This weekend Jeanette Winterson posted a picture of a collection of her books with new cover designs & blurbs smouldering away on a pile of burning refuse. The reaction on social media was huge. My twitter time line was full of people outraged by the caption that accompanied it. The term “wimmins fiction” was triggering. “What’s wrong with being women’s fiction?” seemed to the question buzzing round the internet. That and how the symbolism of burning books has lent itself in history to acts of censorship and is seen as an overwhelmingly fascist act.
The truth is, as an artistic act, I kinda liked it. It gave me a thrill to see someone rebel against what we expect of book marketing and promotion these days. It’s all become so bloody nice hasn’t it?
I’m sick of the beautiful creamy beige, neutral Instagram friendly pictures of lovely new books with their lovely shiny covers. I understand the time we have gone through has been hard going, I know that especially well with the loss of family members and the toll it has taken on my mental health but am I wrong to think that the time for being comfortable is over.
When I first read Oranges are the not the only Fruit I was 16 and it was an act of defiance. I was taking a step away from my peer group. It wasn’t what anyone I knew was reading. Reading it felt like my private, personal moment of coming out to myself. I was having the courage to not follow the heterosexual pathway that every other girl around me was doing and it felt exhilarating.
When I saw that photo this weekend it was like all those feelings came rushing back. There is this feeling now that our message and our objections, especially for those who support more left wing causes, there’s a feeling that our statements have to be quiet, measured and diplomatic. Too often when we make a statement that is intended to grab an audience’s attention, women are told they are too hysterical, black women and others from ethnic minorities are told they are too angry and LGBTQ+ activists are told they are being too visible. As activists we are told we should stand up for rights in a consumer friendly way. Why do we have to be so loud about how “trans rights are human rights”? Why can’t we all go away and grumble about our problems in private? Why? Because we deserve to be heard!
So when I see someone like Jeanette Winterson do something like this, to make a statement about a book trend that isn’t calmly put to me by a blancmange like public figure in a cosy little jumper on a beautifully lit set filled with beautiful rainbow arranged books on Ikea shelves…
…It is absolutely refreshing.
I’ve always been inclined to like people who don’t “do as the romans do” as it were. It’s the LGBTQ+ way of surviving. It has been 40 years since the first reports of the AIDs crisis started to be reported in America. Did ACT UP respond by waiting their turn to speak? NO. Did the events at Stonewall happen over tea and biscuits? No. Did Peter Tatchell ever stop shouting for justice? No.
The book cover thing isn’t on the same scale and I enjoy a bit of cosy book stuff as much as any other bibliophile. I like some women’s fiction too. I don’t think this is exactly about that. To me what Jeanette Winterson seems to be saying is “stop with the literary gentrification of Queer authors” but that’s just my interpretation and I could be wrong. The truth is I can’t help but ask myself if she had made the statement in calm words in a measured way on a stage at some literary festival or in a column in The Observer, would everyone still be this outraged?
What are your thoughts?