Jeanette Winterson at the London Literature Festival
9th Jul 2010
Last night, I went to see Jeanette Winterson give the annual Southbank Centre Lecture as part of the London Literature Festival, celebrating 25 years since the publication of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. I’ve been lucky enough to see Jeanette read and give talks several times before (and always end up falling head over heels in love with her, every single time), but never to such a large audience as was assembled in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night.
And as always, seeing her speak left me both absolutely smitten and completely in awe of how self-assured, eloquent and insightful she is. If I wasn’t such a besotted fangirl I’d be emerald with envy around now. I love Jeanette’s books, I love her way with language and imagery, and I’d love how brave she has consistently been in form, style and subject matter.
But I also have a great admiration for the way that ever since Oranges, a semi-autobiographical account of her Northern working-class childhood in a strictly religious household where reading was not encouraged (“My mother always said ‘the trouble with books is that you never know what’s in them until it’s too late’”), Jeanette has passionately and consistently spoken out about the essential role of storytelling, literature and art, insisting they should be accessible to everyone, no matter their upbringing or financial means.
Being from a Northern, working-class and fervently religious household (I had to laugh when Jeanette described her adoptive mother in last night’s lecture as me “eagerly awaiting the apocalypse,” because it was all too true of my own upbringing), reading Oranges was a revelation to me. And for Jeanette and thousands of other children and teenagers whose surroundings made them feel frustrated, resentful and isolated, reading and writing can represent light, warmth, company and solace. As Jeanette said last night of her favourite authors, “my best friends are all dead.” As a result, the value of libraries, and other educational or community schemes for making art and literature available to everyone, should never be under-estimated, and I love the way Jeanette speaks out so fiercely about this issue, even now.
After the lecture, there were questions from the audience, and Jeanette seemed just as articulate and confident in her answers to questions on sexuality, feminism, politics and the economy as she was when delivering her pre-prepared talk. In response to a question about increasing the visibility of women in the arts, she said: “We’ll have to do what the suffragettes did, and chuck ourselves under the Queen’s horses and bombs through police station windows. Things are changing but not nearly fast enough. It’s still the case that all too often women become downtrodden and self-sacrificing instead of being fucking furious.”
Speaking about a turbulent time of near-breakdown following the publication of 2007 novel, The Stone Gods, she explained the allure that the dark side of humanity has over authors: “Dark narratives are seductive. And if we ignore the mythical Hollywood happy ending, there can only ever be three possible endings: revenge, tragedy or forgiveness.” She said that she now realises that the deaths at the end of each section of The Stone Gods were a premonition of what was to come: “Books are always smarter than their writers. The dragon’s down there and she’s waiting for you.”
Since so much of Jeanette’s writing explores sexual identities, some of questions from the audience were inevitably about how Jeanette is now often seen as one of the first pioneers of queer issues through fiction. But her answer to these claims was dismissive, saying “I think the most boring thing about somebody is the gender of who they’re sleeping with.” (As well as a comical admission that: “I slept with men for a while, when I was in my dark times. But in the end, I just couldn’t be bothered.”)
This slightly brusque reply was in response to a question from the audience, in which a chap has asked about the relationship between fiction about queer issues and queer theory, and how academia and art inform each other. Seeing a talk by Jeanette a decade earlier, he said, had made him realise that he didn’t necessarily need queer theory “because literature had already given me what I needed.” Although Jeanette’s frustration seemed more with the terminology he used (“I hate words like that. This is the whole problem with theory, it’s so up it’s own arse!”) than the question he was asking, I do refute the idea that sexuality is irrelevant in her writing. To me, it’s not about whether you like willies or fannies, it’s more about how inspirational and revolutionary it can be to find yourself, your struggles, frustrations, heartbreaks, and obsessions, represented in fiction, especially if you’re sorely lacking anyone experiencing those same joys and sorrows in real life.
Other questions from the audience included her thoughts on how evolving and advancing technologies will impact on the publishing industry, writers and readers (“the novel might be lost, but what it communicates won’t be”), and which books she’d choose if she was stranded on a desert island (“the Bible, Shakespeare, and Finn Family Moomintroll”). After an epic amount of applause at the end of the Q&A session, we filed out of the auditorium. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hoping that Jeanette will still be around and writing her wonderful books in another 25 years.
Post by Jane Bradley