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Jeanette Winterson Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Lancashire in 1959. Education: St. Catherine's College, Oxford. Awards: Whitbread award, 1985; John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial prize, 1987.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, Pandora Press, 1985; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Boating for Beginners. London, Methuen, 1985.

The Passion. London, Bloomsbury, 1987; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

Sexing the Cherry. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Written on the Body. London, Cape, 1992; New York, Knopf, 1993.

Art and Lies. London, Cape, 1994; New York, Knopf, 1995.

Gut Symmetries. New York, Knopf, 1997.

The PowerBook. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Short Stories

The World and Other Places. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Orion," in Winter's Tales 4 (new series), edited by Robin Baird-Smith. London, Constable, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

"The Green Man," in The New Yorker, 26 June-3 July 1995.

Plays

Radio Plays:

Static, 1988.

Television Plays:

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (series), from her own novel, 1990.

Other

Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well. London, Pandora Press, 1986.

Art Objects: Critical Essays. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1995.

Editor, Passion Fruit: Romantic Fiction with a Twist. London, Pandora Press, 1986.

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Critical Studies:

So Far So Linear: Responses to the Work of Jeanette Winterson by Christopher Pressler. Nottingham, England, Paupers' Press, 1997.

* * *

Jeanette Winterson is often described as one of the most controversial yet innovative fiction writers in contemporary English literature. Her promising beginnings as a young talent have been rounded off in the past decade and a half by an increasingly general acclaim. Her fiction has entered the literary canon but still resists categorization.

Winterson's is a dense epigrammatic prose rich in beautiful images and flights of fancy. Her fiction brings in a play of signifiers that result in a continuous deferral of meaning that suggests a number of alternative readings. While abounding in experimental narrative techniques and decentering strategies that have been associated with postmodernist writings, Winterson's texts also show a dialogic relationship with the modernist tradition, especially with Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce—as manifest in her volume of essays Art Objects. Winterson self-consciously questions the mechanisms by which narrative texts are produced and partakes of a clear penchant for fantasy, magical realism, and the fabulous. Postmodernist techniques, modernist tradition, metafiction, and magical realism are, however, mere instruments that Winterson deftly combines with a strong political commitment aimed at subverting socio-cultural power structures and, ultimately, at appropriating traditionally male-defined concepts for her lesbian politics.

Winterson began her literary career by reinventing herself in fiction. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is her only explicitly lesbian text to date. Not surprisingly, it has been widely understood as autobiographical: it tells the story of an adopted girl, significantly called Jeanette, growing up a lesbian inside a strict religious community. Oranges is both the most obvious example of Winterson's realist impulse and her first conscious attempt at deconstructing the opposition reality/fiction. Her rewriting the novel into a television script completed this Indian rope trick, which allowed the flesh-and-blood author to disappear behind a double fictionalization. Reading, or watching, Oranges as simply autobiographical would be, then, to disregard the complexity of layers that lie behind Jeanette's/Jess's story. Oranges manipulates several of the monologic narratives on which mainstream culture rests. It tells the story of Jeanette's quest for subjectivity and (homo)sexuality but rejects the traditional appropriation of the theory of the subject by the masculine and emphasizes instead the mother-daughter bonding as a counter-narrative of conventional masculine bondage that highlights female specificity and gender difference.

Boating for Beginners is euphemistically called an early work, despite its having been published immediately after Oranges. This disdainful attitude of the critics has been fuelled by Winterson herself, who regrets having written this "comic book" and separates it from her fiction experiment. Full of funny sketches, Boating rewrites another Biblical episode, the Flood and Noah's Ark. In Winterson's fiction, God has not created men, it is Noah that makes God "by accident out of a piece of gateau and a giant electric toaster." Told by a homodiegetic adolescent female narrator, Gloria, who struggles to find her own identity in a world of distorted fictions that pass for unquestionable realities, the story has many issues in common with Oranges. It is, above all, a demystification of religion, romantic love, and heterosexuality. Gloria, together with the reader, learns to distrust all these long-established truths and to re-evaluate the neglected potential of storytelling.

"Stories were all we had," says Henri, the male protagonist of Winterson's The Passion, which together with Sexing the Cherry constitute two examples of "historiographic metafiction." In these two novels Winterson expands on her quarrel with the nature of time, the instability of the self, love and desire, narrative, and historical discourse that she had initiated in Oranges: "History should be a hammock for swinging and a game for playing, the way cats play. Claw it, chew it, rearrange it." If history is discourse, the notions of objectivity and verisimilitude no longer hold. History is shown to be subjective, limited, biased and open to revision and recontextualization. The Passion is situated in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. It combines the life stories of two character-narrators, Henri, a French soldier-cook from the ranks and files of Bonaparte, and Villanelle, a Venetian bisexual woman who has webbed feet like the men in her society. Set in Puritan England in the years of the English Civil War, the Great Plague, and the Great Fire of London, Sexing the Cherry is also told by two different voices, the Rabelaisian Dog Woman—a sublime portrait of excess that was prefigured by Jeanette's mother in Oranges—and Jordan, a foundling brought by the river to the childless Dog Woman, who travels both physically and mentally in search of his flying self—represented in the story by Fortunata, one of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. In both texts Winterson blends high and low art by pairing T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets with Tarot cards and fairy tales. By means of intertextuality, Winterson exposes linguistic and narrative conventions and provides alternative versions of history that focus on groups of people who have been marginalized by official history.

Written on the Body explores the nature of love, desire, and sexuality at the same time as it experiments with the limits of narrative by taking structure away. Having proved in her previous fictions that there is no such thing as a univocal fixed sexual identity, Winterson's character-narrator is unnamed and ungendered. Its story—an obsessive passion for a married woman, Louise, who has decided to leave her husband, a cancer-researcher, but who may be dying from leukemia—is not set in a particular place or time. There is no suspense because the whole story is already revealed in the first pages of the book. Written on the Body is Winterson's proof that a story should not be reduced to its plot, that conventions and clichés in narrative do not make good books just as conventions and clichés are useless when talking about love. Winterson's account of abnegation and loss in Written on the Body is an overt critique of romance narratives with their long established sexual roles, their happy endings, and their formulaic expressions. Winterson demonstrates that true love is original and poetic even when the lover resorts to anatomy textbooks for its imagery.

The nature of love, time, and art are again at the core of Art and Lies, a difficult book that has received the harshest criticism together with the most passionate acclamation of the author's oeuvre. The book is a time travel experience for the reader, who shares a high-speed train with Picasso, a young artist escaping from a sexually and emotionally abusive family; Handel, a disillusioned priest turned breast surgeon; and Sappho, the historical poet who, like Woolf's Orlando, has been alive since antiquity. As the title suggests, Art and Lies is more of a philosophical digression about art as artifice and invention than a story in the traditional sense of the term. It criticizes the Platonic notion of art as mimesis and reverences the power of the word. For Winterson art and, by extension, literature, do not simply reflect reality but construct it in and through language. Therefore art and literature not only have the potential but also the responsibility to change givens by opening up endless, more comprehensive possibilities.

Literature becomes multi-dimensional and cosmic in Gut Symmetries. Like Art and Lies the story is told by three different voices, each giving a particular version of the "events." Stella and Jove are a married couple but they "live on different planets." Stella refuses passion because feelings are always painful. Jove is a renowned physicist who works in a new model of the cosmos and lectures on time travel and "The World and Other Places." Alice, also a physicist, brings in a double love affair as she falls in love with both Jove and Stella. Stella, Jove, and Alice are placed in a floating space, a boat, where everything is unstable. There is no conventional plotline, characters are not too convincing, and there is no passion in their love affairs. Passion, though, oozes from Winterson's dense poetic writing, which sublimates the eternal love triangle by making it a part of physics' Grand Unified Theory, the metaphor contained in the title of the book. Gut Symmetries is structured by Tarot cards, alchemy, and cabalistic theology, on the one hand, and by quantum physics and geometry on the other. The result seems to be a world that is both real and virtual, material and philosophical.

Apart from being the title of Jove's lecture in Gut Symmetries, The World and Other Places is Winterson's only collection of short stories, an open window to Winterson's creative trajectory. Written over a period of twelve years beginning soon after the publication of Oranges, these stories chart Winterson's preoccupation with the nature of time, the nature of love in its multiple forms, the search for the self as journey or quest, and the figure of the outsider either in the form of a stranger or because a character is marginalized by society. All these are not only key issues but also leitmotifs in each of Winterson's fictions. It is not surprising, then, that some of these stories prefigure Winterson's major books. "The Three Friends" is an especially significant example in this respect because it is an interlude in Gut Symmetries and resonates with echoes of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Like Jove, Winterson keeps on experimenting on a new model of the cosmos free from the constricting power of gravity. Her fiction transports her readers into a space where time is suspended. Her critical poise, her wonderful way with words, and her ability for outrageous humor are all at the service of feeling and imagination.

—Mar Asensio-Aróstegui

Elizabeth Winthrop (1948-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights [next] [back] Katherine Winters (1936-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Writings

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