Jeanette Winterson’s diary: Is this the new normal?

“Yes or no can both be managed. The problem lies in not knowing when the not-knowing will end”
December 9, 2021

Travelling to New York City, after so long, was a complicated experience. I was glad to see my publishers again. Grove Press is the largest independent publisher in the US, and I have been with them for many years. Henry Miller, Kathy Acker, Helen Macdonald, Bernardine Evaristo… they have a long and distinguished line of writers and, just as importantly, are a model of difference in the corporate world.

Grove did fine during Covid. Folks read a lot, and serious readers read much more than usual. Now though, paper shortages, pallet shortages, printing and logistical nightmares are making it harder for Grove to use their legendary fleet-footedness to capitalise on what’s selling well. Rapid reprints are a thing of the past. Consequence? Either a publisher over-prints or under-prints. For an independent, this manifests as cost per book, potential profit and, most of all, satisfying the market—which is what capitalism is supposed to be about. That old basic of supply and demand.

The question we were asking, as we talked as old friends, was the one I guess everyone is asking: is this the new normal? The problem isn’t whatever the answer happens to be. Yes or no can both be managed. The problem lies in not-knowing. The problem lies in not knowing when the not-knowing will end.

Since Covid was unleashed on the world, not-knowing has become a way of life. In the UK, we have the extra layer of chaos that is Brexit.

I am a control freak. All adopted children are; look what happened when we weren’t in control. It’s why I live in the countryside and why I am self-employed. Here, I can grow food, chop wood, be self-reliant, if not self-sufficient, and live on my wits. I wouldn’t want to be a cog in the Uncertainty Machine.

As we move into power cuts and energy shortages, staring into the dark may well become a way of life

I fear all this uncertainty suits the alt-right project. People prefer stability. If the Strong Man or the Strong Corporation can offer it, that’s where people turn.

Amazon has become Mr Dependable. You order. They deliver. I wonder what would happen if Amazon or Google launched a political party?  It could be global, not national. Dystopia or Utopia?

At the end of last year, and the beginning of the new one, I set aside time to make sense of myself and to make sense of life. I love Christmas time; the slowing of the season into deep winter. The celebration, however crass and commercialised, of a moment that speaks of hope. No one has to belong to the Christian faith to welcome the message of Christmas. The story starts with a demand for money—everyone must go to Bethlehem to be taxed. It ends with the best gift of all—“unto us a child is born”—the gift of life. The gift of love. Across the bean-counting borders of bureaucracy is smuggled (literally because the unborn child cannot be counted) the prospect of a miracle. Here is a new beginning. Overlooked, unexpected, unquantifiable. An intervention in time.

To intervene in time can be to change it, slow it, speed it, pause it. We live in a world of increasing acceleration. As Mark Zuckerberg put it, move fast and break things.

That’s all right. Things need to be broken. Life gets rigid, fossilised, antique. The other side of the equation, the balance of it is: how do we repair? How do we make good? How do we heal? Neither an individual nor a society can live in constant churn. While working politically and practically to stabilise society, each of us, I think, needs to intervene in our own lives too. Probably to pause. Probably to slow down. This movement from the end of one year into the beginning of the next is a good time to question time.

Last month, I was the Substack writer in residence. I wanted to find out what it would be like to write for an online platform that operates a simple model: the writer keeps copyright, plus 90 per cent of revenue generated from subscriptions. This has worked well for non-fiction and journalism. I am part of the experiment to see how it works for fiction.

The conundrum is content. We have got used to endless deliverables. We are consumers. As the real-world supply chain falters, the streamed—digital—supply chain is running at full throttle. No matter how much is out there, we want more. This is at odds with the life of the mind.

I find that my best work is done doing nothing. That is, nothing that looks productive from the outside. It is often hard for journalists to move into fiction; not because they can’t write, but because they don’t know how not to write. Their skillset is word length, deadline, clarity of thinking and a neat turn of phrase. Staring into the dark is none of that.

As we move into power cuts and energy shortages, staring into the dark may well become a way of life. Part of me thinks that a little less on-demand might be a good thing.