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9 June 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 12:35pm

Jeanette Winterson’s book burning was embarrassingly over the top. But I’m glad she did it

Explaining her actions on Twitter, Winterson said she “absolutely hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on my new covers... So I set them on fire.”

By Megan Nolan

On 4 June the novelist Jeanette Winterson burned a dozen or so of her own books and shared a picture of the pyre. Explaining her actions on Twitter, Winterson said that she “absolutely hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on my new covers. Turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind! Nothing playful or strange or the ahead of time stuff that’s in there. So I set them on fire.” The covers belonged to a new range of reprints of her novels The Passion (1987), Written On The Body (1992), The Powerbook (2000) and Art and Lies (1994).

I felt a pang of patronising proxy embarrassment, the kind you feel when an older relative is speaking too loudly in a restaurant or droning on about how great sex was in the 1970s. As many have pointed out, it is all but certain that Winterson would have seen the covers before they were printed, making it an even more theatrical act. But I couldn’t help admire the messy drama – Winterson’s  passionate bitterness.

Having enjoyed the spectacle for a moment I didn’t think much more about it – until I saw 12 hours later that it had incited wildly divergent reactions. Some people tacitly linked Winterson’s book burning with the Nazis, while others admired and defended her refusal to be presented in a way that didn’t reflect her art.

Some of the criticisms were a stretch. Book burning does have specific associations with fascism and censorship; if Winterson had destroyed a selection of books that morally offended her I would be alarmed. But there is no way an honest observer could mistake her actions for a sincere attempt to destroy all trace of her books, rather than a comment about the presentation of them. Imagery is powerful, but we must use our critical faculties. Winterson’s flourish had nothing to do with fascism and she did not open a portal to authoritarian censorship by destroying a small batch of her works.

Another facile response to Winterson’s tweet was that the action was offensive to other writers who would love to be published or to be as widely publicised as she is. To which the only response can be that the majority of writers (published and unpublished) are not as interesting and accomplished. This unlucky fact of our lives shouldn’t mean that Winterson ought to live in a state of inordinate gratitude for the opportunities her rare talent affords her.

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More complex was Winterson’s apparent rejection of “wimmins fiction”. Authors of what has traditionally been dismissed as “chick lit” voiced their grievance at another woman belittling the genre. Many accused her of internalised misogyny.

No one familiar with Winterson and her work could believe that, but I do empathise with the offence taken here. It is true that some great novels about domestic or romantic subjects, such as Marian Keyes’s Rachel’s Holiday or Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, have been condemned as frivolous simply because they were by women and written in familiar, intimate tones. So I can see why women authors of commercial fiction would be sensitive to rejection from a more obviously literary writer such as Winterson.

[see also: The history of book burning]

But I also think that Winterson’s words are an ironicised, intemperately phrased way to condemn a tendency within publishing to package books by women in a uniform, safe, flattening manner. This is less true now than it has been in the past, but it still happens. I personally think the reissue covers are beautiful and also appear to be designed for work of literary rather than commercial merit, but the blurbs are different to those of the original editions.

The book critic John Self posted an image of two versions of Written on the Body side by side, and while the original, first published in 1993, highlights formal experimentation, the new one focuses on the romantic entanglements of the plot. I see nothing wrong with this, but then I don’t write experimental novels. Perhaps we can say that it is misogynistic to dismiss all commercial fiction written by women as dross, and also misogynistic to force experimental forms of writing into unsuitable confines dictated by the author’s gender.

To be a woman is to be told constantly what you are or aren’t – what you could or should be doing – by people who know nothing about you. If you are a woman who is a writer and you have managed to get a book published, enacted the true and free part of yourself, to see that work then reframed as something entirely different is not inconsequential. The central concern of your life is being publicly cast in a way that ignores what you meant by it.

I don’t believe these new Penguin editions reduced the complexity of Winterson’s writing in any egregious way. Rather, I think they attempted to make the books appeal to a new generation of readers. But my opinion doesn’t matter. I didn’t write the books. Winterson did, and is entitled to feel let down.

It is right we no longer allow our artists to forgo basic social or personal decency. Genius is not a pass for deplorable behaviour. But shouldn’t we allow artists to behave in rash, heartfelt, passionate ways so long as they aren’t doing anything worse than inciting a bit of outrage?

Yes, Winterson’s gesture was over the top and a bit embarrassing. The author herself seemed a little sheepish or at least wryly amused at her own behaviour in a subsequent interview: “I am quick tempered as people know. But I come back down pretty quick too and see the funny side. I was incandescent at the time.”

But I don’t wish that she hadn’t done it. I wish more of us writers cared enough about our work to be over the top and embarrassing instead of prioritising professionalism, respectability and sales. 

[see also: The backlash against Torrey Peters’s novel makes me ashamed of our literary culture]

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This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?