Image of Sophie Kinsella book covers

Image:Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

As Jeanette Winterson publishes 12 Bytes, her collection of essays on artificial intelligence, it’s easy to forget that she has had such a wide-ranging, groundbreaking and even controversial past. “I am a scrapper,” she told Desert Island Discs. She has fought for sexuality, for nature, for women and most of all, for literature. “I am an ambitious writer,” she said in 2011. “I don’t see the point in being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it.” Here are some of the places her ambition has taken her – and us.

Sexing the Cherry (1989)

This is the boldest, funniest and most inventive historical novel I’ve read. Sexing the Cherry opens in 17th-century England, with the Dog Woman, a character whose literally larger-than-life scale (“I heard a voice compare me to a mountain range”) is matched only by her love for her adoptive son Jordan. But Jordan leaves, as children must, and the Civil War rolls in, and time begins to bend strangely… “The future lies ahead like a glittering city,” Winterson writes, “but like the cities of the desert disappears when approached.”

Winterson brings in fantasy, fairy tales and futurism in the most philosophical work of fiction ever to feature knob jokes. Gender and sexuality appear too, when people object to the practice of grafting cherry plants (“unnatural”) instead of growing them from seed. What sex, they ask, would such a “monster” be? “But the cherry grew,” Jordan tells us, “and we have sexed it, and it is female.”

Written on the Body (1992)

From the ululations of its opening pages (“Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It is the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid”), Written on the Body is a eulogy to love, written by a narrator of undeclared gender. Their love for flame-haired Louise (“a million Red Admirals in a halo of movement and light”) is more than skin deep, especially when illness strikes and our narrator has to think about Louise’s body in a new way. But love conquers all: “We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm.”

Written on the Body is a fan favourite, but attracted controversy when Winterson, after its publication, chose it as her favourite book of the year and named herself in a survey for the best writer in English: “No one comes close to my exuberance, my passion, my fidelity to words.” A bold statement, but (whisper it) some of us agreed with her.

Art & Lies (1994)

This novel is a deep cut from Winterson’s oeuvre – “my most closed piece of work”, she says – but it rewards attention and contains some of her most passionate and beautiful writing. It cycles through three narrators: a male doctor called Handel (“fingers long, voice musical”), a female artist called Picasso (“I want to run up the hill in the freedom of the wind and shout until the rains come”) and the poet Sappho (“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY POEMS?”). Each person, brought together through the power of a mysterious book, has a question and a quest: “How shall I live?”

But Art & Lies is also one of Winterson’s funniest novels, courtesy of Doll Sneerpiece, an 18th-century brothel-keeper and her sidekick Miss Mangle, who responds to every comment with “Very Right. Very True.” “In this way,” Winterson writes, “she retained a large circle of friends, none of whom guessed that their tolerant confidante was stone deaf.”

Art Objects (1995)

12 Bytes is not Winterson’s first essay collection: this book on art and literature dazzled me more than 25 years ago. It opens with a heartfelt account of Winterson’s discovery of the arresting power of visual art (“What was I to do, standing hesitant, my heart flooded away?”) and the difficulty of really seeing paintings in the face of irrelevant questions like “Is the painting famous?” and “Who painted it?”

It also gives us thoughts on book collecting and some of Winterson’s favourite writers: Eliot (T. S., not George), Gertrude Stein (whose writing sought not to imitate reality but create “a different kind of reality”), and of course Virginia Woolf, through Orlando, The Waves and A Room of One’s Own. And, in true Wintersonian fashion, there are no sacred cows: “There are whole sections of Dickens that should never have been written,” she declares, “therefore they should never be read.”

The Stone Gods (2007)

The style and structure of this novel – a blend of satire, science fiction and historical reimagining – will be familiar to anyone who came to Winterson through her 2019 novel Frankissstein. Here the context is not AI but global warming, and narrator Billie Crusoe – who is in love with a robot called Spike – takes us through a world where humans have found a new planet to inhabit, now the old one’s burning, with “hostile atmospheres, captured in jars and swirling like genies.”

Progress in this future Earth is superficial at best, where everyone can be young and beautiful: “We all look alike, except for rich people and celebrities. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy.” But this being a Winterson novel, even the freewheeling invention is not what it seems, and there are twists later on that turn everything upside down.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Winterson’s debut novel Oranges are not the only fruit (1985) was a “cover version” of her childhood, about her adoption into a strict religious family (“The Devil led us to the wrong crib,” said her mother). This memoir is the raw truth – though still as polished as anything Winterson writes – and covers the inseparable threads of Winterson’s history: love, literature and life in the world. “When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love – its quality – to be unreliable.”

But her passion is undimmed: for libraries, for education, and for recognition of the barriers faced by people like her, remembering the “arrogance” she’d been accused of (see Written on the Body above). “For a woman, a working class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe you were good enough,” she writes, “that was not arrogance; that was politics.”

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