Saturday, January 31, 2009

Not Really About Sexing the Cherry

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 other posts on this 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.


Danielle said...

I think the things you liked the least about the book are the things I liked the best, but for me after taking out all the ideas she was trying to convey--that's maybe all that was left. I think if I had studied this in grad school and it was the trendy thing to like this type of writing it actually might be a little grating after a while. And I totally understand not liking a book that others seem to love! It's an ambitious little novel and I can see where it might be just a little too over the top.

SFP said...

I liked the misunderstanding between Jordan and the Dog Woman, too.

And the Twelve Dancing Princesses reminded me of the readings for the women's studies classes at the university--every time I have to scan articles of women's studies I think that if I had to take one of those classes I'd probably slit my wrists--or someone's throat. ;)

It's just all too much to bear.

Dorothy W. said...

Danielle -- yes, I'm definitely responding to the trendiness, as least as I felt it in grad school (this probably isn't trendy among general readers!), and it did get grating. Too bad -- I wonder how I would have responded if I hadn't read her in grad school. I probably wouldn't have loved it, but wouldn't feel as strongly as I do now.

SFP -- I think the relationship between those two characters is at the heart of the book, and maybe if we had gotten more of that, I would have liked it better. I never did take a women's studies class; I think it's probably done very well by some profs, but I can see it going wrong with some others :)

stefanie said...

You don't like potatoes??? ;)

The Dancing Princess part was my least favorite part of the book. I had a hard time fitting it into the point of the story other than it eventually leading Jordan to Fortunata.

Everyone has an author or two that everybody else seems to think is brilliant but personally just can't enjoy. That's ok. It would be really boring if everyone agreed about everything!

litlove said...

I second Stefanie's comment. I could write it out again, but she said it so well! :)

Dorothy W. said...

Stefanie -- I know, not liking potatoes is pretty unusual, but I really don't. It's kind of a pain sometimes, because they are such a good food. And yeah, you are right that sometimes an author, no matter how famous or talented, just doesn't work for a person. That's definitely going on here.

Litlove -- exactly -- ditto! :)