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?