World Literature

Jeanette Winterson

 

BORN: 1959, Manchester, England

NATIONALITY: British, English

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Sexing the Cherry (1989)

The PowerBook (2000)

Lighthousekeeping (2004)

The Stone Gods (2007)

 

Overview

Provocative and talented, Jeanette Winterson has influenced both popular and literary culture in England. Whether writing newspaper articles or novels, she is unafraid of controversy and never apologizes for her moral stances on topics ranging from women's rights to global politics. By challenging such institutions as marriage and family, Winterson aims to transcend established boundaries of gender and sexual identity with her presentation of a feminine perspective of passion, romantic love, and the search for self-knowledge. Inspired by the modernists, Winterson writes fiction that combines intriguing characters with postmodern self-consciousness, at the same time exploring unconventional concepts of reality and dimension.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Adoption and Missionary Training. Winterson was born in Manchester, England, on August 27, 1959. Adopted in infancy by Pentecostal evangelists John and Constance Winterson, she grew up in Lancashire, in northern England. Winterson's father worked in a local television factory. Her mother, a religious zealot, oversaw her education, limiting the literature available in their household to the Bible as she trained her daughter to become a missionary. At the age of eight, Winterson was composing sermons, a practice that sharpened the rhetoric skills she would later use in her career as a writer. During her teenage years, she became a voracious reader when, in a public library, she discovered the wide worlds of literature and history beyond the Bible.

On Her Own: Leaving Home. After being scorned by her family and rejected by the church for having an affair with one of its female converts, Winterson left home when she was sixteen, supporting herself by working odd jobs as a makeup artist in a funeral parlor, an ice cream vendor, and an orderly in a psychiatric hospital. During this time, Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of the United Kingdom, a leader not popular among many people in the working class, most particularly for her emphatic stance against trade unions. In 1981, Winterson received a master’s degree in English from St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. After an editor, who was interviewing Winterson for a position at Pandora Press in 1985, admired her gift for language and storytelling, Winterson began writing creatively.

Reinventing Life in Fiction. Winterson began her literary career by reinventing her life in fiction. When Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit debuted in 1985, it was an immediate critical and popular sensation and won the 1985 Whitbread First Novel Award, despite its openly lesbian theme and its controversial view of family and religious values. At once sardonic and comedic, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit remains noteworthy as Winterson’s most overtly autobiographical and structurally conventional work.

Although Winterson’s second novel, Boating for Beginners (1985), a satiric rendition of the biblical story of Noah, was less successful, her next two novels garnered important literary awards: the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Passion (1987) and the E. M. Forster Award for Sexing the Cherry. She also won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for her 1990 screenplay adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Human Possibility and Truth. In 1992, a major change in Winterson’s writing emerged: She was moving away from magical realism. That year, Written on the Body was published. The novel is mostly a plotless narrative that explores gender and sexual identity while addressing the problems involved in conveying a love story without succumbing to romantic cliche. Art and Lies followed in 1994. This novel is another deviation from her earlier work in that it uses Handel, Picasso, and Sappho as characters who examine not only sexuality, but also art, music, and philosophy. Winterson’s message here concerns the responsibility of art to transcend what is known, thereby revealing human possibility and life’s truths.

Although Winterson’s next work of fiction, Gut Symmetries (1997), contains allusions to such disparate subjects as fairy tales and quantum physics, it defies categorization as fantasy or science fiction. Similarly, The PowerBook (2002) cannot be considered science fiction, despite delving into the possibilities of technology by investigating the impact of e-mail and the Internet on writers, as well as the whole of literature. In 2002, Winterson adapted The PowerBook for the Royal National Theatre London and the Theatre de Chaillot, Paris.

Artistic Versatility and Personal Life An author of many talents, Winterson has also written children’s stories, including The King of Capri (2003), Lighthousekeeping (2004), and Tanglewreck (2006). The Stone Gods (2007) is a return to fantasy and science fiction. Currently, Winterson divides her time between a cottage in the woods of Gloucestershire and an apartment in London, located above Verdes, a natural foods shop she owns. In addition to writing regularly for various newspapers in the United Kingdom, Winterson is at work on a series of Internet films with the BBC.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Winterson's famous contemporaries include:

Deborah Tannen (1945-): Tannen's linguistic books, such as That's Not What I Meant!, focus on everyday conversations and the effects they have on relationships.

Maya Lin (1959-): Lin is an American sculptor best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Annie Dillard (1945-): Dillard won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a combination of meditative observations of nature and philosophical explorations that some consider a work of mysticism.

Angela Carter (1940-1992): With its blend of fairy tales, parody, myth, and gothic components, Carter's work deliberately challenges the realistic representation of British writing during the 1960s.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-): Duffy is a Scottish-born playwright and poet whose work often deals with time, change, and loss, in addition to social criticism.

Dorothy Allison (1949-): Centered around a girl's abuse and molestation by her stepfather, Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison's semiautobiographical novel, also offers a look at the depth of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

Tony Blair (1953-): Blair, Britain's prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was criticized for his support of President George W. Bush's war on Iraq.

 

Works in Literary Context

Magical Realism. Winterson’s early exposure to the stories, characters, poetic rhythms, and morality of the Bible has left its mark on her work since the beginning of her career. Even more influential, however, have been literary classics and modernist writers, including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, writers whose ideas have motivated Winterson to create new realms for fiction. Winterson’s caustic satire is frequently compared to that of Jonathan Swift, her magical realism to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, her textual experimentation and adaptation of myth and fairy tale to that of Italo Calvino. Some critics have even attributed Winterson’s comedic abilities to the influence of Monty Python.

Supported by a strong narrative drive, works of magical realism blend elements of dreams, myths, or fairy tales with everyday occurrences; what is realistic merges with what is inexplicable. Because of her ability to combine historical events with the mythical elements of fairy tales, Winterson has found a place in the school of magical realism alongside such storytellers as Angela Carter and Jorge Luis Borges. For Winterson, who masterfully manipulates narrative forms and storytelling, play between the fantastic and the real is meant to contradict readers’ expectations and reveal the power of imagination. This intention is clear in the ‘‘Book of Deuteronomy’’ in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. ‘‘People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe.’’ By rewriting fairy tales and myths, along with creating new ones of her own, Winter- son confronts the absurdity that passes for truth in traditional history.

Literary Legacy. Most likely a result of her unwavering belief in the power of literature to transform one’s life, Winterson’s body of work exhibits many different themes. The nature of love, the discovery of one’s sexual identity, the implications of time, the search for self, the functions of art—all are themes that Winterson explores, at the same time continuing to challenge literary and social standards. In her diligent pursuit of new possibilities for the genre of fiction, Winterson reveals a commitment to linguistic and artistic experimentation that will surely benefit generations of writers to come.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Many of Winterson's novels feature what literary scholars call "unreliable narrators'': voices that may or may not be telling the truth. Other authors have used the device of the unreliable narrator to great effect. Their works include:

As I Lay Dying (1930), a novel by William Faulkner. Written as a series of interior monologues from different characters, this work presents events from a variety of perspectives. The characters, all deeply flawed, often shape their telling of the story to suit themselves.

''My Last Duchess'' (1842) and ''Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister'' (1842), poems by Robert Browning. In both of these dramatic monologues, the speakers gradually reveal aspects of their true character of which they themselves are not aware.

Vantage Point (2008), a film directed by Pete Travis. In this movie, five witnesses recount what they saw during an assassination attempt on the president of the United States.

''The Tell-Tale Heart'' (1842), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The narrator of this tale insists he is not mad, declaring that his calm telling of the story is evidence of his sanity.

 

Works in Critical Context

Because she is simultaneously one of the most original and controversial voices to have emerged in British fiction during the late twentieth century, Winterson evokes deeply divided critical response. In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised Winterson as a writer who ‘‘possesses an ability to dazzle the reader by creating wondrous worlds in which the usual laws of plausibility are suspended.’’ Many critics also commend Winterson’s finesse in infusing feminist beliefs into the traditional fairy-tale form. Others, however, consider her to be a writer who lacks the talent to repeat the brilliance of her debut novel. These are the same people who claim that Winterson’s subsequent work is self-absorbed and resorts to sentimentality and superficial devices to gain attention.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Most reviewers agree that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit demonstrates exceptional humor, talent, and skill. Critic Jonathan Keates remarks, ‘‘[The] comic detachment with which the narrator beats off the grotesque spiritual predatoriness surrounding her is matter for applause.’’ Certainly, the manner in which Jeanette interacts with her mother is one of deadpan wit. Some critics contend that the humorous parables interjected into the narrative of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reflect Jeanette’s sexual identity crisis and spiritual confusion. As such, the novel is considered a work of unparalleled originality. Others, like critic Lyn Pykett, prefer the ‘‘gritty realism’’ of this work to her later efforts.

Personal Criticism. Winterson the individual has earned the same degree of divisive criticism as her work. While many readers regard Winterson to be a fresh, innovative literary voice, detractors believe she is conceited, so much so that her self-importance overshadows her work. Without a doubt, Winterson is proud of her accomplishment and gift for the written word. In fact, she offended many people by nominating herself as the greatest living writer in the English language and by choosing her Written on the Body as Book of the Year in 1992.

Because of such hubris, she has been deemed too arrogant and self-aggrandizing for the literary world.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Many writers have based their fiction on actual events in their lives. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote confessional poetry that revealed intimacies not previously seen in poetry. What do you think about these writers who ‘‘bare their souls’’ in their work? What is the tradition of this style? How does talk-show television perpetuate the confessional trend?

2. Consider the characters’ perspectives on evolution versus creation in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. What statement do you think Winterson is making about the debate between religion and science? How does this statement relate to religious debate today? In your own belief system, how do you reconcile the fundamentals of religion with scientific advancement?

3. In an interview, Winterson said, ‘‘Always in my books, I like to throw that rogue element into a stable situation and then see what happens.’’ How does having knowledge of this technique affect your reading of Winterson’s work? What are some examples of rogue elements that you might use when writing a short story or novel?

4. The settings for love stories portrayed in Winterson’s novels have ranged from the French Revolution to cyberspace. When you considered her fiction as an ongoing whole, what truth, potential, and resolution do you believe Winterson offers in regard to love?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

O’Rourke, Rebecca. ‘‘Fingers in the Fruit Basket: A Feminist Reading of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ In Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice. Edited by Susan Sellers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Anshaw, Carol. ‘‘Into the Mystic: Jeanette Winterson’s Fable of Manners.’’ Village Voice, June 12, 1990, 516-17.

Gerrard, Nicci. ‘‘The Prophet.’’ New Statesman and Society 2 (September 1, 1989): 12-13.

Hind, Hilary. ‘‘ Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Reaching Audiences Other Lesbian Texts Cannot Reach.’’ New Statesman and Society 2 (September 1, 1989): 12-13.

Marvel, Mark. ‘‘Jeanette Winterson: Trust Me, I’m Telling You Stories.’’ Interview XX 10 (October 1990): 162, 168.

Web Sites

Kakutani, Michiko. ‘‘Books of The Times: A Journey Through Time, Space and Imagination.'' Retrieved April 14,2008, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE FDF1031F934A15757C0A966958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2#.

Smith, Jules. ‘‘Jeanette Winterson.’’ Retrieved April 4, 2008, from http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth100‘‘.