Sometimes in reading you discover sentences to live by. They are instantly recognisable – a glimmer inherent in the words. I found a line like that in Harold Bloom’s literary appreciation of the Bible, The Shadow of a Great Rock (2011). Bloom offers his own definition for the blessing those in the Old Testament seek from God. He calls it, “More life into a time without boundaries.” It is a term both exact and illimitable in its scope and application. I found Bloom’s phrase again last week, in Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to her most recent essay collection, 12 Bytes: How Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Way We Live and Love. “Isn’t that what computing technology will offer?” is her provocation. The text that follows answers, yes, yes, yes, with the caveat: so long as we attend to its advancement with compassion rather than our usual human desire for violence and domination, a radical proposal whose likelihood seems to diminish in time, with each technological leap our species takes.
Winterson lives like she’s uncovered the secret to more life. She entered the auditorium of the North Wall Theatre in Oxford, where I would be interviewing her for International Women’s Day, at full pelt. Outside, the unexpected March snow was making the darkness shine and, as she brushed flakes from her blazer, she was already describing her battle through the weather in a two-seater Mini (the same type of car she briefly lived in after leaving the home of her adoptive pentecostal missionary parents at 16, when she came out as a lesbian), suggesting she fix us drinks now because there might not be opportunity later.
“On we go!” was her refrain for the night, our audience mostly sixth-formers. Considering dialogue in novels, she advised, “It’s got to move quickly. Because once you’re in it, you’ve got to get to the end of it.” To demonstrate the importance of feeling moved by art, by one another, she leapt up from her seat. “We are moved,” she said, rushing across the stage. “That’s a verb. It says: I was here, but now I’m here. It’s kinetic. It’s dynamic.” In both her debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a fictionalised account of her childhood that won the 1985 Whitbread Prize, and Frankissstein (2019), her most recent, Booker-longlisted novel, Winterson references the account in Genesis of Lot’s wife. An angel warns Lot’s wife not to look back while fleeing burning Sodom. But she cannot help herself, and is transformed into a pillar of salt. Once you’ve moved on, there’s no way back. Not really. “We die soon,” Winterson told the audience. “And so, in a way, we’re right to think ‘Can I go faster? Can I do everything at triple speed?’ ”
[See also: Britain will keep getting weirder]
Winterson, 63, is small and quick, her bright eyes ticking across the stalls, seeking out connections. “I’ve never dyed it,” she told us proudly of her animated brown curls. When I reached for my page of handwritten notes and questions, she threw up her hands, saying, “Oh, you don’t need those!” Her preference is for spontaneity, improvisation. She answered nothing in the way I anticipated – some responses had no discernible relationship to the question at all. But they were always expansive, earnest and passionate. Her mother, the severe Mrs Winterson – on whose mention she interrupted, “Thankfully dead! Your mothers do die eventually, boys and girls!” – trained her up to become a missionary, a preacher at the pulpit. Some residue of that fervency remains in her speech, her frequent use of Biblical quotation, though her faith is long gone.
I was too young to remember the criticism directed towards Winterson in the 1990s and 2000s, but she described it as having been terrible, constant. Beyond taking aim at her novels (James Wood in the London Review of Books, 1994: “Each new book by Jeanette Winterson is said to be poorer than its predecessor”), critics’ chief complaint was her overweening attitude. In 1995 she selected herself when asked to name her favourite living writer – a gesture that would now be seen as playful, or lauded for its boldness. In 2000 an interview in the Guardian opened with a mocking impression of Winterson’s preferred fabular fiction style. “Once there was a girl with a gift,” the interviewer writes. “This girl sprang from nowhere… She made a fuss about where she came from (this girl was working class)… She was cruel, controlling and sexually manipulative (this girl was a lesbian).” It’s patronising, personal journalism, reproducing the homophobic, classist stance that many took against Winterson.
“If you stay around long enough,” Winterson told us. “They do stop beating you.” But there’s more to it than that – why young people continue to read Jeanette Winterson, why they brave the snow to attend her talks, why she has not met the supposed fate of middle-aged female writers in Britain: to be either ignored or despised. “I don’t want to wall myself off in some pompous carapace,” she said. “I want to live in the world as it is, not as it was.” Frankissstein’s protagonist, Ry Shelley, is a trans doctor who refuses binaries. In The Powerbook (2000) and Written on the Body (1992) she had characters without defined genders. “Come on, catch up!” she called out to an imagined society when predicting how the Church might respond to an AI-incorporated future. “If Christians are still worried about boys kissing boys and girls kissing girls, what are they going to do when you fall in love with your operating system?” After the talk, a queue of teenagers formed leading up to the stage. Winterson gave each of them as long as they needed to speak. And as they spoke, she listened.
When a girl approaching 6ft asked her for a selfie, Winterson climbed up onto a chair so they could appear the same height. She has written, “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be.” I had remembered the mother character from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as an inflexible opposite to her daughter. Rereading the book showed me a different Mrs Winterson. “She didn’t believe in determinism,” the first-person narrator, Jeanette, says of her mother. “She said that you made people and yourself what you wanted.” I hadn’t considered this aspect of Christianity before: that believing a person can transform from faithless to full-faith presupposes a pretty elastic understanding of identity. Suddenly Oranges and 12 Bytes did not seem such dissimilar books, but bifurcating branches from the same trunk. Of course, the distinction is that for pentecostal Christians this potential fluidity is lost as soon as you convert. No wonder Christianity could not hold Winterson for long. In 2025, to celebrate 40 years since Oranges (“Forty bloody years!”), she is writing another story of her life. This one will use Aladdin as its structuring myth. One Aladdin, Two Lamps, she’ll call it.
After the talk, she was concerned about me making my train on time. “Come in my car!” she called, already on the move. “Let’s go. We’ll make it.” Driving her Mini through dark white Oxford, she complained about the speed limit being 20 everywhere nowadays. She spoke of attending university here in the early 80s, how hard it was to be a working-class woman against this backdrop of privilege. She drove me right up to the station entrance. And then, just as Mary Shelley’s creature disappears into the blizzards of the North Pole at Frankenstein’s end, Jeanette Winterson was off again into the snowy night.
[See also: The sex lives of medieval women]