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About this book

This Reader's Guide brings together, in an approachable form, the range of review and critical material on the novels of Jeanette Winterson. Covering all of Winterson's work, from Oranges are Not the Only Fruit to The PowerBook, Merja Makinen traces the early review reception of each novel on its publication and considers it alongside the larger critical debates that have subsequently evolved. Makinen follows the controversial critical analysis of Winterson as a lesbian writer, and develops the examination of the postmodern aspects of her work, whether as postmodern or post-Modern.

Including a brief discussion of Winterson's most recent novel, Lighthouse Keeping, this is an indispensable guide for anyone studying, or simply interested in, the work of one of Britain's most successful contemporary authors.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959 in Manchester, and adopted by a couple from Accrington, Constance and John Winterson, who both belonged to the Pentecostal Evangelical church. Her father worked in a factory and Jeanette attended Accrington Girls’ Grammar School. From a child, she attended the Pentecostal church, wrote her first sermon at the age of eight, and preached there as part of her parents’ plan for her to be a missionary. This plan foundered when the church was unable to accept her first lesbian love affair, at the age of 15. Jeanette Winterson left home and supported herself through Accrington Further Education College, by working in an ice-cream van, a funeral parlour and later in a mental institution. After her A levels, she went up to Oxford, to St Catherine’s College, where she took her BA in English in 1981. On graduating, she moved to London, finding work at the Roundhouse theatre and arts complex and then at Pandora Press, who published her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1985.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) as a Lesbian Text

Abstract
Jeanette Winterson’s first published novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has proved one of her most long-standing achievements and, as the York Notes (2001)1 edition illustrates, has made its way onto the secondary school syllabus, a cultural accolade of acceptance and of literary value. Yet understandably the reviews of the novel were minimal. At the time of its publication, few knew the unknown writer would be a success or win a prestigious literary prize — the Whitbread prize for the best first novel of that year — and indeed the reputation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit initially grew mainly by word of mouth. Roz Kaveney, in the Times Literary Supplement in March 1985, was one of the few to note its publication and deem it excellent, focusing on the question of its autobiographical possibilities. Calling it a novel ‘rich in malicious strategy’,2 where Winterson vengefully satirises her detractors, she concludes that actually it is immaterial whether its blatant realism is in fact autobiographical or imagination; what is clear is that the writer is juxtaposing a textual aggression alongside its humour. Having outlined the plot, Kaveney sketches in the novel’s strategy in relation to its representation of a lesbian coming of age.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) as a Postmodern Text

Abstract
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is clearly more than just a realist autobiographical text. Its fragmented and multiple narratives, which echo and pastiche a variety of different narrative styles from the Bible to fairy tales, along with its fantasy use of the orange demon, constitute a complex postmodern text. The number of critics that have focused on its writer’s promotion of lesbianism is equalled by those who have concentrated their analysis on its narrative form. The examination of the Bible has been especially well represented. Some critics, like Laura Doan, have investigated the lesbian representation in relation to the postmodern narrativity.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Boating for Beginners (1985) and The Passion (1987)

Abstract
The critical construction of Winterson’s oeuvre tends to omit Boating for Beginners, ‘a comic book with pictures’ as Winterson’s website describes it, and thereby sidelines it from her other novels.1 Not many critics have commented upon it, even in passing. When it first appeared, Emma Fisher in the Times Literary Supplement2 was one of the few to review it in detail, opening of course with a reference to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and explaining that this book questions what we do with issues such as reality, poetry and fiction when the Bible is no longer accepted as the revealed truth. Winterson in Boating for Beginners is playing a number of different games with the story of Noah’s Ark, but she also mocks a number of other more contemporary aspects alongside fundamentalism — fashion, publishing and the food business, the romance genre, literature and literary criticism. Fisher gives a flavour of the book’s comic narrative by looking at the characterisation of Noah, prior to the Flood. Noah runs a pleasure boat and is publicising religion by writing ‘Genesis or How I Did It’, which he is now turning into a film and in the process accidentally creates God out of Black Forest gateau and icecream. The comedic element does not prevent the book self-reflexively playing with its own narrative, carrying on from the ‘Deuteronomy’ chapter in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Sexing the Cherry (1989)

Abstract
In an interview given at the time of Written on the Body’s publication,1 Winterson explained that the inspiration for Sexing the Cherry was a painting, by some unknown Dutch artist, of Charles II being given the first pineapple in England. She suggested that one could divide artists into priests and prophets — the priests offer solace and comfort whereas the prophet offers material that is much more challenging. Casting herself in the role of a prophet, Sexing the Cherry is duly challenging, more a poem than what one expects from a novel, with commentaries on time, truth and history developed from Winterson’s interest in post-Einstein physics, which argues that reality is simply ‘a trick of the light’. And, though accepting the label of lesbian feminist for herself, she claims the writing is not lesbian feminist, with all that entails.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Written on the Body (1992)

Abstract
After the broad sweep and magical mix of narratives of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Boating for Beginners, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, readers probably began to think they knew what to expect from a Winterson novel. If so, her next novel was to prove a surprise; Written on the Body was a close study focused on the relationships within a love triangle, a theme that was to become perennial in her later work.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. Art and Lies (1994)

Abstract
Lorna Sage, who had been so enthusiastic about Sexing the Cherry, was less certain of Art and Lies when she reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement.1 Not, she hastens to explain, because of the novel itself, despite its complexity, but because the reviewer has also to negotiate the minefield of publicity that surrounds the writer; in this case it proves heavy going since to try to criticise Winterson positions the reviewer as being against Art itself. But the novel is a mix of both good and bad, ‘an arbitrary erection’ consisting of three narrators — two women and a man who has no penis. The lack of connection between them or the topics they discuss means the book remains sketchy, and is only saved by a minor character, a bawdy seventeenth-century woman who is clearly a self-plagiarism of the marvellous Dog Woman from Sexing the Cherry. Sage enjoys Winterson’s use of intertextual referencing, calling the plethora of quotes, from contemporary novelists such as Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, through earlier poets such as Robert Browning and W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers Shakespeare and Laurence Sterne (1713–68), an original form ‘of finders keepers’, and it is this idea that gives the title to her review. She praises the presentation of Picasso’s family as predatory, vicious and abusive, seeing it as an effective critique of patriarchal family values.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Gut Symmetries (1997) and The PowerBook (2000)

Abstract
As Winterson’s more recent novels, Gut Symmetries and The PowerBook have naturally received the least critical discussion as yet in 2004. This situation may well soon be remedied, allowing them to have the critical interest of Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body, if not the massive critical debate of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Gut Symmetries is beginning to lay down a body of essays that suggests it will, in time, develop a critical presence, but the analysis of The PowerBook seems less secure.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
An initial, erroneous reading of the critical debate reflected in this book would be that Winterson’s early novels met with huge popular and critical success, but that it has been downhill all the way since then. Certainly that is a narrative constructed by some of the reviewers, particularly by Maya Jaggi in her profile of Winterson in 2004, when she quotes approvingly Michèle Roberts’s claim that during the novelist’s ‘middle period’ the texts became self-indulgently ‘about art for art’s sake, language for language’s sake’,1 and lost all sense of telling a story. Winterson herself, in this interview, seems to concur with her confession that the 1990s was a ‘dark decade’ both personally and professionally. However, this narrative of the reception ignores two facts: that the reviewers’ reception does not always echo the academic assessment; and that Winterson criticism appears to have a longer gestation period than that for many other writers. It is noticeable that essays only begin to appear some time after each text’s publication, usually ranging from four to eight years. Perhaps these dates stand testimony to Winterson’s novels being ahead of their times and academic critics only realising this much later. What is unquestionable is that to critics surveying contemporary British literature in the twenty- first century, such as Rod Mengham in Introduction to Contemporary Fiction (1999), Richard Lane et al. (eds) in Contemporary British Fictions (2003) and Jago Morrison in Contemporary Fiction (2003), Winterson has a status that demands not merely her inclusion, but a whole chapter to herself.
Merja Makinen, Nicolas Tredell
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