Monday, August 11, 2008

Your voice is so loud I cannot hear what you are saying

In London, I read a review of Jeanette Winterson's new book, The Stone Gods. The hardcover just came out stateside in April of this year, but it was published last year in Britain, so I got the paperback, now as old as the hardback here, in Camden Town, at Waterstone's, I am a bit ashamed to admit. It had, in fact, just moved off the 2-for-1 shelf, but I was so happy to hold her in hand that I paid full price gladly.

For a long time I have hoarded Winterson's oeuvre. I often waited, even when I was a book buyer for a bookstore and knew full well when her next tome would arrive, even often receiving it free from the publisher in hardback, until the paperback came out, as a way to delay gratification (and you can take that as literally or metaphorically as you'd like).

But the truth is, I must finally admit, I feel her writing has worn out. I think she actually believes this, too, for years ago, she swore she would do the Greek Gods series (her contribution was on Atlas) and then end. That's it. Finito. Not another novel or short story. She did a kids book (Tanglewreck) and then that really appeared to be it. I even stopped looking for her books on the shelves at new stores. But here it is. Another novel. And I just kind of think it doesn't work.

Why? Winterson's writing consists mostly of voice: language use, sense of character(s) and emotional relationship. She's highly lyrical, which I have always and still do love. But this time around, like in Powerbook (the second to last before the Atlas book and of a similar plot bend to Stone Gods) she is trying too much to build a world, a story, with literal value as well as emotional. The Passion, Written on the Body and Lighthousekeeping, three of her best, are all based on more of an emotive landscape than a political or world-sized plot. She did a great job with the Atlas myth because it's a story we already know. In other words, Winterson is a fantastic show-er and a weak teller. So when she's got a story to *tell*, which she does here in Stone Gods, at least to set the stage to do the showing, it's a rough haul for her.

And for me. I turn to certain authors when I feel down, as I have since returning from Britain, in order to inspire and revive me. Ondaatje, Winterson, Atwood and Toni Morrison are the perennials, though also often Karen Tei Yamashita, Italo Calvino and Jamaica Kincaid (not to mention Edwidge Danticat - this middle range list could go on and on!) often do the trick. Those first four authors - I own everything they have ever written, I read their books again and again, and I read them when I desperately need inspiration for life and/or writing, which often go wonkers together, at the same time or in quick succession. So this is why I feel a bit, well, miffed, this time. What the heck? Of course I want her to try new things. Of course I think she shouldn't just sing the same song each time. And yet...

Some of the feeling comes from disappointment - that I hoped a book would coddle me and it isn't doing the trick. Some of it comes from a realization awhile back that literature doesn't do the same escape hatch trick it used to - because *I* can't "get away" like I used to, now that I realize it won't, in the long run, do any good. But finally, part is outright fear. Stone Gods tells a story vaguely familiar to that of my novel, Orphano. And here I encounter a problem I didn't use to have, back when I loved novels but didn't write them - that I can see myself in her, see the struggle to write something plot-driven when you are a lyrical writer, and I fear I will fail. I love the language of my novel and I think it is very, very good. Really. But I am not so sure about conflict, not so sure about narrative drive or plot. And I know, I have right in front of me, a sample of when those feel contrived, written by one of my favorite authors. Sigh.

Guess it's better to hear it from her than anyone else, eh?


  1. well, you could take it as a useful cautionary tale/note...

    a reminder about how useful and effective it is to follow one's inner... whatever, inner compass, deepest instinct, you know, inner whatsit...

    to follow our inner whatsit and not struggle to cram in things that one feels or imagines or has heard *ought* to be in novels (or classrooms or sexual encounters or whatever it is we are doing at the time).

    every time we can whittle away the 'this is supposed to be a part of what i'm doing' to find the 'this is what i want to have here now,' it is transformative and powerful; whenever we let all those 'shoulds' and 'supposed tos' wriggle in, it dilutes the experience...

    surely this can be a positive, inspiring message to remind you to stay on track and stay true to yourself in your novel?

    and don't worry if the story is 'vaguely familiar.' it will be utterly different, i can assure you. alison bechdel was worried when six feet under debuted on tv because her own memoir, Fun Home, seemed similar... but they could not be more different. those similarities are phantoms of fear, as well, my dear.

    (Huh... interestingly, and utterly coincidentally, Publisher's Weekly said of Fun Home that "The recursively told story, which revisits the sites of tragic desperation again and again, hits notes that resemble Jeanette Winterson at her best." You've read it I assume?)

    how is the novel going, by the way? when may outsiders read it? over time, my fear of reading it and not liking it (always - as i have confided to you before - my fear when encountering any creative work by a friend!) has been utterly annihilated by my eager curiosity and, perhaps, missing your companionship in any form.

    btw... don't forget the bits of my novel i left with you - i would like them back someday. :) no rush :)

    Damn, I wish I still had conversations like this with you every week. I miss you SO MUCH!!!!


  2. True. I am taking it as useful.

    As I am finishing the book I can see more how it all works together. There's also a facet of "late career work" happening here - when an artist's editor tends to let them have more free reign - and once my panic got over, I found that I just appreciate what she is able to do for her sake, now, this "late" in her career.

    What I want to have here now (great summation!) is to have a novel which has both - plot and also lyricism. And frankly I think it *does* have both. I am, after all, not Winterson, nor anyone else, I am just me!

    I have read Fun Home and obviously also love 6FU. Definitely not the same. And you know it is true that "artists" tend to panic at first - oh crap - someone else did this idea - but the fact is that there are no new ideas anyway at this point and when someone else is paving the way it can actually help you to gauge how the world might take your follow up. So in that way I am grateful. In fact, I have read many books "like" what I am doing and learned a lot from them, and there is plenty of room for my novel as its own thing and also as part of a speculative fiction/young person protagonist tradition.

    Don't see Winterson at all in Fun Home, though. That's funny!

    See other response for your novel etc...

    Thanks! And yes, though we can't do it in person every week, we're getting better about doing it here and on the phone...