, and it would be wonderful if more people had the opportunity to experience it.

As to the composition of the group, it was interesting. Clearly it was a group of very erudite, informed and analytical women; I loved the range of different perspectives we brought to the book. I did sometimes have the feeling that we were like a manufactured Girl Band - brought together by the lovely Bob Stein but without there being necessarily much to draw us together otherwise. Perhaps that also made it hard to keep conversations going. Or perhaps if we’d all known each other very well, there’d have been a temptation to turn to in-jokes or not to argue with each other at all! I think I agree with Nona that I’d rather there had been a token man or two in the mix. Because, yes, ‘women’s books’ shouldn’t only be discussed by women. I’d certainly be interested to repeat the experiment - or see the experiment repeated - with a group of friends, or with a group of total strangers whom I’d never met. I think it’s worth doing in many ways, to find out how altering the parameters changes the outcome.

As a final thought - I think this project has changed the way I read. Not massively, but subtley. It’s made me want to talk more about my reading, to seek out people who’ve read the same books as me to be able to discuss them. I’ve never really enjoyed ‘book clubs’ but this was different, and encouraged a level of analysis one doesn’t get outside academic settings (probably because of the quality of the readers involved here!). Some friends and I are talking about setting up a system similar to the Golden Notebook project so that we can do an online book group together. I think I’m going to continue to pursue this way of reading: it’s inspiring and enriching.

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Naomi Alderman
on February 15th, 2009 at 3:45 pm

My thoughts on the process

I just posted my thoughts on feminism and women in the form of a comment to Naomi’s post, but re the process:

I agree with Laura about wanting to hear the point of view of men.  All too often books that are perceived to be “feminist texts” are relegated to feminists or women.  I liked when men commented on the forums and wished there was one “in the mix” commenting more readily.

I too have a feeling that this was more useful for us than onlookers, but I don’t see anything wrong with that.  I think this would work ideally for students, since none of us seemed to have consistent time to do this (with the exception of Naomi–I was superimpressed by her commitment!).  As a result, the conversation was at times staggered, with unexplained gaps and pauses.  If it was a more central part of the participants’ lives, the experience would be a lot richer.

That said, I do feel that this was an extremely valuable experience, as someone who has been out of school for a few years and as a result has been slacking on novel-reading.  Bottom line, this project propelled me to read more critically and avidly.  I was excited to comment, and to see who had answered me!  It also forced me to finish a book I didn’t necessarily like–I (and many other people I know) often abandon books midway through, and I think that’s a definite feature of the frazzled, internet, short-attention-span culture I was brought up in.  In these two ways, the project was a success, and I feel pretty confident that it could be brought to a less handpicked group of readers, too.  (Of course, they wouldn’t have a monetary incentive, but I’m trying not to be TOO cynical…)

One more small thing: it was also hard for me to have met these women once.  My gut tells me that participants should either be strangers that only know each other through the internet, OR people that interact every week in a seminar or class.  The random meeting/dinner party in the beginning was very enjoyable but it gave the TGN conversation a layer of judgement that I didn’t necessarily want later.

What do you all think about this last point?

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Nona Willis Aronowitz
on February 9th, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Final thoughts

It’s been a few weeks now since I put down The Golden Notebook, and so I thought I’d use this space to share some thoughts and ideas I’ve been mulling over since our project came to an end.

It’s really been a fascinating process for me. Reading a book and discussing it with a group during the reading is an experience I haven’t had since English A-level at 18 years old. The excitement of posting a comment and waiting to see what response it got was immense. Making reading truly social - unlike book clubs, where one’s often half-forgotten the book by the time the club night comes round - was wonderful. I want to do it again, with other books.

The project has also caused me to reflect on my own feminism. Of course, that’s the nature of the novel, and in that sense the edges of The Golden Notebook are still razor-sharp. Why are women’s lives different to men’s lives? What is a true or authentic female sexuality? Is there hope for heterosexual relationships? These are still questions which get under the skin.

But for me, the project has made me wonder if I’m right to call myself a feminist. I use the word to mean “someone who cares about women’s rights, who is interested in creating a more equal society, who demands to be treated as the intellectual, political, social equal of any man”. But I feel I can see in this book, and in some of the discussions we’ve had around it, the way that the word has come to mean something else, something more like “a person who thinks women are better than men, who thinks men are responsible for many of the evils of society, who suspects that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women.” In that sense I’m not a feminist at all.

The struggle of the suffragettes has always had resonance with me. In the Orthodox Jewish world I come from, women still don’t have ‘the vote’. That is, women cannot become Rabbis, in many cases cannot study the detail of the law in the form of the Talmud, and therefore cannot have a role in creating the laws which control their lives. The struggle for women’s suffrage in Orthodoxy is beginning, but it has not yet been won. On a practical level, too, I support affirmative action which would bring more women into the forefront of our political and commercial life like Norway’s policy that 40% of company board members must be women. ( So perhaps I could call myself a suffragette.

Or perhaps something like “gender equalitarian” would be more appropriate. My annoyance with The Golden Notebook often came from Lessing’s portrayal of men. She shows them as babies, as insecure, as sexually dysfunctional, as casual abusers of women’s kindness, as hostile and maddening and congenitally unfaithful. This has not been my experience of men of my generation. But, from some of the comments particularly from the older members of our reading group, I suspect that this portrayal was more accurate of previous generations of men.

I think I have been the beneficiary of the work of feminists of the 1970s who, in the way that life is unfair, may not have benefited themselves. The sons of those 1970s pioneers are better men than their grandfathers were, I think. Not everything has changed, there is still a great deal of work to be done. But I feel some confidence in speaking about the social milieu Anna might find herself in today, since I also am a  Jewish female writer in her 30s living in London off the proceeds of my first book while finishing my second. I’m not a Communist of course, so our social circles are different there, but I really do not think that Anna would encounter such a procession of useless men today. There are, I think, very few men in my social group who do not understand that they ought to know how to cook for themselves, that it is not OK to leave me to clean up after them, that they too would be responsible for raising any child they should happen to father. This book, and the work that came after it, have changed the world it describes.

For myself, I feel that a great deal of the work of what I might call ‘feminism’ or might call ‘gender equalitarianism’ lies now in improving the lot of men. The sword of arbitrary gender distinctions cuts both ways. For the same offences, men are far more likely to end up in prison than women are. Under-age male prostitutes are more likely to be sent to borstal, under-age female prostitutes to rehabilitation programmes. Custody of children, which was once used as a weapon to keep women in bad marriages because it was always given to the father is now mostly given to the mother. Men’s paternity leave is pitiful compared to maternity leave. These are real problems, leading to continuing arbitrary divisions between the sexes which harm both.

Even supposed “women’s issues” have negative effects for both sexes. Women are still paid less than men, which not only deprives women of financial autonomy but also means that men who might want to divide child-rearing more equally are deprived of that choice for reasons of family economy.

The Golden Notebook is tremendously pessimistic about the possibility of fulfilling, uplifting, empowering heterosexual relationships. I found the same pessimism in some of the comments of our reading group. It’s not a pessimism I share. And I think it’s not a pessimism which the ‘Women’s Movement’ can afford to embrace if it is to continue to influence the lives of men and women in the 21st century. To put it bluntly, systems of thought which discourage heterosexual sex tend to die out; rather like the Shakers. (I hope no one will misunderstand this; I of course don’t mean that heterosexual sex ought to be privileged above gay sex or masturbation.)

What I mean is that I think a lot of young women (and young men) would like to hear ideas about how to create joyful, uplifting and equal partnerships, and I didn’t see a lot of that coming from our discussion. I think this kind of guidance is needed more than ever now, and feminism (or whatever we call it) dooms itself if it simply says “all heterosexual relationships are abusive”.

So this project has inspired me to think through my personal gender manifesto.
1) Active pushing for women’s participation in our financial, corporate and political institutions.
2) Addressing areas where men’s rights and outcomes are worse than women’s.
3) Providing ideas about how loving, equal relationships between men and women can be created and sustained.
I’m grateful for that. It’s a lot more clarity than I had before.

And it’s also encouraged me to feel gratitude. I’ve been reading the work of a rather less spikey but equally inspiring writer this week: Grace Paley. I found this in the dedication of her book of essays “As I thought”:

“I want to thank the women who preceded me in this last-half-of-the-century women’s movement. They were early in understanding and action, so that it was easier for me and others to cross the slippery streets of indifference, exclusion and condescension.”

That is just how I feel too. I am grateful for all the work and struggle that made it possible for me to read The Golden Notebook and say “well, this part certainly doesn’t address issues in *my* life!” Things used to be very different; I’m grateful for the change. I hope my generation can make enough of a difference so that our daughters and granddaughters will be grateful too.

Author avatar

Naomi Alderman
on January 27th, 2009 at 1:11 pm


Sorry, to add to my own post, it also seems like being too emotional nowadays is anti-feminist.  I don’t agree with this fundamentally, but I often see myself taking that knee-jerk stance when a woman (or in this case, a protagonist) is masochistic about men.

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Nona Willis Aronowitz
on December 11th, 2008 at 6:29 pm

Feminist manifesto in 2008…?

I’m just going to say it: even though I can occasionally relate to Anna, I don’t like her.  I don’t look up to her, and I’m not reading The Golden Notebook as a motivational feminist text.  Not that we’re necessarily supposed to like her.  My reaction says less to me about the success of Anna’s character than what feminism is “supposed” to mean right now.  In pop culture, a feminist role model is more independent, less fazed, less inward, less…flawed.  Tougher.  The stereotypical (white, affluent) feminist of yesteryear, the feminist that came after the publication of TGN, was way more touchy-feely, victimized, tortured, and Anna-like.  Mistrustful of and betrayed by men.

I realize that the former characterization is unrealistic, but I’m only admitting that by rejecting Anna I’ve subconsciously absorbed a different feminist stereotype now–the Superwoman.  Younger women are told, “Girl Power!  You can do anything.  You can have it all!”  It’s this (sometimes naively) defiant message, influenced by Third Wave, co-opted by people like Sarah Palin and the Spice Girls.  Mainstream feminism as an industry, as an image and ethos in 2008, does not include someone like Anna.  Molly, maybe.

Sometimes this pisses me off, because I think, “Just because a woman is a feminist doesn’t mean she can’t feel depressed, that she has to keep it together always.  So much pressure to be Ms. Perfect!”  But being depressed constantly about men and love doesn’t resonate to me.  On the whole, self-esteem has infiltrated feminism at least as a goal, if not a complete reality.

I guess what I’m saying is that I see my gut response less as a personal reaction and more as evidence of a changing, overcompensatory definition of “feminist” or for that matter “strong woman,” “independent woman,” etc.  What does everyone else think?

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Nona Willis Aronowitz
on December 11th, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Hump Day

We’re halfway through our six weeks, I’m halfway through the book. Time for a few random musings on the project so far.

I’m certainly experiencing this novel in a new and intriguing way. I see that last week I was worried that I was losing a form of communion with the novelist. However, in the past week I’ve found a new kind of communion: I’m talking about this novel much more than I usually talk about novels I’m reading.

Every time I have dinner with or chat online to a friend The Golden Notebook seems to be coming up. Is this simply because it’s a densely-written book with a lot to say about women’s lives today? I don’t think it’s just that. Even when I’ve been reading other very serious and important books I haven’t brought them up in conversation this much.

I suspect it’s because the conversation involved in this project has moved the book from being a solitary experience in my mind to a social one. I want all my friends to be reading it too. I want them to be able to talk about it with me. And the project has given me an opening: I see where the conversational topics are in it, because we’ve explored them a little. I had Friday night dinner with Orthodox Jewish friends last week and we ended up talking heatedly about men’s and women’s roles in life because of this book. (We disagreed. But in a friendly way.)

Other thoughts. I’m starting to wonder how else one could apply this format. I’d love to try it with a short story. Something you could easily read ten times in the course of, say, a two-week discussion. I’d love to see a text where every paragraph was annotated. The Golden Notebook’s so rich that six weeks barely scratches the surface.

And, on a similar theme, I’d love to do a project where everyone involved knew the text well. Or one where everyone was new to it. What would it be like if instead of posting to this site we were cutting-and-pasting Instant Messenger conversations?

No wonder I can’t stop talking about it. This project is making my mind race.

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Naomi Alderman
on November 29th, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Reading in chunks

I still haven’t shaken the habit of reading and reading and reading…then chilling back for a few days and soaking it all in.  I can’t help it.  Of course, if one is a freelancer, it’s just a fact of life that some days are twenty times busier than others.  But there are also some days that are meant for reading, a night that is all to myself and I can really fixate on these characters.  Other nights my mind wanders, and I end up plodding along without absorbing anything.

Reading in chunks happens also because of Lessing’s writing style.  It is not episodic in the traditional sense, even as the writing style shifts constantly.  The situations are long and layered; it’s hard to earmark a page because it feels like you’re cutting Doris off in the middle of a sentence.  I’m more than 200 pages in and it’s still difficult to see the bigger picture…I’ll check in next week to see if it becomes clearer.

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Nona Willis Aronowitz
on November 25th, 2008 at 11:03 am

Perhaps reading is my religion

I have already had too many mood swings over this project to count. Sometimes I feel exhilarated by the excitement of participating in something so new, other times rebellious at having to read to a rigid structure. Sometimes I feel privileged to be reading in such learned company, other times resentful that my experience of this book is being filtered through the lens of the project.

I went to take a quick look at Doris Lessing’s biography online today. I realise it’s the first time I’ve really thought about the woman whose novel I’m reading. Mostly, when I’m reading, I’m thinking about the book through the eyes of the six other women in this project. What will they make of this scene? Will someone else comment on this paragraph or will I be the first? Will they disagree with my approach to it?

This is very different to the way I usually read. For me, what is inspiring and magnificent about reading is the sense of communion with one single other human mind. No other artform, I think, is so direct, so unmediated, so simple. There’s no need for lighting, makeup artists, camera operators or directors. There’s no studio or network calling the shots. No orchestra or actors have to interpret the work. I don’t even have to be in the presence of the artist’s personal handiwork. A scattering of printed characters on a page or a screen and I am in the presence of another person’s creation. I worry that this project is interfering with the purity of that communion (and if this sounds religious, that’s probably accurate). I worry that I’ll never be able to read this book without the demands of the project intervening.

But I realise that this, for what it’s worth, is my answer to Harriet’s question “why do we read?” I read because I want to be intensely in the presence of other human minds. Intensely involved in their deep selves, driven by the motor of their thoughts for a time. And it’s true that many books end up not being worth keeping. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth reading. That’s like saying “because only these friends have been with me my whole life, all my other relationships were meaningless.” Some books are like a cocktail party chat, some like a friendship specific to a particular job or city or time of life. Some books are like a long relationship: tremendously meaningful to us for many years and then, suddenly, they are spent.

This is not to say that reading a great book is like being friends with the writer: of course it’s not. But human beings are vast; our minds are larger than we know. No book can contain one millionth, one billionth of a human life. But a great writer puts a sliver of their human-ness into a book and, like God breathing life into clay in Genesis, suddenly it is a little alive. It’s that that I’m looking for: the moment of communion with the novel. It’s that that I’m afraid this project may deprive me of because perhaps it can only happen alone.

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Naomi Alderman
on November 22nd, 2008 at 6:36 pm

the death of a reader

A recent story in The NY Times asked if stories have a future. If we’re blogging, texting, doing rapid response communicating, who cares about the narrative, tortoise slow and painfully digressive? Naomi’s comment that she needs to come up for air now and then from TGN to overcome the characters’ depressive tendencies makes me wonder WHY DO WE READ? What do we get from books; what are we getting from Lessing? I have just moved from NY to Portland, Oregon with 140 book boxes, the collected treasures of a life spent in books. In each box I am finding approximately one book per 30 worth saving. Looking at them all with fresh west coast eyes, I’m not sure what these books have given me. I can tell you what they’ve taken away: an ability to live a good life OUTSIDE of books. The books surviving the cut? Poetry, novels I vow to read (War and Peace, The Man Without Qualities, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories) and nonfiction where the writer is clearly in love with his material and intoxicated by his voice (Macauley, Gibbon, Nietzsche, Robert Caro, Doris Goodwin). 

If I’d never read any of these books I’m chucking, would it have made a difference to me? What difference do books make?

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Harriet Rubin
on November 20th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

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