Art Objects. Pieces of art, art things? No. Take the verb. Art objects. Art says no. Leave it to Jeanette Winterson to fill a two-word title with several layers of meaning. The woman is a master wordsmith. Who has written quite a bit of SFFinal work, and unlike her contemporary Margaret Atwood, never felt the need to go on record denying it. Winterson writes the kind of SFF that lit snobs and poetry lovers and word geeks and SFF geeks alike can fall madly in love with. Art Objects is non-fiction, but read it anyway. It is beautiful in its own right, and if you’re a reviewer, you’ll want to hear what she has to say about reviewing art.
“Most of what masquerades as literary criticism is a mixture of sexism and self-importance.”
In part, I enjoyed this collection of essays so much because Winterson and I share opinions on a number of issues. But she manages to put her point so perfectly, so beautifully, that reading her helps me better articulate my own thoughts.
“‘I don’t understand this poem’
‘I never listen to classical music’
‘I don’t like this picture’
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker.”
“If the obvious direct emotional response is to have any meaning, the question ‘Do I like this?’ will have to be the opening question and not the final judgement. An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere.”
I know I love a book when I find myself desperate to quote 90 percent of it at anyone who will listen. I want to sing every word from the rooftops. I want to print them in poster form and hang them on my wall. No, Nikki, control yourself. Not everyone is going to love this as much as you do, and the people who do can get their own copy, and you can avoid a plagiarism suit. Oh please, though, just one more? Because I can’t resist Canon snark.
“There used to be something called The Canon.
“This was regularly used to blast iconoclasts who said terrible things at tea parties, such as ‘Surely Katherine Mansfield is as fine a writer as Proust?’
“The Canon allowed no debate; it guarded the entry and exit points to the Hall of Fame and stood firmly behind t(T)he t(T)imes.
“When not routing offenders in petticoats it fired warning shots over the heads of the uneducated. The Canon was admirably free from modern Existentialist Doubt. It knew who belonged and who didn’t belong.”
Outside of A Room of One’s Own, I have never read Virginia Wolf. (I know, I know, I’ll get to it someday.) Or Gertrude Stein. Or half of the writers (and painters) that Winterson talks about in Art Objects‘ ten essays. But it didn’t matter. Winterson’s discussion of these writers and their work are beautiful enough to be read in their own right: a state every review should aspire to. And, perhaps of particular interest to the discussions of SF readers and discussers today is “The Semiotics of Sex,” an essay that discusses the danger of making the author’s sex or gender or whatfuckingever, more important than the work itself. These essays are bound to be of interest to anyone who is seriously interested in writing, reviewing, creating, and the politics that surround all three.
Now, one more quote, then I promise I’ll stop stammering so you can run to your nearest bookstore to buy this book already—Winterson’s words speak more for the book than my feeble arguments can manage.
“I have become aware that the chosen sexual difference of one writer is, in itself, thought sufficient to bind her in semiotic sisterhood with any other writer, also lesbian, dead or alive.
“I am, after all, a pervert, so I will not mind sharing a bed with a dead body. This bed in the shape of a book, this book in the shape of a bed, must accommodate us every one, because, whatever our style, philosophy, class, age, preoccupations and talent, we are lesbians and isn’t that the golden key to the single door of our work?
“In any discussion of art and the artist, heterosexuality is backgrounded, whilst homosexuality is foregrounded. What you fuck is more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. It may be because the word ‘sex’ is more exciting than the word ‘book’. Or is it? Surely that depends on what kind of sex and what kind of book? I can only assume that straight sex is so dull that even a book makes better reportage. No-one asks Iris Murdoch about her sex life. Every interviewer I meet asks me about mine and what they do not ask they invent. I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write. …
“The straight world is wilful in its pursuit of queers and it seems to me that to continually ask someone about their homosexuality, when the reason to talk is a book, a picture, a play, is harassment by the back door.”
Where I got Art Objects: Bought, used, Oxfam