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.