When Jeanette Winterson was asked (so the story goes) by a British newspaper questionnaire distributed among the nation's writers, whom she considered to be the greatest living prose stylist in English, her answer was unequivocal: Jeanette Winterson. Such boldness, such arrogance, which from the six-barrel pen of a Norman Mailer might have been acceptable and even considered flavourful, was not expected from a British writer, let alone a British woman. It could be argued that this and other, similar gestures, faithful as they are to those of Winterson's heroes, Byron and Gertrude Stein, prompted the London literati to revoke the status of darling they had been preparing for her.
It is too easy to label, and Winterson (in essay and in fiction) resists the confines implied in the rubber stamps of "feminist", "lesbian" and "postmodern," in spite of the persistence with which pundits apply them. The first stamp is evidenced by the shock-value coverage certain breeds of journalism cannot resist giving her (a sleazy article by one implausibly named Flammetta Rocco in the February 1995 issue of Vanity Fair spends a good deal of column space pondering Winterson's love life), and she bristles against the treatment in her essay, "The Semiotics of Sex" (in Art Objects):
What you fuck is more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. . . . No one asks Iris Murdoch about her sex life. Every interviewer I meet asks me about mine and what they do not ask they invent. I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.
Born in 1959, adopted and raised in the small English town of Accrington by Pentecostal Evangelists, Winterson's maturation was constituted by an intense struggle between conflicting conceptions of sexuality, divinity, and literature. Much of these experiences was eventually fuel for the fire of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), which won the Whitbread Award for First Novel and much praise and admiration. "Small bookshops and word of mouth were the start of my career," she notes in her 1991 introduction to the novel. The stern religious upbringing which gave her an addict's first taste of rhetoric -- she was delivering public sermons at a remarkably young age -- by the same token denied her (where it could) her explorations into other kinds of passion.
One of these is clearly fiction itself. "I'm telling you stories," runs the narrative mantra of Winterson's frankly titled novel The Passion (1987). "Trust me." There is a strong current of faith in her work for her work. As desperate and despairing as she draws her characters, Winterson is no catastrophist; her writing does not ultimately drain into the postmodern mise-en-abyme, like that of so many others. In a 1994 interview, she does reject "what I think the Americans call 'closure'", but refers to herself as "irrepressibly hopeful." She goes on to add,
Also irrepressibly happy, in spite of it all, which doesn't mean to say that I'm either complacent or indifferent. I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honourable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn't believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you have to look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.
After Oranges the "comic book" (and probably her least interesting book) Boating for Beginners (1985) further displayed Winterson's capacity for irreverence, which seems to be the stylistic saving grace from the conspicuous perils of the author's often archly moral tone. The passionate Winterson oversees with fear and indignation the modern world's great flood of gross materialism, banality and apathy (the empty contrary of passion). Art & Lies (1994), subtitled A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd, is surely her most polemic fiction. Ironically assuming the mantle of Sappho, the poet whose sexual celebrity has endured while her poems have been forgotten, Winterson repeatedly kicks against the pricks:
The spirit has gone out of the world. I fear the dead bodies settling around me, the corpses of humanity, fly-blown and ragged. I fear the executive zombies, the shop zombies, the Church zombies, the writerly zombies, all mouthing platitudes, the language of the dead, all mistaking hobbies for passions, the folly of the dead.
The quixotic joust between the legitimacies of the respective realities of the imagination ("Art") and of life ("Lies") is ever in her work. Novels such as The Passion (winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) and Sexing the Cherry (1989, winner of the E. M. Forster Award), as well as several of the short stories gathered in The World and Other Places (1998) flirt with fantasy, match fairy tales and labyrinthine cities against recognizable historical backgrounds, swim through what has been variously called magic realism and historiographic metafiction. Art & Lies is declarative and unapologetic: "There's no such thing as autobiography there's only art and lies." From its very title onward, Gut Symmetries presents different conceptions of reality and universality in dramatic relation to each other, within the story of a marriage and an adultery. What gives a better picture of the universe, a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) or a gut feeling?
And then there's love. "Why is the measure of love loss?" asks the opening sentence of Written on the Body (1992), perhaps Winterson's most violently expressive novel. This question provokes no straight answer (a pun which might as well be intended), but rather a ruminative, unapologetic introspection on the subject of love's uneasiness: "Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid." The first-person narrator is something of a Lothario-under-deconstruction, someone of unspecified sex who reveals in a slowly building collage of anecdotes to have had a variety of amorous experience with members of both. This is a very moving and meditative book.
Although she has a pronounced love of the literary, Winterson does make use of other media. She has written two screenplays, one a popular television adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the other entitled Great Moments in Aviation (she has confessed, "My interest in working for film and television is inevitably evangelical"), and recently she has begun to explore the potential of the Internet. When Winterson launched a legal battle with a "Cambridge spiv" who sought to claim many authors' names as domains for sites and then sell the rights to those authors for a percentage of their sales, she recognized the importance of adapting her aesthetics and artist's persona -- fast. The precedent-making victory led to her construction of a Web site (see below) and she has stated her intention "to produce both standard e-books, that is digital text, and enhanced e-books, with pictures, music, choices, links. But I am at the beginning of all this because it hasn’t been done before. That's exciting but I bet my stuff will look really creaky in a few years, like the first steam iron." The PowerBook (2000), Winterson’s most recent novel, is a diffuse set of conjectures on the changes in identity and storytelling the electronic screen provokes. A narrator sometimes known as Ali (Arabian Nights meets Lewis Carroll's Alice, I think) repeats and alters a cycle of stories about tulips, mountaineering, adopted parents, the virtual world, and centrally, love affairs: "the plain texts of our hearts."
So, the story so far: eight novels, one collection of essays (Art Objects, 1995), one collection of short stories. True devotees and collectors must look hard to find either Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well (1986), Winterson's fitness counsel, or the especially rare architectural study, The Dreaming House (1998). And of course, there is some savour to expectation – that she will indeed "go on adding to that."