Sunday, March 29, 2009

That or move to New Hampshire

So Jeannette Winterson has written a Young Adults book. (Generally a phrase I find loathsome, managing to be condescending and oxymoronic at the same time. When I was 11, I didn’t appreciate linguistic charity. I was more like, “Damn it, I just read Lord of the Rings AND Dune, so step off, or I’ll go totally archaic on your ass. Or words to that effect.)

Now a book about quantum mechanics and love and time. Tribal Dickensian subway dwellers. A villain who ran the hospital at Bedlam and his unctuous Uriah Heep sidekick. And a threatening rabbit named Bigamist.

I remember the first time I read Written on the Body, and thought, “So a novelist can be lyric and incantatory and funny? Somebody alert John Updike!” Then Gut Symmetries and Art & Lies and The World & Other Places, and her style got a little... spiky, I guess. Sort of impatient with the reader and less willing to give them anything more the barest narrative and sensual necessity. In grad school, one of my classmates—in the service of an essay about politically committed writing—invoked a quote of hers, “My aim is not to please (the reader).”

Not like she’s the first firebrand writer to radically change genres. Randall Jarrell turned from his delicately lacerating reviews to write The Bat Poet with Maurice Sendak, Theodore Roethke wrote Party at the Zoo, and Lorrie Moore, purveyor of the saddest and sharpest morbid humor around did a Christmas Story.

Given all the anxiety about genre in the academy and avant street cred, it makes me glad to see an established writer be so blithe about it. Or maybe there comes a certain point in a sustained writing career when you just have to be unrecognizable for while in order to hold onto who you are.

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