Beautiful Isolation


Memorial Day will bring on the real summer beach season. I was at the beach this past weekend and it was beautiful, and misty, and nearly empty. It’s also still quite chilly, the air anyway, and the only people in the ocean were the surfers. But it sure was pretty. I love the beach in all weathers and there’s nothing better than swimming in the ocean, but there’s something about the beach in the off-season … Maybe because I grew up in Rhode Island, the Ocean State. So the beach is not a novelty or a vacation spot. It’s my home. I’ve seen it with snow fallen on the sand, I’ve seen it in hurricane weather, I’ve seen it in mid-July. I’m starting a full-time job after Memorial Day, so I figured I should try to grab a mini-vacation for myself before all that starts. I sat on the boardwalk, drinking coffee, reading The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (he’s one of those weird gaps in my education that I sometimes become aware of … it was after writing up this post that I decided to rectify the situation immediately.) The book is amazing (as I am the last to realize!) From the first sentence, I was hooked. And the voice is so compelling, so chatty, so tortured, so … like, get to the POINT, man … that I must continue, the voice compels me to continue just so I can try to piece together the puzzle of what the hell happened. So that was really fun. I took pictures and sometimes just sat there doing NOTHING. This mother and son in the picture stood at the water’s edge for the longest time, and a vast empty beach stretched as far as the eye could see … on both sides. It was so beautiful!

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Thunder Road (1958): Gearhead Heaven






















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I’m not really a fan of contemporary country. It’s too squeaky clean with that tinge of resentment (“I drive four-wheel drive, you latte-drinkin’ Yankee” “I buy my underwear at Walmart and look just as good as them models …” Hm. You sure about that? I demand pictures.) … and it all sounds the same. I like some of it, including the two songs that I just made fun of right there (“Boys Round Here” and “Redneck Woman”), but comparing it to its roots, to the giants of the field … it just doesn’t hold up. I love country. Merle Haggard. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton. These people understand pain, compromises, addiction, darkness. Hell, that’s what a country song is FOR. Express that shit!

I don’t know much about Eric Church, but I do know that his album last year was on lots of Best-Of-the-Year lists. So I bought it. And I’m hooked. He’s got an edge. He’s got a heavy-metal soul. He’s not trying to be a goody-goody good ol’ boy, expressing the proper family values and cultural values so that he’ll get the stamp of approval from the Resentful Crowd. There’s an honesty there.

I’m at the beach this weekend. I’ve been suffering, y’all. Needed to get away. Eric Church’s “Devil, Devil” came on as I careened down the Garden State Parkway. It’s 8 minutes long. It’s EPIC. Apparently in his stage shows, he has a huge devil statue-thing on stage with him, and the Christians have been all outraged about it. I am so tired of these people. They make me think of that great quote from H.L. Mencken:

‘Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’

What does it feel like to be so afraid? So narrow? If you listen to the lyrics of this song, he is clearly talking about some deep painful shit, stuff that has to do with the music industry itself. Nashville. The country music establishment. What stardom/money/fame does. It’s a devil, and she’s seductive as hell. It’s clever lyrically – the way all great country songs have been in the past.

It grinds, and rocks. Elvis makes an appearance as does Roy Acuff. It has a freshness to its sound, an openness and vitality, that I haven’t heard in much contemporary country.

I’m slightly in love with this track, and with Eric Church at the moment.

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The Books: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery; ‘Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,’ by Jeanette Winterson


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, a collection of essays about art by Jeanette Winterson.

In 1933, Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Already we are down the rabbit hole. Because an autobiography has to be … about the author, yes? Can we all agree on that? Gertrude Stein did not agree on that. And so she wrote this book, as though she were Alice B. Toklas (her longtime companion), and it was presented as non-fiction, an autobiography. I just re-watched Abbas Kiarostami’s magnificent film Close-Up, and it has similar elements of all of this “confusion” about what is real, and does it matter what is real, and cannot something almost totally contrived and created be almost realler than reality? Yes? No?

In today’s world, when a fabricator like James Frey is called on Oprah’s carpet and forced to apologize for passing off his (bad) fiction as memoir … we have little tolerance for experimentation with the truth. (My beef with that whole thing is that Frey was a bad writer. I didn’t care so much that he pretended it was true. I cared that the writing was bad and he was being celebrated for something that was not well-written. This is what Fran Leibowitz warned us about when she said, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publication.”) James Frey could not get his book published as fiction, because the prose wasn’t good enough, but once he said it was true, voila, publishers came calling. I was fascinated by that whole thing because it really pinpointed some of the issues in the publishing world, and what “we” care about. We like things to be clear, open, transparent. Everyone must be honest at all times. No TRICKS. We live in a very strict age. We live in a very literal age.

However, things were not all that different back in 1933. In the wake of Stein’s “autobiography,” many people who were described in the book were angered, they felt they were mis-represented. In 1935, a “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein” was published in a French literary magazine. Henri Matisse was the most annoyed, and wanted to make it clear that Gertrude Stein was very peripheral to his world, she was never as fully involved as she claimed to be, and yadda yadda, blah blah blah. People were pissed! Not only were people pissed about appearing in the book, and not liking the portrayal, but outsiders were confused. How can this be an autobiography if Alice B. Toklas didn’t write it? What is Gertrude Stein up to? People don’t like to be TRICKED. People want to know how the magician does his tricks, they want to remove the anxiety of not-knowing.

Jeanette Winterson plays around with autobiography, too. Her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was categorized as a memoir, but it was written in such a way that you are just not quite sure if she is a reliable narrator. In fact, many times she sounds like she’s lying. This is a deliberate choice on Winterson’s part. Her interest in story-telling, in the truth of stories (that stories are truer than real life could ever even hope to be), courses through all of her fiction. In The Passion, one of the narrators is a cross-dressing web-footed Venetian woman at the time of Napoleon, the daughter of a boatman, who works in the casinos at night, sleeping with people (men and women), living light and free and unattached, before love comes unexpectedly and grabs hold of her. She prefers her identity to be fluid. She likes to be a boy, she likes to be a girl. She does not want to choose. Some of the stories she tells us are fantastical, and hard to believe. And one of the things she says, repeatedly, throughout the narrative is:

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

Those two sentences get deeper and funnier and trickier the more I think about them. To put those two sentences back to back destabilizes the rules of fiction, of storytelling. The “trust me” is especially delicious, and in the context of The Passion sounds different depending on the context (it shows up throughout the book). It sounds truthful, it sounds manipulative, a cooing in the ear of her latest mark: “Trust me …” as she lifts his wallet from his inner pocket. You just don’t know. And Winterson does not want to choose either way. She REFUSES to choose. People want her to be more literal. “So did your mother really act like that?” You can almost hear Winterson saying, between the lines of Oranges, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”

In the little author’s blurb for Oranges, Winterson claims that she ran away to join the circus. I think she might have said, too, that she worked as a “shepherd” as well. The whole thing feels fabricated, and this is her author’s blurb, which we are supposed to trust. It’s fabulous ! (Barbra Streisand, when she made her debut on Broadway, had a similarly ridiculous bio in the playbill, none of which was true. I believe she said she was born amongst the natives in Borneo. Streisand too was a master storyteller, creating a persona out of her own fantasies for herself. People make fun of her long nails, but she grew those long nails because her mother wanted her to go to secretarial school. As long as she had those long nails, she couldn’t type. Those nails are important, those nails are a declaration of independence, a refusal to be limited by what others want for her.)

It should be no surprise, then, to learn that Winterson was so inspired by The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It showed her the possibilities, it showed her that there are no rules. Or those who love the rules and remind you of the rules do not need to be listened to. Do your own thing. Write whatever the hell you want. Do not listen to small people if you are up to big things.

The Autobiography showed Winterson that all bets were off. That literature was much more ferocious and wild and out-there and fantastical than the literary magazines would have you believe. Winterson has much in common with the magical-realists like Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but she follows the stars of Stein, and Woolf, and Joyce, and T.S. Eliot … who were somehow, incredibly, able to turn their backs on the gigantic weight of the 19th century form, and mess it up, futz with it, make fun of it, turn it inside out. (It is important to remember, however, that those Modernists knew their literature. They were not just “experimenting” randomly. They knew their Dickens and Trollope and Eliot, they knew them inside and out. It’s like modern dance or jazz. Only when you are familiar with the old forms can you start to create your own.)

This essay by Winterson is a beautiful examination of what Gertrude Stein was up to with that “autobiography”. It’s a very interesting essay about truth, and people’s need for total truth, and how limiting reality is, how limiting “truth” is.

Excerpt from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery: ‘Testimony Against Gertrude Stein’, by Jeanette Winterson

Gertrude Stein played a trick and it was a very good trick too. She had, as a precedent, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) but instead of re-making biography into fiction, she pushed the experiment one step further, and re-defined autobiography as the ultimate Trojan horse.

We are supposed to know where we are with biography and autobiography, they are the literary equivalents of the portrait and the self-portrait. (Reflect a while on what the Post-Impressionists did with those.) One is the representation of someone else’s life, and the other is the representation of your own. We shouldn’t have to worry about form and experiment, and we can rest assured that the writer (or the painter) is sticking to the facts. We can feel safe with facts. You can introduce a fact to your mother and you can go out at night with a proven fact on your arm. There we are; a biography in one hand, and an autobiography in the other. A rose is a rose is a rose.

Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet they fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’

Bring on the Trojan horse. In the belly of a biography stash the Word. The Word that is both form and substance. The moving word uncaught. Woolf smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband; lesbianism, cross-dressing, female power, but as much as that, and to me more than that, she smuggled her language alive past the checkpoints of propriety.

At similar risk, although Stein is not close to the genius of Woolf, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an act of terrorism against worn-out assumptions of what literature is and what form its forms can take. Modernism fights against fixity of form, not to invite an easy chaos but to rebuild new possibilities. Art cannot move forward by clinging to past discoveries and the re-discovery of form is essential to anyone who wants to do fresh work. Stein knew this as well as Picasso knew it and although she was not as able as he to devise new solutions, she perfectly understood the problem. That in itself makes her a significant writer. The Autobiography has been described as a retreat from her experimental style but it was no more a retreat for her than Orlando was a compromise for Woolf. Both writers identified and exploited the weak-mindedness of labels. The Autobiography is not Gertrude ghosting Alice, it is Gertrude refusing to accept that real people need to be treated really. She included herself. Gertrude Stein made all of the people around her into characters in her own fiction. I think that a splendid blow to verismo and one which simultaneously questions identity, the nature of truth and the purpose of art. Had anyone said to Matisse ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘Your painting is not a proper record of that house/fruit bowl/guitar’, Matisse would have laughed in his face. Why then is Matisse complaining that Gertrude has not made a proper record of him?

It was not necessary to agree with the focus of any of Stein’s work, or to like it, to know that she was a committed experimenter and that to her, nothing was sacred except the word. Stein never pretended that Toklas had written the book, and even though Stein is named on the jacket as the author, the last paragraph is still one of the wickedest most delightful paragraphs in English literature:

About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do? I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.

How could she? The cheek of it. It is an explosion of eighteenth-century wit and Modernist sensibility. The world turned upside down. Poor Matisse. Made into a fiction and determined to behave like a fact. What would he have said if Stein had rejected the portrait painted of her by Picasso when Picasso blanked out her head?

By refusing to recognize Gertrude Stein’s literary adventure her accusers were forced into writs of authenticity. A fact is a fact is a fact. Or is it? Stein was not writing a faithful account of her Paris years, she was vandalizing a cliche of literature. Autobiography? Yes, like Robinson Crusoe. Why not daub with bright green paint the smug low wall of assumption?

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Animals (2015)


It’s hard to make a drug-addict story feel new (partially because all drug addicts end up being relatively the same). But Animals is a confident first feature. Gorgeous Chicago cinematography.

My review of Animals is up at

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The Film Critic (2015)


Making fun of gloomy film critics is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I enjoyed The Film Critic, written/directed by an Argentinian film critic. It’s insular humor, directed at the sub-culture of film critics, so I’m not sure how broad the appeal would be. I thought it was funny, overall.

My review of The Film Critic is now up at

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Grounded, by George Brant, at The Public


Grounded, by playwright George Brant, tells the story of a cocky Air Force pilot, grounded initially because she got pregnant, and then transferred to what she calls “the chairforce,” pilots who sit in trailers on bases thousands of miles away from the war operating drones. George Brant is an old friend of mine, we were in a theatre company back in Chicago together, and appeared in many shows together. Grounded started out small and has been growing in momentum over the last year, with productions all over the place. Finally, the major news hit that Julie Taymor would be directing a production of it at The Public, and Anne Hathaway had signed on to star. Incredible news that spread like wildfire through George’s group of friends.

And so now, Grounded has arrived. A group of us (many of whom I have not seen in over 20 years) gathered on Tuesday night for dinner and the show. George was with us. Derek and Emily, Jackie, Lynn, Bridget and Simon, Jim … We are all connected. Jim and I went to college together, and eventually he moved to Chicago, working in the same theatre company as we all did (although this was after I had left for New York). Derek started the theatre company (and recently directed a production of Grounded). Mitchell got involved with the group. I got involved. I met George and Bridget, I saw Lynn in a production of The Public before I got involved (and, coincidentally, that production starred Alexandra Billings, who – years later – would become one of my dearest friends). There were many absent whom we missed: Mitchell and Kate and Stephen and Joe and Martha and many other names, we threw the names around the table, we reminisced, we roared with laughter, we were all so emotional that we made about 5 toasts in a period of 10 minutes. We couldn’t stop. To George! To Julie Taymor and Anne Hathaway! To Grounded!


Grounded is a one-woman show, and it plays without intermission. That is a hell of a lot of dialogue, a hell of a lot of time alone onstage … a tour de force role for an actress, and Anne Hathaway was absolutely incredible in the production I saw on Tuesday night. I had bought tickets and was in the back row (but there really isn’t a bad seat in that house), and I guess someone must have not shown up because an usher came over to me saying there was a seat in the front row, would I like to take it? Yes, I would like to take it. The front row was basically on the stage-level (there are seats on three sides of the stage), so I was, at times, only a foot away from Hathaway. You can’t lie when you’re that close to an audience. And she was in it. It was a thrill to be that close, to really watch her work, and create, and segue. There’s an operatic quality to the journey the character goes on, from tough-talking enthusiastic pilot to struggling dissociated depressive to something even more disturbing at the very end. And Hathaway created it like an unstoppable flow. One thing flowed to the next, there was no herky-jerky transitional periods. You felt – you actually felt – this woman disintegrate. And it was a huge loss because those opening sequences … you fell in love with her, her humor and spirit and bravery, her honesty. You can’t fake a disintegration like that. You have to actually go through it, and Hathaway did.


The stage is covered in beautiful waves of sand, a light layer, and Taymor has surrounded the character with a really incredible production, with lights and lasers and video screens … all appropriate to the text, nothing added that didn’t feel necessary. It plunged us into her world, the world of monitors and screens and blips and beeps … living her life staring at a screen. Some of the effects created were truly haunting, especially because on the back wall of the stage was a large tilted mirror, so that everyone going on below was reflected on that back wall. It added to the depersonalization going on in the story, the character split off from her instincts, her self … another ghostly self floating around behind her.

Hathaway has a girlishness and a femininity that has helped make her career, and so it was thrilling to watch her expand her skills to play the trash-talking AC/DC-loving tomboy pilot, whose entire life (and passion and purpose for being) is altered by being grounded. The play begins with her monologue about what she calls “the blue,” her experience piloting fighter jets through the enormous expanse of sky, the rush, the endlessness, the sense of space and speed and possibility. George’s writing is rhapsodic and intense. Poetic and emotional, but always connected. This is a character. A character completely and gloriously and joyously identified with her job, as you have to be with such professions. She’s part of an elite group. Whenever she comes home on leave, she can’t wait to get back to “the blue.” Her spirit is always yearning to be back up there where she belongs. She describes her life as a pilot, beers and pool with the other guys after missions, she’s proud of being one of the guys. Her life suits her. She knows who she is.

All of that changes after she unexpectedly gets pregnant after what seems to be (at first) a one-night stand. With a civilian, no less! She is “grounded.” And the one-night-stand, a guy named Eric, turns out to be a stand-up guy, a good guy, who proposes marriage and wants to start a life with her. Now here’s the deal. There is no Eric. He does not appear onstage, ever, because the whole thing is told to us by Hathaway. But my God did he appear! I SAW him up there, Hathaway’s vivid personalization of who that character was, and how that relationship operated, was so successful, so present. Afterwards, standing in the lobby, I found myself saying, “I love Eric” and everyone laughed and nodded, and we all talked about Eric for a little bit, and how he really was doing his best in a very tough situation (what do you do when your can-do tough wife totally falls apart?).

Hathaway brought it all to life. The romance with Eric. Her feelings about her baby. She is determined that her baby girl will not be a “hair-tosser”, as she calls them (in other words, a girlie-girl). She is going to do something with her life. She is maybe going to be a pilot too. It is her daughter’s inheritance – “the blue” could belong to her as well. But things don’t work out as planned, and the baby girl is drawn instead to pink pretty ponies … and our poor heroine has to suck it up and get into the ponies too. The script is full of wonderful details like that, humorous and human.


The issue of drones, and how they are used to fight wars, starts to rise in the story once she is grounded and learns that no, she will not be going “back to war,” she will be fighting the war from the ground. After a training period, she starts her new job, driving to work and then coming home every night. A total transition for a person used to deployments. She misses the camaraderie. She misses the feeling of purpose. She misses using her skills. It feels totally weird to drive to work and come home at night. That’s not who she is, that’s not how she understands her purpose in life. But most of all, she misses the feeling of danger. Danger is actually a part of war, the threat of death is real, and pushing a button from thousands of miles away removes the danger factor (for her anyway), and she can’t get her mind around it. She still gets the adrenaline white-knuckle rush, and has to keep reminding herself that there is no threat, she’s safe. But she is not safe.

Things begin to spiral down. The final 20/25 minutes of the play are harrowing. Because the war is seen through the eyes of one narrator, a narrator we have come to know and love, we follow her wherever she goes. And as she falls apart, a feeling of helplessness comes over the audience. It is a disintegration that seemingly cannot be stopped. Counseling can’t touch it. Eric’s support can’t touch it. Her daughter’s sweetness can’t touch it. The reality of what she is doing, with the drones, begins to crack her apart.

Grounded makes its points without lecturing. Its strength lies in the fact that we see a controversial political issue through the eyes of a military insider. She’s a warrior. She’s patriotic. She’s hard-working and incredibly competitive and smart. It may confront some people’s uninformed opinions about such people. It is right that it should do so. Grounded humanizes a very complex issue.

There’s a moment when Eric, trying to cheer his wife up, trying to remind her of who she is, of “the blue” that she loves so much, makes her a mix CD to listen to on the way home from the drone base. Taymor has chosen a bunch of songs to make up that mix tape – hard heavy metal thrashing, AC/DC and others – but each song felt personal, the way a mix tape would, each song is chosen for her – as a pep talk from Eric. That music becomes Love personified. And Anne Hathaway, listening to each song, would launch herself into rhapsodies of dancing, arm-pumping, every single gesture, every single moment, an expression of her love and gratitude for her husband for knowing her so well, for getting her so deeply. The mix tape ended with Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (such a perfect choice!), and the explosion of emotion – up on that stage, and out in the audience – was palpable. Palpable to the point that I thought my heart would burst.


Grounded runs at The Public until May 24. You can buy tickets here. But keep your eyes peeled for a production of it in your area. The show has launched in a very real way. It’s going to be done everywhere, I reckon.

Congratulations, George. Your success is so well-deserved.

Posted in Theatre | Tagged | 9 Comments

R.I.P. B.B. King

Two “King”s. Backstage at Ellis Auditorium, Memphis.

Legendary bluesman B.B. King has died at the age of 89. A long life and a six-decade career. He toured constantly, almost up until the very end. The news had come that his family had called in hospice a couple of weeks ago, so things did not look good.

There are so many amazing performances (as well as fruitful collaborations with other artists. I love his collaboration with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

B.B. King was interviewed for the PBS oral histories “American Roots Music,” and it’s a goldmine of great stuff. He was asked about Bo Diddley and Elvis and Little Richard and what that meant for him and other blues musicians. His response is eloquent.

I never thought of it that way because, see, Little Richard played some blues; Elvis — believe it or not — played some blues; all of these guys. And I wondered why they called them rock and roll. The only reason I could see was because they were white. I couldn’t see any other reason why they were rock ‘n roll, ’cause a lot of the black guys was doing the same thing they were doing. So the only difference was sort of like the records when we first started making records. They would have “race records,” you know, if the dude was black. That’s a black one right there. If it’s pop, that’s a white one right there, and that was the difference. But when rock ‘n roll started, in my opinion – I said in my opinion – Little Richard had been doing some of the same things I heard the Rolling Stones doing. Fats Domino had been out – his way, his style – but he was doing the same changes and progressions that these guys were doing. The only difference I saw was white and black. I don’t know if it was done because of prejudice. I didn’t think of it that way, but I thought of it “Okay, that’s a white guy there; he’s rock ‘n roll. That’s a black guy over there; he’s playing the blues.” ‘Cause they hadn’t, for some reason, thought of soul at the time. These guys obviously didn’t have any soul. They called guys like me rhythm and blues, so somewhere along the line I guess I lost my rhythm! [And I] wind up here – just the blues, you know. To answer your question, I didn’t think anything other than we had more [people] on the scene. The more, the merrier – especially when you started having the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many guys like that. Would you believe that the Beatles helped open a lot of doors for blues players like myself?

Here’s one of my favorite live clips. Watch how he builds it. And listen to that guitar. One of the most eloquent guitars ever.

What will we do without B.B. King??

Rest in peace, sir!

Posted in Music, RIP | 6 Comments

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode T-Minus, Open Thread


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The Books: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery; ‘Writer, Reader, Words,’ by Jeanette Winterson


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, a collection of essays about art by Jeanette Winterson.

In Jeanette Winterson’s incredible memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she describes her first time walking into a bookstore that had five floors. It overwhelmed her. She comes from working-class Manchester, and it was not expected of people from her class (or of her gender, really, let alone her sexual orientation) to get truly educated. A little reading and ‘rithmetic maybe, then technical school, or jobs in the mines/factories. Education was seen as a middle/upper-class thing. But Winterson did get educated (Oxford), where she was often a fish out of water. Her approach to literature is immediate and urgent. She did not grow up with middle-class assumptions like, Oh, yes, T.S. Eliot is important. Oh, yes, Virginia Woolf, too. Where do you want to go for lunch? She came to these writers fresh, raw, and they both (among many others) helped re-arrange her molecules. She is not “over” anything. Winterson is damn proud of her working-class background, and also proud of her education. That pride has been mistaken for arrogance. But I’ll let Winterson tell it. This is an excerpt from the memoir:

I had never seen a shop with five floors of books. I felt dizzy, like too much oxygen all at once. And I thought about women. All these books, and how long had it taken for women to be able to write their share, and why were there still so few women poets and novelists, and even fewer who were considered to be important?

I was so excited, so hopeful, and I was troubled too, by what had been said to me. As a woman would I be an onlooker and not a contributor? Could I study what I could never hope to achieve? Achieve it or not, I had to try.

And later, when I was successful, but accused of arrogance, I wanted to drag every journalist who misunderstood to this place, and make them see that for a woman, a working-class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics.

In this essay, included in the collection Art Objects, Winterson talks about the relationship between writer and reader. Winterson has had both a passionate and a prickly relationship with her fans. They will follow her anywhere. They also want to limit her. This is part of hitting it huge when you are young, I suppose. People want you to just keep repeating yourself. I basically will follow her wherever she goes, through whatever phase (and I’ve not been a fan of everything she’s done), but I want her to please herself. That’s always the most interesting/useful thing an artist can do.

Winterson is a lesbian, although she doesn’t use that word, she refers to herself as a “pervert” (which gives you some idea of her contrarian standpoint) . She has a huge queer following who also seem to want to limit her. Or, perhaps, they are just limited thinkers themselves. Who knows. Winterson doesn’t say what she’s supposed to say or how she’s supposed to say it (and language is so so strict now. I’m glad she hasn’t caved.) She also talks a lot about “autobiography” in this collection – or at least the relatively modern concept that a writer IS his or her work. Biography is more important than art. Winterson can’t stand this attitude, because then the writer becomes a symbol, a public figure, a role model, whatever.

This essay’s focus is much broader than her own personal experience. She brings to bear all her knowledge about the Romantics, the Victorians, the Moderns … how these gigantic movements flowed into one another, reacted against one another, changed the boundaries between writer and reader, and then changed back. The process continues.

I particularly enjoy in the excerpt below her observations on how the Victorian reaction against the Romantics impacted men much more than it impacted women. Women were wrapped in their “Other-Ness” which was limiting but it also protected them. The Victorian era required men to button it up, enough with all that emotion flying about, it isn’t manly, it isn’t done.

Excerpt from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery: ‘Writer, Reader, Words’, by Jeanette Winterson

It was the Victorians who introduced an entirely new criterion into their study of the arts; to what extent does the work correspond to actual life? This revolution in taste should not be underestimated and although it began to stir itself before Victoria acceded the throne in 1837, Realism (not the Greek theory of Mimesis) is an idea that belongs with her as su rely as the fantasy of Empire. To fix the date is difficult but I do not think it far fetched to say that the gap between the death of the last Romantic (Byron) in 1824 and the heyday of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, is the gap where Realism, as we understand it, was birthed and matured.

It is instructive to look at how dress codes alter between, say, 1825 and 1845. The eighteenth-century dandy is out, the sober Victorian so beloved of costume drama, is in. No more embroidered waistcoats, lurid colors, topiary wigs, dashing cravats, pan-stick faces and ridiculous buckles and heels. For men, the change is immense and as men are stripped of all their finery, women are loaded down with theirs. There is a marked polarization of the sexes, and whereas Byron could cheerfully wear jewels and make-up without compromising his masculinity any man who tried to do throughout the sixty glorious years might pay for his display with his liberty. The new foppishness of Oscar Wilde and the Decadents in the 1890s was as much a strike back into what had been allowed to men, as a move forward into what might be. As the eighteenth century disappeared (and centuries take a while to disappear) it took with it, play, pose and experiment. And I am not only thinking about dress. Can anyone imagine Tristram Shandy as a nineteenth-century novel?

The reaction against Romanticism was a very serious one, and if the Romantics were emotional, introspective, visionary and very conscious of themselves as artists, then the move against them and their work was bound to be in opposition; to be rational, extrovert, didactic, the writer as social worker or sage. The novels of the 1860s, the novel form we still assume to be the perfect, perhaps even the only model, were at that time a strange hybrid of the loose epic poem and the pamphlet. It was not the inheritor of the play, pose and experiment of Smollett and Sterne. The dreary list of Braddon, Elephant, Trollope, Wood, need not bother us here, although I think that the eagerness with which the sentimental and the sensational was mopped up by novel readers, was in itself a backlash against the intensity demanded by the Romantic vision. Even Byron at his most rollicking and least controlled is an intense poet. Intensity was not a Victorian virtue. Or was it?

It was women poets who benefited from the collapse of the Romantic sensibility. Whilst the male poet suddenly found himself at odds with his poetic tradition, he should not be dreamy, contemplative, a little mystical, a little delicate, a woman had no such struggle. If the sensibility of the Romantics looked “unmasculine” to a fast developing action culture, it could certainly be feminine. We think about women novelists as being a nineteenth-century product but the rise and the popularity of the woman poet is just as extraordinary. The woman poet, unlike the majority of the woman novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would redirect material energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet. The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman. I do not want to suggest that women writers, and in particular women poets, found themselves in a blessed century, but I do think that the perceived alliance between the qualities peculiar to poetry and the qualities peculiar to women gave women a freedom to work their own form within the authority of tradition. It was this freedom, I think, which cleared the ground for the significant contribution of women to Modernism. Like Romanticism, Modernism was a poet’s revolution, the virtues of a poetic sensibility are uppermost (imagination, invention, density of language, wit, intensity, great delicacy) and what returns is play, pose and experiment. What departs is Realism.

That should be unsurprising. Realism is not a Movement or a Revolution, in its original incarnation it was a response to a movement, and as a response it was essentially anti-art. The mainspring of tension in the best Victorian writers is not religious or sexual, it is between the dead weight of an exaggeratedly masculine culture valuing experience over imagination and action above contemplation and the strange authority of the English poetic tradition. Who should the poet serve? Society or the Muse? This was a brand new question and not a happy one.

If the woman poet could avoid it, the male poet and the prose writers of either sex could not. Of the great writers, Emily Bronte chose well. Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot continually equivocate and the equivocation helps to explain the uneven power of their work. Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

The Victorian denial of art as art (separate, Other, self-contained) was unsustainable, and like many a Victorian neurosis began to collapse under its own image. That art should not be art but a version of everyday life was absurd and men like Wilde, Swinburne and Yeats were proving it. The Muse was fighting back, cross-dressed as a pretty young man or dressed in robes of Celtic Twilight. It began to look as though dowdy Realism was dead.

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