My best friend in high school absolutely loved Jeanette Winterson. She read Winterson’s debut novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit on the recommendation of a favourite teacher, and it was the beginning of a literary love affair: my friend devoured everything Winterson had written, finding in her words both an escape from the anxieties of adolescence and a way to cope with them.
Over the years, I’ve encountered others whose relationship with Winterson’s work was similarly powerful. It seems that people either love her or hate her, and sometimes that has less to do with her writing and more to do with the occasional controversies she’s regularly sparked since 1985, when Oranges’ publication drew international acclaim and attention. Winterson’s antics have included nominating her own work for Book of the Year in 1992, and declaring herself the natural heir to Virginia Woolf on national television at around the same time. The nineties, Winterson remarked understatedly in a Guardian interview, ‘weren’t a great decade’ for her.
But 2014 tells a different story all together. Winterson, who’s been in Australia this month as a guest of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, came to the Brisbane Powerhouse recently for an author event unlike any I’ve seen before. I have to admit that I bought tickets more out of a sense of obligation that anything else, since Winterson is such a luminary of contemporary letters. Now, having spent an hour and twenty minutes listening to her talk – without notes, without an interviewer, without anything more than her enviably rapid-fire brain and ability to articulate her thoughts with clarity, elegance and wit – I finally see what all the Winterson fuss is about.
Eschewing the standard author event Q&A format, Winterson took to the stage and spoke directly to the audience. Her reflections ranged widely, from the recent Twitter war she started after revealing that she’d killed and eaten a rabbit to the question of why we read and the value of memorising texts and storing stories inside ourselves for those moments when we are unable to reach for a book. (As someone who has difficulty remembering a grocery list with more than three items on it – and even that’s pushing it, depending on the sort of day I’ve had – this last point lodged itself deeply somewhere between my guilt reflex and my eternal desire for self-improvement.)
Winterson’s impressive memory seems partly due to the strange proclivities of her adoptive mother, who was suspicious of all books and barred fiction and poetry from the house. When she discovered her daughter’s private stash of paperbacks, she burned them all, and Winterson subsequently decided two things: that if she couldn’t have her own books, she’d write some herself; and that she’d attempt to memorise her own abbreviated versions of classic novels.
Winterson’s unusual upbringing at the hands of evangelical Pentecostals is well known – Oranges is semi-autobiographical – and she still seems angry at her adoptive mother, who believed that ‘writers were sex-crazed bohemians’ and kept a revolver in the duster drawer.
But that anger hasn’t hardened into bitterness – instead, it’s helped shape Winterson’s hunger for language and words, and her belief in the importance of literature as a way ‘to create a separate space for ourselves, for our souls, for our imaginations, because we know those things matter’. And while she believes that ‘art is an ally of the soul’, she also feels that the concept of having a soul doesn’t need to be a religious one; reading, she argues, helps us reach a place that’s both secular and sacred, since most of us, religious or not, sense what is meant by expressions such as ‘she’s sold her soul’ or ‘he’s got soul’.
It was incredibly inspiring to witness Winterson’s passion and energy in the flesh, and her remarkable ability – perhaps shaped by the Gospel Tent days of her childhood – to capture the audience’s attention for so long and without any speech notes. The unusual author event format was so effective largely because of Winterson’s talents as an orator.
It was also a timely reminder of why we do – and should – see writers speak; their insights are often as illuminating and important as what they commit to paper. ‘Why are we here?’ Winterson began by asking the audience. She didn’t mean that in the existential sense, but in the literal one: Why had we come to see her speak? The answer she gave felt particularly resonant. ‘There is more to life than shopping or work or any of those outward-facing things’, she said, and ‘reading is for what’s inside’, allowing us to draw ‘a ring around what seems to matter and not letting anything intrude in there, just for a while’. Judging by her captive listeners in Brisbane that night, Winterson has the same effect with the spoken word.