Monday, October 31, 2011

Jeanette Winterson at the Royal Exchange

Going to a Jeanette Winterson reading is like going to a religious rally. Here are the kinds of crowds you don't often see at at a literary reading, people you've never seen before and those you haven't seen for years: a man with a beard comes up to me and says 'Hello! ... Oh dear, you don't recognise me!' and I say, 'Yes, I do, you're X!' (from long ago) and he says, 'No, no, I'm Y!' He's a man I knew in a time even before that, when Jeanette Winterson published Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And they're all here, the people who read that book then and have read it since, and this is what the whole thing's about, because this is an event for Winterson's  new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? which her publishers call a memoir but which she will tell us is a new 'cover' of the same story.

I turns out that though we are here to hear Carol Ann Duffy discuss the book with her in the 'Carol Ann Duffy and Friends' series of events, this isn't going to happen. Duffy won't be here and Winterson will simply read and talk to us and take questions. The theatre fills up and there's an expectant hush as through the glass beyond the auditorium capsule we see her approach with her minders, and Winterson enters, all in preacher's black with white shirt and a touch of snakeoil saleman's gold on her brogues, and the whole place erupts in a kind of mass relief and excitement of applause. You almost expect her to bow or make the sign of the cross. And there are the acolytes speaking in the Q & A as if the Spirit has moved them: the first person to speak is a girl on the front row, who tells us in a voice trembling with emotion that she comes from Accrington (as Winterson does) and, honestly, it's like a kind of miracle, but she had never heard of Winterson before but this morning she opened the Guardian and read the article about her and it so moved her, so chimed with her own experience, that she came into town and bought Oranges, and - this is the honest truth - she was sitting reading it in Cornerhouse and someone commented to her that this event was on and here she is, and honestly, she feels it's changed her life... And another woman speaks from up in the balcony and says that as a gay writer Oranges simply saved her life... And at the end the applause goes on and on, and the queue for the book signing snakes round and round the Exchange foyer.

It's quite clear to the cynical observer that Winterson's great subject is herself and her own psyche, about which in fact she's quite upfront: so harsh was her upbringing that, she tells us, she had to go under or make herself the hero of her own life. And a hero is certainly how her fans see her, both in the glamorous superhero sense (which is indeed how she depicts herself), but also because by some alchemy of that apparent self-absorption transmuted into fiction, they find themselves spoken to and confirmed and strengthened by her books (or by Oranges at any rate).

I have a few amused quibbles with what we heard of the new book, and from what Winterson read, I think I prefer the fiction version ('Oranges'). She read a passage in which her adoptive mother accuses her of coming from 'the wrong crib', a crib guarded the Devil, and makes fun of the literalness of such a notion. Yet Winterson's depiction of 'Mrs Winterson', which strains for comedy that lots of the audience appreciated but I couldn't, in fact presents her as some kind of devil, which here seems like a mistake but is richly ambiguous in the fiction version.

However, as always, I loved what she said about fiction. That fact that this 'memoir' is in fact just another version rather than the 'truth', because for one thing memory is selective and for another were are all, in life, invented and made up, creating fictions about ourselves the whole time. The fact that the great thing about fiction is its ability to avoid the linear, and that the truth is often best depicted by the non-linear. In illustration she related how this book leaves out 25 years, which her American publishers didn't like: they wanted her to fill in the 25 years for the sake of linearity. But she stuck to her guns because it was the two things each side of those 25 years that were connnected, on the one hand her adoptive mother and the absence of her biological mother  and on the other her discovery of her biological mother. The fact that books can be a sanctuary, and can give you an inner life that can make you strong whatever - something that many people there clearly felt that her books had done for them. The fact that writers need silence and solitude, and that in the age of the internet it's harder than ever for writers to create that essential balance between being out in the world and retiring to that inner space.

Finally, asked about tips for writing, she made it clear that she didn't really feel you can teach writing, because each time you embark on a book you don't really know how to do it, or how it's going to turn out. It's something unseen or dim, a beast that you have to struggle with alone..


adele said...

You make me feel as though I were there at the lovely Manchester Royal Exchange. Cambridge is wonderful but doesn't have a theatre like that. Very few places do, in fact! Sounds an amazing event. Thanks!

Dan Holloway said...

There are very few writers of literary fiction who can inspire so much genuine adulation as Winterson. Murakami and the late lamented David Foster Wallace are maybe the only others I can think of.

I came to the Winterson party relatively late in the day. As a book-obsessed teenager in the 80s and student through the late 80s and early 90s I almost vehemently disliked her. It reached a height with Written on the Body. It's interesting looking on her website now to see she talks about difficulties she had with this book in the UK. For me the barrier to her work was what felt like a massive authorial ego getting in the way. It felt as though she saw herself as the single-handed saviour of the novel and I found that off-putting.

It's impossible for me to view myself at that time with opbjetivity, because such a view is tempered by both the foreshortening lens of memory and the fact that about 5 years ago I became an almost evangelical Winterson convert. What's interesting looking back is why I fell so instantly and deeply in love with the works of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin in the mid 90s but felt so alienated from Winterson. It's hard to tell (the foreshortening thing) whether the 3 years' difference between Written on the Body and Everyone I Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 are the key issue, or whether it was something in the difference between Emin and Winterson. To me now, I recall a deeper honesty manifesting itself as vulnerability in Emin. She is often accused of having the most monstrous ego, and I see that, but it has always felt that she was prepared to expose that ego - it was always art-serving not self-serving. The remembered-Winterson seemed to use the ego as a wall, as a way of holding that openness back, or rather using a projected rather than a genuine openness. She felt what an anachronistic observer would call "spun" in a way Emin wasn't, and it feels as though what has changed about her now is a genuineness, a willingness to take down the last boundaries and talk honestly about what's underneath.

But as I say it's impossible from this distance to say how much is really about a change in her and how much about a change in me that happened somewhere in the early to mid 90s. It's no wonder memory holds such fascination for artists!

The one thing that's unequivocally true is how much I love and admire Winterson now.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Winterson did talk at the RX about her past self - the fact that she used to have an enormous anger (understandable) but that she's calmed down since and I think it's true that she's mellowed. Personally, although I loved the writing in Oranges, I do find it one-sided, stamping rather hard over 'Mrs Winterson', and I still find it squirm-making that she still calls her that - it seems coy in some way and connected with some kind of avoidance, failure of confrontation. But there's no doubting that many people feel transformed by that book, and you can't dismiss that fact, or that it endorses Winterson's ideas about the tranformative power of fiction.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Adele, I have not stopped half-expecting to see you at events like this: you are sorely missed!

Sue Guiney said...

I must admit, anyone who attracts so much adulation causes me to be a bit suspicious, which may not be fair, but there you have it. But your final paragraph about her ideas on whether writing can be taught is especially interesting. It certainly rings true with my own experience.

nmj said...

I too feel as if I was there, thank you! This 'presidential' Jeanette is a far cry from the writer I saw in a Glasgow Waterstone's in early-mid nineties - I think - and she was reading from Written on the Body. I recall she had brought her novel in a plastic bag and looked entirely ordinary, not a minder in sight. I loved Oranges are not the only Fruit, and I think I liked Written on the Body, was so long ago, but I have read nothing else, no particular reason, I should rectify that. I do love her comments on the process of writing.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I recently reread The Passion and enjoyed it even more second time round. I've read most of her books and heard her read several years ago at Edinburgh Book Festival (she had great presence on stage even back then). I love Weight, her retelling of the Atlas myth, specially the twist she puts in the tale...