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29 October 2021

“I’m an analogue human in a digital world”: Jeanette Winterson on joining Substack

In an exclusive interview with the New Statesman, the novelist talks about burning books, Dominic Cummings, and becoming Substack’s new writer in residence.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Jeanette Winterson first heard about Substack because of Dominic Cummings. The novelist has been reading the musings of Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser since he first migrated from his personal blog to the subscription newsletter platform in June this year. “Whatever you think of the guy,” Winterson said, “he has been very influential in British politics and it’s foolish to think he’s gone away. I thought, ‘I’ll just keep track of you.’”

High-profile public intellectuals and journalists – and increasingly fiction writers, such as Salman Rushdie – have published their work on Substack, which has more than 500,000 paying subscribers across its newsletters. Winterson herself enjoys Vittles, a food newsletter run by Jonathan Nunn: her subscription was a gift from her friend Nigella Lawson.

And from Sunday 31 October, Winterson will be a Substack writer too. In an exclusive interview for the New Statesman, the author of landmark novels such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and Sexing the Cherry (1989), and more recently literary forays into AI (Frankissstein, and the essay collection 12 Bytes), discussed her role as Substack’s writer in residence for November. Following the cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s October residency – the first of its kind – Winterson will write four ghost stories, one per week, as well as a memoir essay about her experiences with the supernatural. For this month, all of Winterson’s newsletters will be free to receive.

“Blinkist to me is Satan and the Antichrist”

“I’m an analogue human in a digital world,” said Winterson, speaking over Zoom from her home in the Cotswolds, where a heavy downpour of rain overnight had threatened her electrical power and internet connection. She wore a black checked shirt, her trademark hair like a wild halo. 

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When she started her career over 30 years ago, Winterson said, she never would have imagined that she’d be writing stories for a subscription email newsletter. Back then, she used an upright typewriter. But the writer remains open-minded. “I’m aware that there are lots of intelligent, curious people out there who don’t buy books in the way that I do, and who are used to getting all their content in short bites from their screen. But they’re informed. They aren’t people who are antagonistic to books or the life of the mind. They’re people who are doing it differently.”

Winterson finds jargon such as “content” “quite off-putting”, but understands that the purpose of Substack, much like that of any of her books, is communication. She likes Substack’s “values”, she said. “The simple idea of saying, ‘Well, we want to connect readers and writers’ – that’s good.” 

Though it is seen as a “start-up”, Substack, she made clear, is not Blinkist, the book-summarising subscription service founded in 2012 that claims to have 18 million users. Blinkist “to me is Satan and the Antichrist. The idea of reducing real books to a 19-minute read… when I was growing up that was called a Reader’s Digest and it wasn’t seen as an innovative, disruptive start-up, it was just what people did in the dentist’s waiting room. It’s OK if it’s a crappy business book, or Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life – the shorter, the better – but for real things, you can’t precis it. You can’t boil it down.”

The works published on Substack will be original stories in their own right. The project is exciting for Winterson because it doesn’t replace the book form – she retains the copyright, and plans in time to publish the four stories, with nine others, as The Night-Side of the River – and affords her the opportunity to “remake” the work. When the book is prepared for publication, she may revise some of the original stories, adding elements to make them more effective for print. “Writers often don’t go back in to visit their work, whereas musicians, painters, theatre-makers all do! For my tribe, this could be a liberating experience.”

“I wouldn’t burn anybody else’s book. I own my books, and really I can do what I like with them”

That four of these stories will have been published first via Substack will not affect the success of the resultant book, she said, because “people who love buying books love buying books”. Publishers, however, are very “conservative”. “They’re looking at something like Substack and thinking, ‘What does this mean? Is it competition?’ I don’t think it is. Perhaps naively. But I think that these platforms can exist side by side.”

In June this year Winterson caused an online frenzy when she tweeted a picture of her burning a pile of her own books. She didn’t like the “cosy little domestic blurbs” her publisher had put on new copies of some of her older novels, she wrote, and so set fire to them. The act led to discussions about the significance of books as objects, whether the bound paper – that physicality – is what constitutes a book, or whether it’s about the ideas, something more intangible. Joining Substack has also made her query the importance of a work’s physical form. “It’s such a new departure”, she said. “But I want to be part of the conversation.”

And, once and for all, she wanted to set the record straight: “Look, I wouldn’t burn anybody else’s book. I own my books, and really I can do what I like with them. It made me feel a lot better. Taking a photo was alright, but putting the photo on Twitter was so stupid! Only an analogue human could have done it.”

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