Category Archives: books

Jeanette Winterson: A short piece, and commentary on “minority lit”

Quite simply, Jeanette Winterson is amazing.

Her work is beyond beautiful, and I will be sure to feature many of her amazing books on this blog. But since I am away from my bookshelf (which, of course, features a small Jeanette section) I offer this non-fiction piece of hers that appeared in the New Yorker in 2002. Thematically it deals with two of my favorite subjects: books and family. Jeanette is able to offer poignant insight into both, of course.

It may help to be a little familiar with Jeanette’s background, so if you’re so inclined, check out her bio.

Her first book, the semi-autobiographical “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” was published when she was only 26 (!) and deals with religion, growing up, coming out, and family. If you’ve read it, the above linked New Yorker piece may be especially resonant. The book, in my opinion, is not her strongest (as first books tend not to be), but is a very important piece of work that is definitely worth reading. I love that although the books does deal with the protagonist’s coming out and trying to find her way as a queer woman in the world, Jeanette insisted that it should not be considered strictly “queer lit.” In an interview about the book on her site (which, I am finding out as I write this post, is a pretty cool site full of geek-out material for JW fans such as myself), she says of the book: “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.” Well said. Right on, Jeanette!

This makes me think of when I saw Toni Morrison speak a few years ago–she has amazing insights into the racial-izing of fictional characters (essentially, that unless specified as otherwise, readers most always assume a character is white, which is, of course, horrifyingly anglo-centric). It’s amazing what the average reader will assume about a work of fiction, especially when biographical criticism enters into the picture. It’s even more amazing (and offensive) the way that hetero-normative/anglo-centric culture assumes that books/movies/news/etc that deal with queer and minority issues/characters are only for queer and other minority people. Of course, majority culture assumes, as Jeanette points out, that straight/anglo-centric books/movies/news/etc is appealing and accessible to everyone. Talk about majority privilge! So, what? Faulkner should speak to and apply to all people, but Richard Wright’s “Native Son” should really only speak to people of color, and “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” should only speak to queer people? Give me a break! Of course, minority groups may celebrate, draw strength from, and enjoy “their” literature. But should that excuse the hetero-normative/anglo-centric majority culture from dealing with the issues and literature of minorities (of all kinds, the queer minority included)? Have we not something to learn from all people, from all minority experiences? Can the majority culture ever be toppled if it opts-out of allowing all literature of merit to percolate in the brains of the masses? I think not.

I will conclude this post/ramblings about minority lit now, as it has certainly wandered far from Jeanette’s short New Yorker piece. Read and enjoy!