I’m trying to warn you that this post says very little about Winterson’s book Sexing the Cherry, so if you want a discussion of the actual book, as opposed to an analysis of my feelings about it, I would check out the posts over at the Slaves of Golconda blog. There is just something about this book, and about Jeanette Winterson’s writing generally, that doesn’t sit very well with me, and I suspect this problem has more to do with me than with the writing itself.
To back up a bit, I first read Winterson during my very first semester in grad school when we were assigned her novel The Passion. I liked the book, and I decided to write a paper on it, one which made some connections between Winterson and Virginia Woolf and drew some conclusions about modernism and postmodernism. That was interesting, and I was pleased to be able to write about Woolf, whom I had fallen in love with just a couple years before. And then I read a couple other Winterson books, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body, and while I liked Oranges, I liked Written on the Body a little bit less, and then as time went on and I thought about Winterson now and then, I started to like her work less and less, and then I became profoundly ambivalent about it, and now after reading Sexing the Cherry I’m beginning to think Winterson is just not a writer who works for me.
I now think I was trying to like what I felt I was supposed to like, back when I read The Passion in grad school. I did experience some genuine pleasure in reading the book, but I felt some uncertainty about it too, and I didn’t listen to that part of my response because … well, because everyone else loved it and because it seemed so smart and hip. Winterson has a lot to say about our unstable identities, the uncertainty of space and time, the mixing of past and present, and all that stuff is so very postmodern, and I was all into postmodernism, and so of course I was going to like this book.
But … there’s something about Winterson’s writing that doesn’t work for me, and I’m trying to pinpoint what it is. It has something to do with the fact that her books seem like they are written for the sake of the ideas rather than for the sake of the characters or plot, and I’d prefer it if they all fit together seamlessly. But this can’t be the entire story, because I do like idea-driven novels very much, and if the ideas are interesting enough and the writing is good, I don’t mind if characters or plot are sacrificed. And, actually, Sexing the Cherry has some great, memorable characters (I liked Dog-Woman quite a lot) and is mainly lacking plot, and plot is most often the last thing I care about in a book.
Another factor is that I’m not really fond of the fantastical, magical-realism stuff in Winterson’s work. I’ve read some Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, and now that I think about it, I felt the same sense of queasy uncertainty when I read them. Yes, they are smart, yes, they are great writers, and yes, they are important, but no, I can’t say I love their work. I guess — and I kind of wish I didn’t feel this way — that I want realism to be realism and fantasy/science fiction/fables/fairy tales to be their own thing. Generally I’m all for people breaking the rules, but it appears there are limits to my tolerance of disorder and rule-breaking and boundary-crossing and genre-bending.
And then there’s the mean-spirited, grouchy, cynical side of me that doesn’t like the light-hearted, playful, celebratory tone of the book. The moments I liked best were the darker ones — the passages about how Dog-Woman and Jordan misunderstand each other or the descriptions of religious violence. I wasn’t so fond of Jordan’s fantastical travels or the twelve princesses or the speculations about the fluidity of identity and the centrality of love. And I don’t really like the prettiness of the language either.
But here I’m starting to go off the deep end a little bit, and you can see how I just don’t get along with this book and should probably just stop now. I do understand, in an abstract, detached kind of way, how other people can like it; maybe this is just one of those matters of taste, kind of like the way I don’t like potatoes but I understand that most people do, and I’m fine with that.
Check out other people’s posts here and the group discussion here.
10 responses to “Not Really About Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry”
This is the second post I’ve read about Sexing the Cherry – Danielle’s was the other one. I think it sounds surreal, but it doesn’t really appeal because of the violence. I do read and enjoy some crime fiction but I don’t like blood and gore to be described too vividly and it seems there is some of that in this book – or am I mistaken? This is trivial but the title puts me off too and the fact that people rave about this and her other books. I suppose I shouldn’t comment at all as I’ve never read any of her books – like potatoes you don’t know you don’t like them unless you at least taste them.
I just read Danielle’s post, too, and am curious about the book. Sounds like it’s pretty far outside my comfort range (I also have trouble with Rushdie and Garcia Marquez), but I will take a look at it next time I’m browsing the bookstore.
I loved Winterson’s Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles. Stone Gods, however, left me feeling much as you describe. I have no interest in Sexing the Cherry as a result.
I’ve not read any of Winterson’s books, but the posts don’t inspire me to read any of her books either. I’m wondering if your group uses the book discussion questions or any materials from the publishers, to give you some idea as to what the author might have hoped to accomplish with these sorts of books?
P.S. Nevermind. I saw that the moderator had posted them further down the list before the reviews. What is your next book?
BooksPlease — it’s true that you don’t know what you think until you try something, but it sounds to me like you might not get on with this book. It does have gore and violence and explicit sex, and if that bothers you, I don’t think you’ll like the book. It’s good to have a sense of one’s taste!
JoAnn — it is a very different kind of book, probably outside the comfort range of a lot of people, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! It’s short, too, so if you don’t like it, it doesn’t take long to get through at least.
Jenclair — I vaguely remember reading her book of essays Art Objects, and I liked those pretty well; I suspect I might like the myth book also. Nonfiction is fine — it’s her fiction that doesn’t work with me!
Debby — I don’t know the next book, but I’ll post it when I do know! The person who chose last time chooses someone else to offer selections for the next go-round, and we all vote on them. We don’t always use outside material such as discussion questions, but if they are readily available and someone posts them, we’ll make use of them.
Oranges is one of my favorite novels to teach, but I haven’t found the others I’ve read nearly as fun. They’re smart, and make you think, but not as fun for me. I think you nailed it on the ideas thing.
Bardiac — I should re-read Oranges. That’s one Winterson novel I wouldn’t mind looking at again.
I teach it in an intro class where we start with medieval romances, including Chretien’s version of Perceval (Parcifal? whatever), Marie de France, Gawain, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Winterson. The tie in is in the grail/quest things, but then it pulls together in terms of all sorts of stuff. The students mostly like all the texts, including Winterson.
Well, we clearly see eye-to-eye on this one.