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More art and Less Objection Please
on 25 August 2011
In this collection, Winterson declares herself a neo-modernist, with a commitment to experiment, a disdain for realism and a set of ringing certainties about art and the role of the artist. She can find little to cheer her in English lit between the publication of TS Eliot's Four Quartets (1944) and Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (1967).
And postmodern concerns - about the assumed integrity of language, for example, or the roles of reader and author in the production of meaning - are haughtily dismissed as an affront.
Rightly scathing about the excesses of literary biography, the tendency, for example, to consider Virginia Woolf as a 'would-be mother or a would-be lesbian or a would-be well adjusted nobody if only she had not been sexually abused', Winterson insists that 'the intersection between a writer's life and a writer's work is [always] irrelevant' and rejects any questioning of the impersonal, objective artist.
This is curiously undercut by the many glimpses she offers of her own life. Her parents owned 'six books between them', and she had to smuggle books into the house and do her reading in the toilet where they 'kept a rubber torch hung on the cistern'. She had to divide her pocket money between buying books and buying batteries because her mother 'knew exactly how long her Ever Readys would last'. Does this not shed light (sorry!) on her belief in art as a 'source of strength and a place of worship'. Does the fact that she was made to memorise very long Bible passages not illuminate (really sorry!) her language choices and uses?
Is this question, in short, not more nuanced than she allows?
Many of these essays ring with declarative statements. Art is transcendence; it is play, pose and experiment; its job is Ezra Pound's dictum: to make it new; she has not 'discovered a more energetic space'. All these ideas she has explored more eloquently and convincingly in story.
This is the fundamental disappointment of this collection - that it displays so little of the innovation and linguistic brilliance that characterise her fiction. That and the haranguing tone with which she berates those who expect plot in a novel, those who read her as a lesbian writer, those who prefer 'media moronicness' to the effort of literature. It is not just art that objects in this volume but the author.
Who is she addressing, I wondered. Her readers well know that 'there is such a thing as art and that it is not interchangeable with the word "entertainment".' And surely anyone reading a collection like this does not need to be told that 'art is not a little bit of evolution that late 20th century city dwellers can safely do without'.
Art Objects left this reader longing for less objection and more of the artistry for which I value this great writer.