After her sparkling early novels, Jeanette Winterson has fallen from literary grace. Is this fair? Or is she the victim of male critics who feel threatened by her lesbianism? Angela Lambert talks to her about God, class, sex and how she writesby Angela Lambert / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Jeanette Winterson, asked in 1995 to select her favourite living writer, said: “No one working in the English language now comes close to my exuberance, my passion and fidelity to words.” These may be the most famous-certainly they are the most notorious-words she has ever uttered and they did her enormous damage. The English prefer their writers modest. But as she later said: “If people ask me a question, would they prefer I lie?… That’s the kind of hypocrisy and false modesty that I think is bad for you as a human being and is certainly bad for art.”
Gut Symmetries, Winterson’s sixth and latest novel, was published in 1997 to unfavourable reviews. Few readers, let alone critics, warm to a novel that begins: “Here follows a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The Ship of Fools, a Jew, a diamond, a dream. A working-class boy, a baby, a river, the sub-atomic joke of unstable matter.” With this and the pretentious definition of each word that follows (“Baby: A beginning. An epiphany. A culet.”) the author is hardly welcoming readers aboard for the start of a fictional journey. As for the sub-atomic joke, I am no quantum physicist, but a friend who is, and read the book, claims that although Winterson has tried to grapple with the theory, she has failed to understand it. But the novel sold well enough, if not as well as the scintillating early ones. Her fans mostly remain loyal, for the time being. But for how much longer? Whatever happened to Jeanette Winterson?
In the mid-1980s, Winterson’s early novels catapulted her to literary acclaim and commercial success. The first was Oranges are not the only Fruit (1985), and despite the author’s insistence that it was not autobiographical, most readers took it to be a thinly-disguised account of her own early years; the heroine has her name and shares many of her experiences. It was not an instant bestseller, but word of mouth spread its fame like bushfire. Oranges won the Whitbread First Novel award. Nowadays the reading public is as likely to follow prize winners as book reviews, and the award set the seal on its success. Nor was Winterson to be a one-book wonder. Two years later, in 1987, came The Passion, a coruscating magic realist work that took the form of a Napoleonic fable set mainly in 19th century Venice,…