When Briefing for a Descent into Hell was published, critics noticed the contrasts between it and Lessing’s previous work. Even though the same dominant themes of mental imbalance and psychic phenomena that were used in The Golden Notebook and in The Four-Gated City (1969) are to be found here as well, there are some major differences. For one thing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell has as its protagonist one of the few men to serve this purpose in any of Lessing’s longer fiction: Charles Watkins is a classics professor at Cambridge University, and his mental and emotional “journey” and eventual restoration to psychic health constitute the book’s plot.
Lessing’s influences are diverse. Throughout her career as a writer, she has espoused various philosophic allegiances, and, not surprisingly, her fiction reflects these commitments. Retreat to Innocence (1956) is an explicitly pro-Marxist work, but since her defection from the Communist party, she has disowned that novel. The Golden Notebook reflects a Jungian interest, partly in the nature of the psychoanalyst whom Lessing’s protagonist in that novel consults. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the novel published immediately after The Golden Notebook and the last two parts of the Children of Violence series, shows a distinct correlation to and dependence upon the work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing.
In 2008, The Times ranked her fifth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Good Terrorist, Canopus in Argos, The Cleft.
In 1983, "Canopus in Argos" is published.
There are six short stories and a representative selection of non fiction, including a piece from (a personal account of her return to Africa); an essay, My Father from ; and an article describing her interest in Sufism.In the Preface Doris Lessing points out that her readership tends to fall into two categories - those who admire her writing for its realism and those who prefer her space fiction.
Speaking of Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the first of the three "inner space" novels written between the two major series, Pickering notes that here "the element of transcendence present in Martha Quest's visionary experiences on the veld has reappeared in a new formulation" (130). While the structure of Briefing "resembles that of The Golden Notebook" (1962), "Charles's madness is both less personal and less connected with the outer world that Anna's; it is more archetypal, less historical"(125, 126). Furthermore, she notes how "the shape of Briefing," with its "multiple narratives," "parallels its meaning" (127, 128). "The elaborate interconnections between disparate narratives...point to the hidden harmony which humanity has lost sight of in the false selves determined by the collective" (129). Finally she suggests how Briefing is a bridge between Lessing's inner- and outer-space novels. While the aims of the Cosmic Whole in Briefing only come to us through the apparently mad wanderings of the mind of Charles Watkins, they will be presented "undisguised" "without the mediation of the psychiatric hospital" in the Canopus series.
I recall when we studied Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell, that she fashioned it in part after a Sufi teaching tale. The idea is to disrupt the surface narrative, so that the reader cannot immerse themselves in it, and as such, they must seek out the deeper meanings of the text. I'm not sure if that qualifies as metafiction, but it certainly was jarring to move from a man recovering his memory in hospital to a castaway story to a sci-fi story and like so.
After her initial flourishing as a writer, during which time she explored the Africa of her youth from her new home in London, Lessing turned away from the land of her past and toward new settings: inner space and outer space. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) is a novel of ideas based on her interest in the views of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing. In subsequent novels, Lessing has continued to produce work critiquing modern society. In contrast to the realism that marked her earlier novels, Lessing’s work of the late twentieth century would take startling new forms. In the five ”Canopus” books she explores the destruction of life brought about by catastrophe and tyranny.