I spent my thirtieth birthday with Jeanette Winterson.
She didn’t know it was my thirtieth birthday. I mean– I think she was told it was somebody’s birthday, because she showed up that day with champagne, and a cake from Boulangerie Eric Kayser magically appeared. I was on the inaugural Faber Writer’s Workshop at Shakespeare & Co; in the morning, we worked with Tobias Hill; in the afternoon, Jeanette came in and dazzled pixie dust on us. The workshop happened to coincide with my birthday, and so we celebrated, that October evening, out on the patio in front of the bookstore, across the river from Notre Dame, which obliged us with an hourly carillon of bells to mark the passing time.
Something Jeanette said to us that day stuck with me.
She said she doesn’t much care for literary critics, or academics. Only those who have accomplished a serious work of art, does she trust. Critics, she has written, “ plant more obstacles than they remove” (Art Objects, 191).
So when Scott Esposito, the editor of The Quarterly Conversation, asked me to write an essay on Winterson, I balked. I hemmed, hawed, missed deadlines, etc. I was terrified. Not that she would read it– god no. No risk of that. But I was still afraid that somehow she would know, when next I saw her, that I had written about her and that she would not approve if she happened to read what I wrote. (Classic anxiety of influence: the writer may correct her foremothers but she also craves their approval.)
She said something else that day that stayed with me: “You have to turn up for work.” You can’t wait around to be visited by the Muse– you have to show up for work whether the Muse is there or not.
Winterson shows up for work and she creates new worlds.
The literary critic shows up for work and mediates those worlds.
You want to look at it up close, to appreciate each delicate meeting of gears: the balance wheel, the pivot, the click. You want to tell what you saw. You’re not studying it to learn how to make a watch. You’re not a watchmaker. The point is to be able to point to that watch and say– look what a wonderful watch that is. It is of a quality you don’t find every day. You ought to try it on.
Winterson’s work seems absolutely to beg for a literary critic to come along and work on it, and maybe that’s why she’s so mistrustful of us. She doesn't think of literature as something that should be taken apart. It would be like unweaving a tapestry: “The fabric of a book is more than its material; it is the weave of the words” (AO 174):
It is redundant to try to analyze a poem, or a piece of fiction that undertakes poetic principles, by separating out the parts, meaning on one side, words on the other. When a thing is perfectly made it has no fastenings or seams. It will not come apart in your hands. What you do manage to pull to pieces is a construct of your own. (AO 171)
Exactly. What a challenge. Watches or tapestries?
If I may, the work may look like a tapestry to its writer, but a critic knows it’s a watch. And with all due respect, I want to take hers apart. I put it off long enough, and now here I am. Turning up for work.
You can read what I came up with here.