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Books by Jeanette Winterson are visible in a bonfire
Jeanette Winterson says she was “incandescent” when she burned her own books (Photo: Twitter)

OPINIONBooksJune 8, 2021

Notes on a book burning – and a defence of readers of ‘wimmin’s fiction’

Books by Jeanette Winterson are visible in a bonfire
Jeanette Winterson says she was “incandescent” when she burned her own books (Photo: Twitter)

The latest bonfire on the literary scene speaks volumes about the way we categorise books – and readers, argues bestselling wimmin writer Catherine Robertson.

On Friday, the English writer Jeanette Winterson set fire to a bunch of new editions of her books because she “hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on them” that contained “nothing playful or strange or the ahead of time stuff that’s in there”. She tweeted about it, and told the Guardian she gave most of the offending books to charity, but needed the symbolism of the burning as she was “incandescent at the time”.

She said: “The Passion was both a way of reimagining the historical novel and it had a cross dressed narrator. Written on the Body had a non-binary narrator. The Powerbook was an early virtual and blended reality experience, that bent time as well as gender. The blurbs had none of this and turned the books into the tame and the obvious.”

I can sympathise with her frustration that her covers don’t appear to do justice to the book inside. This issue is not unique to Winterson. Covers are a marketing decision made by the publisher: what readers do we think this book will appeal to? What cues do we want to send them though images and typefaces, so that they know this is their kind of book? Authors can write their own blurbs – I have. But they rarely get a say in what the cover looks like. I once sent my publisher images I believed would be great. My request was denied. 

But my sympathy ran out when Winterson also complained, in her tweet, that the blurbs turned her into “wimmins fiction of the worst kind!” Those six words contain a shed-load to unpack, but I’ll give it a go because I’m pissed off.

First up, I’m going to assume you’re not clear on what “wimmins” fiction actually is. Very briefly, all fiction is classified as either commercial or literary. Commercial fiction is written primarily to entertain rather than to create high art, more focused on story than style. Within commercial fiction there are genres – sub-classifications like crime or science fiction. Women’s fiction is a genre, and whoever came up with it was clearly tired of making distinctions because the range of it is enormous. Doesn’t matter if a book is serious or funny, historical or contemporary, town or country. If it’s written by a woman, the main characters are women and it talks about women shit then it’s women’s fiction. 

What women’s fiction books do have in common, it seems, is that Jeanette Winterson hates them. She thinks they’re bad and that some of them are “the worst”. Winterson told the Guardian that a friend had said the new blurbs made her sound like Mills and Boon. Guess we know how to define “worst”. I don’t know how Winterson categorises her books – literary fiction with a touch of the “strange”, most probably. But it’s obvious how she views them: a cut way, way above the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad women’s fiction.

Amazingly, given that lead up, I’m not here to defend women’s fiction. I’m not here to be outraged on behalf of its authors. Who I am outraged for are the readers. 

When Elizabeth Gilbert published The Signature of all Things, a man at a literary event told her that she must be pleased to now be attracting “a better class of reader”. He meant what Winterson means: those who read a certain type of book, like Eat, Pray, Love or a Mills and Boon, are cabbages. Unsophisticated, undiscerning, unintelligent human brassica. 

These lumpen collards also happen to be primarily women. I’d take any odds that the man addressing Elizabeth Gilbert believed her lesser class of reader consisted of only women. Women do read more fiction than men – in the US, UK and Canada, women account for 80% of fiction sales. Mills and Boon readers are 84% women. But it is insulting and plain ignorant to assume that women who enjoy commercial fiction are not smart enough to read Jeanette Winterson. 

Look at this phrase – “cosy little domestic blurbs”. Cosy. Little. Domestic. Words that have been used to demean and diminish women since the invention of the house. Winterson calls herself a feminist and writes about issues that affect women. But it seems she still considers some women less worthy than others. 

Our own CK Stead (I know, I’m sorry) once said that he didn’t care if only four percent of New Zealanders read New Zealand fiction as long as the four percent who read his books were intelligent. Winterson is saying much the same. It’s as if the artistic integrity of her books would be sullied if a reader of women’s fiction opened one up. The cover blurb should never appeal to one of those people – it should make it clear that the book is only for the reading elite. God forbid Winterson ends up on a bookshelf next to Joanna Trollope.

Of course she’s wrong – simple as. Women with PhDs read Mills and Boon. Surgeons and activists and company directors read women’s fiction. Many of them have also probably read at least one Jeanette Winterson. I have a Masters degree. I read Frankisstein. I didn’t like it much. But I hear Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is brilliant.  

In a 2017 Guardian article, Winterson was one of several women asked to define the books that made them a feminist. She talked about Adrienne Rich’s early poems, and her essays. “There is a great one about her winning the Yale Younger Poets prize and being patronised by WH Auden (women just write about themselves … blah blah), and suddenly I understood about women’s voices, creativity, silence. Crucially in the opening Thatcher era of the individual, I realised that patriarchy is a collective problem – a structural problem.”

Yes, it is Jeanette. I agree. And you do nothing to help dismantle that structure if you insist on consigning whole groups of women to the intellectual dustbin, and treating them with disdain because of what you think they prefer to read. 

Keep going!