She reads from sheets of paper, and lets them fall about her feet. The conspicuously growing pile is a challenge to the audience, but she’s persistent and unflinching about it, keeps her nerve. After a time, we come to accept the unconventional as it slips into our worlds.
The gesture is an extension of how we have come to view Jeanette Winterson and her work – the rejection of limitation, the refusal of prescription. But here, in front of this predominantly female, overwhelmingly middle-class crowd at the Southbank Centre, her defiance finds no correlative, comes up against none of the resistance that first bore it. She speaks endlessly of struggle – the war waged with her mother, the difficulties of writing as a woman, ‘the 24/7 fight’ (something about having lots to do and not enough time to do it in) – but here she is nurtured, adored, warmed by one thousand embraces.
She stands in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, giving a lecture for the 25th anniversary of her first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, published when she was twenty-three years old. The autobiographical significance of the text is well known and, in light of the current media reprisal of the old ‘Death of the Novel’ debate, it is particularly interesting to return to a book that treads with such light feet the line between fact and fiction. “Is Oranges an autobiographical novel?” Winterson asks in the book’s preface, “no not at all and yes of course.”’ During the lecture, she continues to highlight this inevitable duality, reminding us that no fiction is pure fiction, no fact pure fact. She asks why we can’t have a writing based on a combination of “experience and experiment, the observed and the imagined.” We can’t not; this is the condition of writing. Speaking to the audience about her own upbringing, she turns to the opening lines of the text as if by way of explanation: “Like most people,” she tells us, “I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” Little effort is made to separate the life and the work, perhaps because she recognizes the impossibility.
As she contributes to the defence of literary fiction, so Winterson makes a case for books (with the recent proliferation of electronic reading devices, the two are no longer inextricably linked). Growing up in a deeply religious environment, with access only to the Bible, she talks about hiding paperbacks under her mattress, about her mother discovering them, setting them alight in the back garden. Hearing an individual talking about books as so precious, so precarious, suddenly the people who produce the e-readers seem to loom above you like towering twenty-two stone fundamentalists with Bibles in one hand and a tanks of paraffin in the other. Although, I suppose the Bible couldn’t be a printed one; it’s on Kindle or something. Whatever.
Winterson speaks passionately and gratefully about the role of libraries in her early life, about the freedoms bestowed upon her by reading. And as she speaks, it becomes clear that the importance of the printed word lies in something far more fundamental, far more practical than any nostalgic aesthetic attachment. As Winterson’s experience suggests, it is essential that all people, particularly young people in their formative years, those without internet access, are able to acquire reading material with relative ease. And, even in the event that libraries implement e-readers, what becomes of lending? All these sorts of developments are sure to render literature increasingly elitist, increasingly inaccessible, increasingly defined by wealth and social status. Even if libraries were to hybridise – digital and print – as has been suggested, there would be a concrete need for publishers to continue producing new publications in print format. And, of course, the representation of these issues in the media is bound to be disproportionately small, because those joining the debate are those who are already interested, already reading.
In this sense then, Winterson’s is an incredibly valuable voice. She talks a lot about the difficulty of speaking out in her own life, about her voice struggling to break the “conspiracy of silence” that she feels defined her family. And although she doesn’t say so, she speaks to this interested, engaged audience as a loudspeaker for a silent majority, not one of which could possibly be in attendance. And so, even though there’s little to rail against among her adoring fans, we forgive her her little rebellions, because outside this room there’s a lot to fight for, and here is an artist who seems genuinely to want to ease the struggles of others through her own experience.
When the time is up, she gets out of her chair, looks at the papers all over the floor, turns to the audience, and shrugs. But does she commune with us, or poke fun at us? Is she defiant in place of us or in the face of us?
It’s pretty much impossible to worship a radical and be on their team, of course. She leaves the hall and two women, front and centre, glance at one another tentatively, then make a move towards the pile. They both wear bobbed grey hair and glasses, loose linens and flat shoes. They draw the puddle of papers together, and the floor is clear again. On the way back to their seats, one turns to the other, wide eyed. “‘There’re annotations as well!” she says, “Wow!”