I’m tempted to very clumsily look for a trend in the career of Jeanette Winterson with other writers of the mid-eighties. I feel as if Jeanette Winterson, Ben Elton and Margaret Atwood shared a similar sort of career path from writer to cultural identity and commentator that certain other eras of writers also have, for instance Updike/Mailer/Vidal or Ellis/Tartt/ Janowitz/ McInerney.
The comparison occurred to me because all three authors have always worked as writers, their work has all dealt with leftist social issues, and they have since become cultural icons unto themselves in a way. My idea of this mid-eighties trend is flawed. Winterson has little in common with Atwood and Elton other than sharing the same side of the political spectrum and a chronologically similar publication date of their bigger novels (Oranges…, The Handmaids Tale, and Stark, respectively.
I’m reasonably familiar with a lot of Elton and Atwood’s work. Elton, I think wrote too much too fast and diluted his own style without enough development until it approached a Morrissey-like level of self-importance and over earnestness. Though, of course, he has remained reasonably relevant by continuing to also work in film and television.
Atwood seems to have developed her style more by allowing herself space between books. She is also older and has a much bigger career than the other two authors. Even so it is hard work reading her earlier work which is much better than Elton’s but similarly earnest and altogether far too serious. I don’t have as much comparison for Winterson’s bibliography but certainly this, her first book, sits better with me than the earlier works of her contemporaries.
Perhaps it is because it is more personal than political and semi-autobiographical as well. The material seems to have more room to breathe and the themes of identity, sexuality and repression are allowed to unfold gently with the narrative events rather than being flagged from the start. But still it is a first novel and one written in the early eighties so it tries far too hard to be clever and is sometimes merely lucky in succeeding. Though succeed it does. At this point I’ve read more of Winterson’s non-fiction than fiction and have no idea what the rest of her fiction output is like. Hopefully good. Hopefully as lyrical and interesting and as smart. I hope her work didn’t become too self-absorbed as her star rose and the navel gazing of the late 80’s and 90’s beckoned and her cultural identity rivalled that of her role as a fiction author.
In terms of criticisms I did wish that the book was longer, which is of course a sign of enjoyment veiled as criticism, and there are artistic flourishes and decision in the novel that I felt were superfluous and could have been replaced. Again, though it is this artistic style which differentiates the personal as political in this book from the often hard to read speculative and satirical politics of Atwood and Elton.
I’ve also yet to see the BBC adaptation starring Maggie Smith.
Many of the early edition covers have post-impressionist art work as do the early editions of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not sure what, if any, connection there is in this similarity. Perhaps it was just the fashion at the time.