The Books: “Art & Lies” (Jeanette Winterson)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Art & Lies, by Jeanette Winterson

This is where Winterson started losing me. It was only in the last couple of years that I felt her return to form. I do not mind experimentation but Art & Lies feels less like experimentation and more like masturbation, or some sort of overly long burlesque show featuring a not-very-good dancer. I am only guessing here but Winterson burst onto the literary world like a meteor – she was greeted with accolades the likes of which one can only dream of … Her reviews, her press, for those first couple of books, were amazing – and well-deserved. She became a star. It feels to me, especially in Art & lies that Winterson lost her way a little bit with the whole fame thing. I think she felt she could do whatever she wanted – she could “riff” on something, and it would be applauded because isn’t that what already happened? Art & Lies is an extended boring riff – and at some point, very early on, I lost interest completely and I only finished it because it was Winterson who wrote it, and I’m weird that way. If you hook me in once, I’m more likely to give you a couple of chances. If Art & Lies had been the first thing I’d read by Jeanette Winterson, I would never have gone on to read another one of her books. It’s that tiresome. The thing is: there is some good writing in there; of course there is, it’s by Winterson. It just becomes irrelevant in terms of the actual book. You don’t know what the hell she is doing in Art & lies, but it felt like showing off, to me. It felt like a big blowhard taking up an entire conversation at a dinner party, dominating, and not letting anyone else speak. And it’s just not good enough. I have no problem with sometimes baffling books written by egomaniacs. Obviously I don’t. But you had better have a point – you better not JUST want to hear the sound of your own voice … because otherwise it’s just a bore. Art & Lies ends up feeling like a huge wash, a blurred-out painting, nothing distinct stands out. Perhaps Winterson felt that she was riffing – like a jazz musician – or like Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading … sounds following sounds, meanings inverted, an extended riff … But riffs must be somehow grounded in the original theme. You need something to riff off OF, in other words. There is the theme, the melody, whatever – and the musician veers off into a riff … but that’s my point. I felt that Winterson had nothing to veer off FROM here. It was just a riff, a writing exercise. It flat out doesn’t work.

Not to mention the fact that it’s confusing – and not in a good way. There are three main characters. Their names are Handel, Sappho and Picasso. Handel is a surgeon. Picasso is a painter – only it’s a woman. And Sappho appears to be Sappho. There’s a long train ride. They are three separate narrators – but to be honest, it’s all the same voice. It ends up having a deadening effect on me, the reader. I don’t know why Handel is named Handel, I don’t know why Picasso is a woman, I don’t know what the hell is going on!!

Art & Lies got terrible reviews. I think a lot of the anger I sense in the reviews had to do with feeling disappointment because her first books had been so promising. Now … any writer who has had success will have to deal with that. You cannot please everybody. You need to write to please YOU and hope that it will find readers. However: Art & Lies didn’t please ANYone. I know that Winterson stands by her book. Of course she does. She wrote it. But it was a huge bore to me, almost an affront to have to keep reading it … I was mad. I got over it, of course. But I was like: where’s the STORY. What are you DOING.

Oh, and here’s another thing. Maybe she was going for something Joycean here – because he is KING of the “riff”.

But Art & Lies is actually not hard enough to be considered Joycean. The things revealed, the thoughts, the ruminations – are all pretty run of the mill. It is nothing new. And they are expressed in a banal way. Winterson? Banal?? How on earth did that happen? If you want to write a big difficult book – in a Joycean manner – you had better have your shit together. And you had better be so OCD that you yourself can tolerate all the graphing and codes and stuff that you have to make sense of in order to write your own book. Ulysses is hard. That’s as it should be. It is appropriate for what Joyce was going for. He didn’t have to write things that were so hard – look at the stories in Dubliners which are all straight-forward narrative, impossible to misunderstand. So the content dictated the form. And Joyce’s thoughts on language got more complex as he got older and that needed to be reflected in his writing. Winterson is riffing on NOTHING here … and her “riffs” on language feel amateurish when compared to other “riffers”. It is not successful. She really went off the rails here.

It would be years before she wrote another book that thrilled me the way her early books did. Years. Art & LIes was the start of something, a downturn – the reviews she got were so bad, that it is my sense that she did retreat a bit. To regroup, whatever. Her next couple of books were not the big mess that Art & Lies is – but they go over completely familiar territory: gender-bending narrator falls in love with married woman. It began to feel less like creation and more like biography – or, as I said earlier, masturbation. I think getting the kind of press she got for Oranges (excerpt here) and The Passion (excerpt here) can definitely turn your head. Many writers have fallen into that trap, and come out with some gasbag horror in the wake of their earlier successes. I am not interested in Winterson for her extended riffs (and I know I am in the minority on that) – I like Winterson for her Swiftian evocation of other weird worlds, worlds that work logically, and do not come across too much as metaphors. I like the fairy tales. I like her freedom with form. But in Art & Lies all of the things that are GOOD about her writing are taken to excess, expanded, stretched out – so that it loses all substance altogether.

Obviously Art & LIes was published because it was Winterson writing it. It would never have been published if she was untried or unknown. I would love to know the conversations at the publisher’s house, as they tried to make sense of her manuscript. I wonder what fights went down. I’d be very curious to know.

Here’s an excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Art & Lies, by Jeanette Winterson

This is the nature of our sex: She takes a word, straps it on, penetrates me hard. The word inside me, I become it. The word slots my belly, my belly swells the word. New meanings expand from my thighs. Together we have sacked the dictionary for a lexigraphic fuck. We prefer to ignore those smooth, romantic words, and dig instead for a roue’s pleasure. The mature word, ripe, through centuries of change, the word deep-layered with associative delights. The more the word has been handled, the better we like it. For me, the perverted challenge of re-virgining the whore. Aren’t we a couple? Two successive lines of verse that rhyme with each other? Press your eye to the keyhole and you can see us, one on one, swiving at the perfect match of dactyl and spondee. The coupling-box where we must make ends meet. My well-coupled filly, me, her rider in mid-air.

See me. See me now. I’m not a r(R)omantic, I’m a true C(c)lassical. I don’t believe in love at first sight. I’m not falling for you, but one step forward, and you might fall for me.

What things fall?

Once, an angel, leaping out of heaven to find new worlds, his hands snagged on a zigzag of stars. Lucifer, whose cuts bled light …


The thunderbolt, Zeus-hurled, through the timid clouds, the comet’s head, nuclear discus gold-thrown.

The Dead, down to Tartarus, black poplars by a black stream. The black shaft smooth-sided and the jag-toothed dog.

Icarus, the flying boy, his body sun-glazed. His sun-glazed body that shattered the glassy sea.

Autumn. Long leaves of bright undress.

Hermes. Star-spurred.

Fall for me, as an apple falls, as rain falls, because you must. Use gravity to anchor your desire.

She fell like a choirboy on a stave of lust. Head back, throat bare, breaking body, breaking voice in an ecstasy of praise. Praise out of the mouth and out of her thighs, aesthetic and ecstatic in a garment of flame.

Pull the shirt over your head, drop it, drop it into my arms, lovers have no need of time. Aphrodite murders Cronos. Drop through the long cylinder of our hours. Ours this time not Time’s. Here, there, nowhere, carrying white roses never red.

There was no colour in the sky when she walked along the beach.

The white shells sea-glazed shone. She put one to her ear and heard the strange moaning of the sea. She looked out to where the light skimmed the water. The light that balanced on the narrow crests of the waves. The light that tumbled in the water’s concaves.

The light whipped up the dull foam and threw it in petals over her feet, her feet glassed in by the shallow water.

The water, dashing the past at her feet, the water dragging her future behind, the hiss and pull of the waves.

Driftwood on the sands. She picked up a wedge, too light for its size, its substance beaten away. It was only the past, a hollow thing in her hand, only the past, but a shape and a smell that she recognised. The comfortable old form its uses dead.

Clouds in the sky. She wanted a view but the clouds were pretty. Vague, pink, well known. Weren’t driftwood and clouds enough? Memories, and what she still had, enough? Why risk what was certain for what was hid? The future could be just as yesterday, she could tame the future by ignoring it, by letting it become the past.

She began to run. She ran out of the day that coiled round her with temperate good sense. She ran to where the sun was just beginning the sky. A thin rung of sun within reach. She leapt and grabbed the ladder bar with both hands and swung herself up into the warm yellow light.

The train was crowded. Is that Sappho, both hands hanging off a neon bar?

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1 Response to The Books: “Art & Lies” (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. The Books: “Tanglewreck” (Jeanette Winterson)

    Actually, this book is a book for kids – but in the interest of keeping an “author together” – I have shelved it with Winterson’s adult books. So: Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt:…

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