The exact cause of Lessing's death at her home in London was not immediately disclosed, and her family requested privacy. She was 94.
"Even in very old age she was always intellectually restless, reinventing herself, curious about the changing world around us, always completely inspirational," her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, said in one of the many tributes.
Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of science fiction. In winning the Nobel literature prize, the Swedish Academy praised Lessing for her "skepticism, fire and visionary power."
The often-polarizing Lessing never saved her fire for the page. The targets of her vocal ire in recent years included former President George W. Bush — "a world calamity" — and modern women — "smug, self-righteous." She also raised hackles by deeming the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States "not that terrible."
She remains best known for "The Golden Notebook," in which heroine Anna Wulf uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of her disintegrating life. The novel covers a range of previously unmentionable female conditions — menstruation, orgasms and frigidity — and made Lessing an icon for women's liberation. But it became so widely talked about and dissected that she later referred to it as a "failure" and "an albatross."
Published in Britain in 1962, the book did not make it to France or Germany for 14 years because it was considered too inflammatory. When it was republished in China in 1993, 80,000 copies sold out in two days.
"It took realism apart from the inside," said Lorna Sage, an academic who knew Lessing since the 1970s. "Lessing threw over the conventions she grew up in to stage a kind of breakdown — to celebrate disintegration as the representative experience of a generation."
Although she continued to publish at least one book every two years, she received little attention for her later works and was often criticized as didactic and impenetrable.
Lessing was 88 when she won the Nobel literature prize, making her the oldest recipient of the award.
"This is pure political correctness," American literary critic Harold Bloom said in 2007 after Lessing won the Nobel Prize. "Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."
While Lessing defended her turn to science fiction as a way to explore "social fiction," she, too, was dismissive of the Nobel honor.
After emerging from a London black cab, groceries in hand, that day in 2007, she said:
"I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise," Lessing said. "I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off."
As the international media surrounded her in her garden, she brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.
"I'm very pleased if I get some new readers," she said. "Yes, that's very nice, I hadn't thought of that."
Born Doris May Tayler on Oct. 22, 1919, in Persia (now Iran), where her father was a bank manager, Lessing moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) aged 5 and lived there until she was 29.