Jeanette Winterson Owns the Entire Oxford English Dictionary
“To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells,” says the novelist, whose most recent book is “Frankissstein.”
What books are on your nightstand?
The books I keep by my bed are always nonfiction or poetry. I like to read fiction in the hour’s reading time in the afternoon or early evening — that doesn’t always work, but I think it is important to set aside time for reading. I set aside time for going to the gym and for answering my emails, and reading is a priority. At night though, I only read for a half-hour and I want to fall asleep. Poetry is a wonderful sedative because it conjures up images and emotions without a story. Just now I have Carol Ann Duffy’s “Collected Poems” and a selected Hart Crane. I change the poetry section every week, the only criteria being one dead one alive. I don’t know why. Next is Tracy K. Smith’s “Ordinary Light,” a memoir that reads like poetry, and Robert Graves.
Nonfiction-wise I am reading “The Gendered Brain,” by Gina Rippon (published in America as “Gender and Our Brains”). I can’t come to a conclusion on the whole nature-nurture debate — so I keep reading.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Classic novels I haven’t read? Well, there must be some, but when I was growing up in a poor northern working-class town, my mental resource was the public library. Spanning the width of the Carnegie library there was a giant bookcase labeled English Literature in Prose A-Z. I had no one to guide me so I started at A. At the beginning things go well: Austen, Brontës, Conrad, Dickens. Eliot. I had my first serious doubt about the elevating purpose of art when I got to N. “Lolita” wasn’t a good read for a 16-year-old girl.
Anyway, what counts as a classic changes, doesn’t it? Gertrude Stein wasn’t on the shelf, though she was in the library, filed under Humor. Virginia Woolf wasn’t there either — nor was she on my literature course at the University of Oxford. “Minor,” was the word used. Gendered brain?
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
For me, language is everything. I am not all that interested in the story or the characters if the language is floppy. Language is much more than a carrier of information. Language gives the reader the words she or he needs to manage their internal situation. This matters. It’s why I read poetry. Badly written books often make good movies, because the character and story are all that counts. Books that have a distinctive voice and a way with words take longer to read, and they make demands on the reader. I am aware that difficulty — however pleasurable and rewarding — is not in fashion. I don’t want language that is artificial or arcane — just language that says things in such a way that we hear what is being said, and register it in the depths of us. That way it is available for use when we need it. I still learn poems and parts of books so that I have a private library inside me. This may well be because my mother burned all my books just before I sensibly left home. Only what is inside you cannot be taken away by others.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
A book I read and reread that no one else I know reads at all is Ted Hughes’s “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.” I had to get my copy print on demand years ago. It is a reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays with a view to understanding the interior geography of Shakespeare as a writer and as a man. And it is about the rescuing of the Female that happens in the late plays, and why this should be. Reading it is like a very long conversation with an old friend trying to understand something magnificent. It is also, possibly, utterly bonkers.
Your new novel updates “Frankenstein” with modern technology and cultural references. Are there particular challenges to adapting a classic, and who do you think does it especially well?
You ask me about adapting a classic — which “Frankissstein” doesn’t do, though it does try to recreate some of the thinking and working life of Mary Shelley, alongside a contemporary look at A.I. If you are writing the past, you need to invent a language close enough to the past in question, but near enough to us for the reader not to feel like they are reading in translation. The key to any encounter with the past is to understand it before you riff on it. I think of some of my work as cover versions. That’s fun, and it can remake a text for a modern reader, driving back to the original. I thought Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” — a version of “Antigone” for the current world of paranoia, fake politics and terrorism — was so good. I just read Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte,” a loose remake of “Don Quixote.” It’s a terrific read. As far as I am concerned all writers are working with the classics all the time — whether or not we have read them. Not just story lines but an atmosphere. If you love books you will be soaked in books and what you have read will return as what you have written.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
When I am writing I do all my research before I start and don’t refer back to anything until the editing stage. If I read for pleasure it will be anything well known and loved but never anything new. I have so many books in my house that there is plenty to choose from. When I am writing I like looking at old photographs of cities — London or New York or Singapore and so on.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My own books have certainly come between myself and others: When I wrote my debut novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” I spoke to my mother, phone booth to phone booth, and she said, “It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.”
There was more trouble with my memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” This time from the biological family rather than the adoptive set. Yes, “the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it till it’s too late.”
On the bright side, “The PowerBook” got me a girlfriend. Didn’t last, but eternity is overrated. My current wife gave all my books away to a charity shop just before she met me. A sense of humor helps in a relationship.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The most interesting thing I have learned from a book recently is also the scariest. Caroline Criado Perez’s “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” is no rant, just facts and figures: For instance, voice recognition software is generally set to a male pitch — and 70 percent more likely to recognize the male than the female voice. Read this book and then tell me the patriarchy is a figment of my imagination.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have the 24-volume hardcover O.E.D. plus supplements. My young friends look astonished: Why not just Google it? But there is so much else in there than simple definition or derivation. To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I don’t think my reading tastes have changed at all — because I love reading, and that means reading widely and wildly. I like to understand the world. I have always read a lot of nonfiction and poetry. So many books are sent to me that I have a pretty good choice every week. I don’t always finish books and I believe that is fine. My favorite thing is to go to Shakespeare & Company in Paris and buy a pile of books that intrigue me and have them sent back to the U.K. A big beautiful bookshop is a treasure chest. I don’t enjoy the Amazon algorithm approach. Browsing is a better idea and a lot more fun.
Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?
Do books serve a moral function? Absolutely. And it isn’t a question of subject matter, because fiction isn’t obliged to tackle the world head-on. If we are only interested in the now, then the past is obsolete. Reading is such an odd act — solitary, introspective, outside of time (not controlled by time) and not subject to surveillance. Reading isn’t data. Books more than ever are agents of freedom from a snoopy controlling data-driven nightmare that pretends we are free when we have never been more scrutinized. So reading certainly has moral value — and is increasingly subversive. Literature is a compass — useful to get your bearings even if you want to go in a different direction. Literature is a tool kit. Books are the most practical of endeavors. They teach us about life, about motive, about our own darkness, about why we act as we do, and they give us back real live language. Anything that frees your brain from the karate-chop syntax of newsfeed and social media is in part a meditative act.
The purpose of art changes as society changes. Sometimes art has to break us up — sometimes art has to heal us up. Literature, because it is made of language, returns language to us. If we have the words, we are not silenced, although we learn, through the enforced quiet of reading, what it means to be silent.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I invite four. Margaret Atwood, because she’s wonderful and, importantly, still alive. Shakespeare, because he must be an alternative life-form: 38 plays and dead at 51. Virginia Woolf, because she made life possible for so many women who write. And Stephen King, because he would know what to do if the dead parts of the dinner party started acting up.
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