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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - British novelist Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday for a body of work that looked unflinchingly at society's ills and inspired a generation of feminist writers.
The Swedish Academy, which awards the 10 million crown ($1.54 million) prize, called the 87-year-old an "epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny".
The oldest person to win a Nobel for literature, Lessing was only the 34th female laureate since the prizes began in 1901 and the 11th woman to take the literature award.
Lessing was shopping when the news of her Nobel broke and learned of it from reporters gathered outside her London house.
She said the prize had dealt her the literary equivalent of the best possible hand in poker.
"I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one. I'm delighted to win them all, the whole lot," she told reporters as she sat on her front steps.
"It's a royal flush."
Lessing said an official connected with the Nobels once came up to her at a "very, very formal dinner" in Sweden and told her she would never win the prize.
"Can you imagine the cheek?" she said. "What am I to say? 'Oh dear, I'm so sorry, why don't you like me?'"
Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Lessing's work had been of great importance to other writers and to the broader field of literature.
"She has been a subject for discussion (by the academy) for quite some time, and now the moment was right. Perhaps we could say that she is one of the most carefully considered decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize," he told Reuters after announcing Lessing had won.
"She has opened up a new area of experience that earlier had not been very accepted in literature. That has to do with, for instance, female sexuality."
Academics and writers called the honor well deserved.
"She is a great figure, she certainly deserved it," fellow novelist Umberto Eco, whose books include the successful "Name of the Rose", said at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Jane Friedman, chief executive of Lessing publisher HarperCollins, called the Nobel a complete surprise.
"This is absolutely extraordinary," she told Reuters in Frankfurt. "She has been an icon for women for a lifetime."
Lessing, born to British parents in what is now Iran on October 22, 1919, was raised in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
She went to a convent boarding school at the age of seven and later moved to a girls' school in Salisbury, Rhodesia. After ending her formal schooling at 14, she worked variously as a nanny, telephonist, office worker and journalist.
Her debut as a novelist came in 1950 with "The Grass is Singing", a book that examined the relationship between a white farmer's wife and her black servant.
Her 1962 work "The Golden Notebook" was widely considered her breakthrough.
"The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship," the academy said in its citation.
Lessing, who has never shrunk from controversy, said her next work -- "Alfred and Emily" -- was an anti-war book dedicated to her parents, whose lives were forever changed by World War One.
This was the fourth of this year's crop of Nobel prizes, handed out annually for achievements in science, literature, economics and peace.
The winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo.
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in Frankfurt, Emma Bengtsson, Jerker Hellstrom, Adam Cox and Simon Johnson in Stockholm and Mike Collett-White in London