Profile: Mad, bad, or plain brilliant?: Jeanette Winterson, Britain's least modest great author

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jeanette Winterson's last novel, Written on the Body, was published in 1992 the author graciously offered to throw a party at her north London home for all the staff at Jonathan Cape who had worked so hard on the book. It was, apparently, a delightful affair, and it quieted the tongues of any who had deemed her 'difficult'. Until, that is, Cape received a bill for the event: an itemised invoice that included everything from exotic cigarettes to the paint on the banner outside Winterson's door.

Such stories about the author are legion and fast becoming legendary. Many who have never read a word of her prose know that she nominated her own book as Book of the Year two years ago, that she nominated herself as the greatest living writer in the Sunday Times earlier this year, that she stood in a graveyard on BBC 2's The Late Show and announced that she was the only true heir to Virginia Woolf. When she was included in Granta's list of the Best of Young British Novelists last year, Winterson declined to attend the party and was the only author not in the group photo. Most ill-advisedly, she spoke to the press about her love affair with her former agent, a married woman (which had been seen by some as the inspiration for Written on the Body).

As if all this were not enough, there are less well-known anecdotes about midnight visits to journalists who have portrayed her in what she feels is an inaccurate light; there are stories of imperious faxes and cryptic communiques such as the one sent by Winterson's partner, Margaret (Peggy) Reynolds, to a London literary editor in response to an invitation to write a review: 'In general, it is rare for Jeanette Winterson to take time from the three things she cares most about: her work, her lover and her garden. When she does want to review a book, it will be a book she has chosen.'

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about her, although supporters and detractors alike preface their comments with praise for her work - praise only sometimes qualified by the caveat that 'of course, the last one wasn't as good'.

The publication later this month of her new book, Art & Lies, gives them the opportunity to hone their verdicts. This difficult, dense, beautifully written and largely plotless meditation can be taken either as her finest work to date, or as proof that she has lost her touch: one profile has already announced that her prose is 'light as a balloon . . . bobbing on its way into solipsistic, meaningless stratosphere'.

For those who have reserved judgement thus far, there is surely an unspoken hope that in the course of the attention surrounding this novel's publication Winterson will somehow reveal the motives behind her apparently outrageous behaviour. Is she joking? Is she mad? Will she not, just once, reveal some humility?

Those who seek it are not likely to find any apology in Art & Lies. What it does provide is an angry, glittering resonance, as Winterson's characters (named Handel, Picasso and Sappho) lament the death of the word and hence of art, in contemporary culture. Says Handel: 'What things have a value of their own instead of a borrowed glory? Is there such a thing as intrinsic worth? It's fashionable to say no. To say a tree is only its wood, that any painting is a work of art, that journalism can be literature, that love is self-interest or that ethics are mores . . . Where there are no standards the market-place obtains . . . But who controls whom? Is the market for me or am I for the market?'

The novel is sown with similar tirades, and it is difficult not to see it, in part, as a justification for Winterson's literary enterprise and outspoken arrogance. She has previously acknowledged her interest in modernism over any literature that has succeeded it, and Art & Lies is a significantly modernist undertaking, collapsing languages, history and artistic influences into a sort of cultural synaesthesia.

Whatever else it is, Winterson's new novel is brave and ambitious. These two attributes may be the clearest link with the young author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - an outsider from an adoptive family in Pentecostal Accrington, via Oxford, who charmed London's literary establishment with her fictionalised account of her evangelical upbringing for which she won, at the age of 26, the Whitbread Prize in 1985. 'My parents said that I had been chosen by God, and because God was empowering me, I could do anything . . . I've always been sure, since I was very small, that I would be somebody,' she has said. 'I wanted to have an impact on the world in some way . . . When I was writing Oranges I thought, 'Yeah, this is what I can do'.'

Although she is no longer religious, evangelism is in her blood: it is simply that her persuasive powers have become focused on her own literary development. With each novel she has pushed the limits of the form. In literary as well as commercial terms (with the possible exception of her last book) she has proceeded from strength to strength: The Passion, a tale about one of Napoleon's chefs, won the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Sexing the Cherry, featuring a 17th-century grotesque named Dog- Woman and 12 dancing princesses, took the E M Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1989. All have sold well: even Written on the Body sold 18,000 copies in hardcover.

In the telling of her progress, Winterson has edited out her undistinguished degree from Oxford, her stints as a stockbroker, an assistant in the theatre, and an editor at Pandora Press. And she rarely acknowledges her second book, Boating for Beginners, which was a flop. Claiming herself to be the only living writer of any importance, she disregards the generous reviews she once wrote of other authors' work. By her own account, she arrived in London, persuaded Philippa Brewster at Pandora (now her editor at Jonathan Cape, and a close friend) to take on her unwritten novel; she sat down and produced the tour de force that is Oranges; and achieved an almost immediate literary apotheosis.

In fact, it fell silently into the world, and attained its current stature through a combination of avid word-of-mouth interest, the prestige of the Whitbread Prize, and Beeban Kidron's highly successful 1990 television dramatisation.

Winterson's current existence is one of retirement and privilege. Attended by her partner and the friends and employees who constitute Great Moments Ltd, which exists to run her affairs, she spends five hours a day reading, and her prose attests to the intermingling of those influences with her own imagination. Freed from financial considerations, she appears to have forgotten that they affect others. She has no television, reads no newspapers. Protected by Ms Reynolds, who handles much of her correspondence, she has few dealings with literary handservants.

The argument that she is heady with her success and unreasonably contemptuous of the rest of us would seem to be borne out by this isolation. Arrogant fury is a plausible enough explanation for her behaviour. But what it disregards - the iron resolve, the carefully tailored narrative of her life, the rigorous routine - is greater than what it explains. The excuse of egocentrism may be consistent with the tales of some who have dealt with her, but it does not account for the praise of those like David Godwin (former managing director of Cape), who has worked with her but who is not a personal friend: 'She was perfectly nice in all my dealings with her. She was perfectly clear what she wanted, and she did all the publicity she was asked to do. Writers are entitled to a proper, professional attitude. Jeanette Winterson is committed to that . . . She's not modest, but few writers are.'

In seeking to illuminate her behaviour, it is perhaps more fruitful to examine her immense desire for literary greatness and its modernist influences. Total commitment to mandarin art, willed alienation from the everyday - these are the tenets of the highest modernist of all, T S Eliot.

The consequences of Winterson's will to greatness and power may shock her contemporaries, but their nature is nothing new. What is different is that she lives in a world hostile to traditional ideas about eminence; that she remains, despite her success, an outsider, a working-class lesbian made good; above all, that unlike many of her predecessors, she must perform the strident, revisionist activity of creating a 'great author's life' in the glare of media attention.

Much has been written and said about the cost of fame and greatness. In Winterson's case, the price is a willed monstrosity. But her arrogance is not the result of deluded fantasy: it is as deliberate as her sentences themselves. And in a curious way, it is effective: few living authors provoke such lively discussion, and few, being so difficult, are so widely read.

Ultimately, the narrative of a writer's life, which Winterson is striving so assiduously to create, is an art of itself, as necessary for acceptance into the historical literary canon as is the writer's work. Now she has even said as much, through the mouth of one of her characters: 'There's no such thing as autobiography, there's only art and lies.'

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