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About this book

In this comprehensive introduction to Winterson's work, Sonya Andermahr considers its significance in the context of contemporary British culture and literary history. Including an interview with the author, this guide offers an accessible reading of all Winterson's work and an overview of the varied critical reception this has received.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Timeline

Without Abstract
Sonya Andermahr

1. Introduction

Abstract
Since the mid-1980s and the publication of her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has established herself as a significant figure in the field of contemporary British literature and as a popular writer for study in schools and universities.1 In a country not given to lauding its writers, Winterson occupies an interesting and significant role in the nation’s contemporary cultural life. Sales for her particular style of literary fiction have been consistently good, and she is regularly invited to judge prizes and give her opinions on television programmes about arts and culture.2 Winterson’s recognition by the cultural establishment is epitomized by the award of an OBE bestowed on her in 2006.
Sonya Andermahr

2. A Biographical Reading

Abstract
In a recent interview with the author, Kate Kellaway comments,
She has been written about so much — and has written about herself so much, above all in her celebrated autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), that it is easy to feel, without having met her, that Jeanette Winterson is a known quantity. Easy — but a mistake.
(2006, online)
Winterson would no doubt approve of this assessment, not only because it warns against a too easy elision of life and art, but because it suggests that she retains the ability to surprise an audience. The facts of her early life are well known: Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester on 27 August 1959 and afterwards adopted and brought up by a working-class couple in Accrington, Lancashire. From an early age she attended a Pentecostal church with her devoutly religious mother whose ambition was for Jeanette to become a missionary. In a highly unconventional childhood, described accurately in her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson preached the gospel from the age of eight and wrote sermons, which she described as ‘good exercise for writing precise prose’ (Cooper, 1986).
Sonya Andermahr

Major Works

3. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, the Passion and Sexing the Cherry

Abstract
As everyone who has read the novel knows, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit relates the story of Jeanette, a young girl adopted by an evangelical couple in a Lancashire Mill Town in the 1960s. In a vivid first-person narrative, stretching from the age of seven to twenty one, Jeanette recounts the frequently comic and poignant experiences that befall her with a mixture of innocence and knowingness. Initially an enthusiastic religious preacher, Jeanette is forced to leave the Church when she falls in love with another girl. This leads to a breach with her mother and she leaves home to make her own way in the world. After working in a variety of jobs she gains a place at Oxford University; and the novel ends with a visit home and a partial reconciliation with her mother. Oranges also includes inset fairy tales and philosophical reflections on history and storytelling.
Sonya Andermahr

4. Written on the Body, Art & Lies and Gut Symmetries

Abstract
In Winterson’s simultaneously lyrical and analytical novel Written on the Body, the nameless narrator suffers an existential angst which finds only temporary relief in love affairs. Winterson utilizes the device of a sexually indeterminate narrator in order to effect a radical deconstruction of the romance genre and to celebrate the beloved’s body in all its physical beauty and abjection. The novel concerns the love affair between the narrator and the beautiful, but married, Louise. When the narrator discovers that Louise has leukaemia, she/he leaves Louise in the belief that Louise’s cancer specialist husband will give her the chance of life. Heartbroken at the loss of the beloved, the narrator retreats to the country and immerses herself/himself in medical textbooks to learn everything about the disease that threatens the beloved’s life. Out of this Winterson fashions an extraordinary language of the body, in which the beloved’s body is explored, excavated, categorized, fetishized and made love to. As Ginette Carpenter observes, ‘the idea that the body can be read and re-read, written and re-written is the central motif of Written on the Body’ (2007, p. 71).
Sonya Andermahr

5. The Powerbook, Lighthousekeeping and Weight

Abstract
Just as her 1990s fiction exploited the possibilities suggested by the new physics, Winterson’s first novel of the new millennium, as its name suggests, explores the implications for identity and narrative posed by the new computer technologies. The PowerBook flaunts its contemporaneousness on every page with chapter headings such as ‘open hard drive’, ‘new document’ and ‘empty trash’. Set simultaneously in cyberspace and ‘meatspace’ — Paris, Capri and London — it takes Winterson’s familiar exploration of multiple realities and personae into virtual reality, mapping the abandonment of the self that cyberspace makes possible. Indeed, the novel’s very structure reflects the non-linear nature of reading hypertext and the mobility and mutability of online identities. Stretching Winterson’s postmodern aesthetic to its limits, and pursuing her metafictional agenda of frame-breaking to a greater extent than previously, The PowerBook is a book in which the writing of the story is the story. As the narrator tells us throughout the text, ‘I can change the story. I am the story’ (pp. 5, 243). According to the author, the novel represents the end of her first cycle of works (Reynolds and Noakes, 2003, p. 25), a claim with which Keulks concurs in his view of the text:
Overweighed with references to electronic communication, perfor-mative identity, and virtual reality, The PowerBook eludes even the most assimilative forms of realism that have recently been proposed. It is her last full-fledged, first-phase postmodern novel, one that continues to thwart fixed conceptions of autonomy and agency — the dual crises of the postmodern self.
(2007, p.148)
Sonya Andermahr

Criticism and Contexts

6. Author Interview

Abstract
The last line of The Stone Gods is ‘Everything is imprinted forever with what it once was.’ I don’t believe we need be in thrall to the past, though many people are, and without even knowing it — it’s the basis of Greek drama, but I do believe that the past is the territory we have to work with if we want to develop as human beings. Art began as a memory-system. Before we knew how to write, the oral tradition allowed important events to be preserved. Poetry, painting and carving were ways of keeping continuity with the past. Weirdly now, in our CCTV world, where everything is documented, we are in danger of losing continuity with the past. Art always puts its weight on the side of the imbalance, and so art has an important part to play now in helping us all to remember what it means to be human. We are in great danger of forgetting ourselves as human beings as science and the machine claim to do everything for us.
Sonya Andermahr

7. Other Writing

Abstract
In addition to her 11 novels, Winterson has produced a wide range of other writing including short stories, essays on art and culture, children’s fiction, adaptations for the stage and the screen, original play-scripts, journalism, and writing for her website jeanettewinterson.com. In fact, the only genre she has not attempted would appear to be poetry. Given that her work is often described by critics and by Winterson herself as intensely ‘poetic’, this may seem surprising. Winterson explains this apparent anomaly by admitting that ‘Poetry is the thing that matters to me more than anything else. […] But I don’t write it because I have decided that my experiment is to use those poetic disciplines and work them against the stretchiness of narrative’ (Winterson, 2005, p. 10). As she states, it is words that matter most to Winterson and it is her love of language that she seeks to communicate whatever medium she happens to be working in.
Sonya Andermahr

8. Critical Reception

Abstract
The subject of intense media scrutiny at times, as Gavin Keulks points out, Winterson has been ‘notoriously maligned’ by her critics (2007, p. 146). From the start, Winterson has been identified with a wide range of personae including the ‘bright young thing’ of the mid-1980s, the arrogant lesbian enfant terrible of the mid-1990s, and the benign fairy godmother of recent times. Among press coverage there has without doubt been an unwarranted and inordinate focus on her personality and sexuality, characterized by a lurid fascination with her sex life and her supposed female coterie. Examples of hostile reviewing in the mainstream press, particularly but not exclusively by male critics, are legion (Lambert, 1998, online). Mainstream media commentary has consistently elided the distinction between her life and art and, as Lambert notes, the prurient focus on her sexuality and ‘arrogant’ behaviour has been at the expense of what Winterson calls ‘the work’ (ibid.).
Sonya Andermahr
Additional information