How the world finally caught up with Jeanette Winterson

From Extinction Rebellion and ‘protest as spectacle’ to gender fluidity and fake news, Jeanette Winterson’s fiction has consistently foreshadowed the biggest issues of our times. As she marks her sixtieth birthday, John Self celebrates a novelist always one step ahead 

Jeanette Winterson, 2012
Jeanette Winterson, 2012

Jeanette Winterson, who celebrates her 60th birthday this week, has taken the novel to new places throughout her career. She has been praised for her formal innovation, the style of her writing, and her way with words – ‘gorgeous’, ‘lyrical’, ‘utterly dazzling’ - but what’s just as impressive is that in books written ten, twenty and thirty years ago, she foresaw many of today’s key social issues. It's not often these days that the humble novel, of all art forms, is considered to be driving cultural trends. Perhaps this is why - for the first time in her 34-year career - Winterson has been longlisted for the Booker Prize for her new novel Frankissstein. The world has finally caught up with her.

This foresight was evident from early in her career. Winterson’s third novel Sexing the Cherry, published in 1989, features an unnamed female character who predicts the media-friendly, eye-catching protests of Extinction Rebellion and the Occupy movement. She is a giantess who raids the boardrooms of the World Bank, the Pentagon and other paragons of late capitalism, wielding ‘a sack such as kittens are drowned in’ and stuffing the men in suits into it. (‘I throw in a few calculators so they won’t be bored.’)

Like Extinction Rebellion, Winterson’s character does what she does because she deplores the impact of capitalism on the environment, and has reached the end of her tether: complaining about it has done no good. Winterson herself has written that ‘there is no effective force in the west to challenge the dogma of capitalism’ - so imagination is needed. Shock tactics are needed. We never discover the outcome of the protests in Sexing the Cherry, but it’s no surprise that a writer who specialises in the vivid and ‘dazzling’ should have foreseen the importance of protest as spectacle.

'Written on the Body was a supercharged Orlando'

Winterson’s next book, 1992’s Written on the Body, was a lyrical paean to love as the greatest human achievement (‘Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no’) - a theme so important to her that she has returned to it in all her subsequent fiction. But what sets this book apart is that its narrator’s sex is unspecified: a sort of supercharged Orlando, not first male and then female, but both at the same time. So we don’t know, for example, whether the central relationship that the book celebrates, with a red-haired woman named Louise, is straight or gay.

Gender identity today is headline news: the government’s National LGBT survey this year found that 7% of respondents considered themselves nonbinary, i.e. did not identify as either male or female. But when Written on the Body was published, gender identity and fluidity were far from the mainstream, and some critics at the time considered Winterson’s ungendered narrator simply a ‘tiresome conceit’. This was to overlook the importance of Winterson’s innovation not just in social but also in literary terms: it highlights the reader’s role in bringing their own experiences and conceptions to complete the story. It makes the book, like all great art, a dialogue and not a monologue. And despite critical brickbats at the time, the book remains a firm fan favourite.

Jeanette Winterson in 1990
Jeanette Winterson in 1990

Identity remained a key theme in Winterson’s subsequent works, and soon she had a new tool with which to explore this interest: the internet. She was already an online pioneer, having won a landmark legal battle with a cybersquatter to own the website jeanettewinterson.com, and in 2000 she published The Powerbook, a novel consisting of a series of stories accessed by the narrator through an online portal. Around this time, when only a quarter of the UK had internet access, other novelists were experimenting with epistolary novels in email format - such as Matt Beaumont’s e or Amanda Prantera’s Capri File - but Winterson’s use of the internet in her novel was more visionary, and closer to the essence of today’s online experience.

In The Powerbook, the narrator talks to people online ‘whose identity I cannot prove,’ recognising that ‘the partition between real and invented is as thin as the wall in a cheap hotel room’ - a comment which speaks clearly to us in the age of fake news. The idea of the social media filter bubble seems to be present: ‘This is a world inventing itself. Daily, new landmasses form and then submerge. New continents of thought break off from the mainland.’ One of the stories within the book even offers two endings for the reader, one after the other (‘you choose’).

'She predicted not just climate change, but climate crisis'

Winterson’s interest in technology - not for its own sake, but for what it can tell us about the human experience - has continued with her most recent novels, The Stone Gods and Frankissstein. Published in 2007, The Stone Gods has a series of insights that perfectly predict many of our contemporary concerns: it’s set in a world not just of climate change but climate crisis, where our planet has been ‘cooked to cinders by CO2’. Those who are priced out of property and stream all their media will recognise the landscape of the novel where everything is rented (‘we still pay, but we don’t own’). And there’s even some geopolitical foresight, with Iran and the USA at nuclear loggerheads.

This brings us back to Frankissstein, which has seen a resurgence of critical praise for Winterson for its combination of entertainment and ideas – ‘a work of pleasure and profundity’, ‘funny and philosophical’, ‘serious fun’ - and her first Booker Prize longlisting. The novel brings together the world of Mary Shelley as she wrote Frankenstein with a very recognisable contemporary society where boundaries are increasingly blurred, from transgenderism to transhumanism. At least, those are the timely themes that seem clear to us right now. Winterson’s books have always been ahead of the times, so it may be that only in years to come will we see where Frankissstein is really taking us.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more