Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Some thoughts on Jeanette Winterson.

I often admire Jeanette Winterson’s work more than I like it. Her novels are technically impressive, intellectually stimulating, but for me at least, not engaging; I have to make myself read them because I know what they contain is good for me. But her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? engaged me spectacularly. I finished it in three days, reading it first thing in the morning, at lunchtime and before I went to bed; I even found myself picking it up while I waited for the kettle to boil.

The difference is partly that the memoir is naked. She’s telling her story, honestly, and it’s a shocking, inspiring, compelling story. Reading the book is like sitting in your room while a fiercely intelligent friend tells you how she got from the beginning of her life to the point where you met her. How could you not want to hear more? Especially when you know that friend’s life began with abuse by a Christian fundamentalist mother and found its way, somehow, to literary celebrity and media fame (not that there are simple resolutions in the difficult emotional trajectory she describes).

But I suspect the limitations I have seen in Winterson’s other books are also limitations, and prejudices, in me. I read a lot of postmodernist texts last year and the techniques and ideas favoured by most of the writers began to blur in my mind, seeming as much the default setting of comfortable middle-aged intellectuals as a just creative/ philosophical response to the particular conditions of early twenty-first century living.

That still has the uneasy taste of truth to me. I say uneasy because I don’t know what the alternative is. But I wonder if I have less patience with Winterson when she inhabits that kind of complex space because her perspective is one I’m not sympathetic to instinctively. Do I give Salman Rushdie, for example, more time because he is a man? I loved Midnight’s Children but is it really any better than Sexing The Cherry? Was I more inclined to work with the exasperation Paul Auster caused me in his New York Trilogy because of the masculine archetypes he used?

I’m not comfortable with these thoughts, or even conscious of them. I would rather think of myself as thoroughly enlightened and unencumbered by prejudice. But we all bring something to our reading experience. I might go back to the key Winterson novels in the coming months and see if they are quite how I first thought of them.

Jeanette Winterson's website: http://www.jeanettewinterson.com