Left: Jeanette Winterson at the Hay Festival (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images) Right: The bonfire of books
Artillery Row

Burning the books

Should writers be allowed to destroy their own work?

The author Jeanette Winterson has never been one for modest self-effacement. Her first book, 1985’s Whitbread Prize-winning Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was a semi-autobiographical account of growing up a lesbian in a Lancashire Pentecostal community. Since then she has tackled themes of sexual identity, gender and technology, most recently in her 2019 novel Frankisstein, which reimagined Mary Shelley’s narrative from the perspective of a transgender transhumanist. In addition to her public profile as a writer and creative writing professor, she has been awarded the OBE and CBE, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is, in other words, one of the leading figures in English-language writing today, and yet she has recently attracted a rare degree of opprobrium. Her crime? To burn her own books. 

The incident, which seemed to be the most notorious example of self-inflicted reputational harm since Jolyon Maugham boasted about killing a fox dressed in his wife’s kimono, revolved around Winterson tweeting an image of a small bonfire of paperback novels. The books that she burnt were reissues of some of her earlier novels, including The Powerbook and Written On The Body, and she announced her reason for the conflagration was that she “absolutely hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on my new covers. Turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind! Nothing playful or strange or the ahead of time stuff that’s in there. So I set them on fire.”

The first apparent mistake that Winterson made was in publicising the act at all, which seemed to be ostentation of the most unnecessary kind. But the second, and graver, was in her denigration of “cosy little domestic burbs” and “wimmins fiction of the worst kind”. The reaction of Chocolat novelist Joanne Harris was typical. She tweeted satirically as if from Winterson’s perspective, saying “I burnt my books rather than have a one-minute conversation with my publisher, saying I didn’t like the blurb. Then I used it as a means of insulting other women writers. Should be good for an op-ed or two.” 

And then, of course, there is the unfortunate echoes of the past that her actions reignited, so passionately written about by the Bodleian library Richard Ovenden last year. The industry’s reaction might be summarised by Curtis Brown super-agent Jonny Geller writing in despair that “There’s always the option of objecting to a publisher’s approach BEFORE they print? Burning books is the wrong symbol of protest, however trivial the cause. It has a bad history to it.” 

Uninspired and derivative book covers could derail an author’s career altogether

Winterson was thus pilloried as an insensitive attention-seeker who had simultaneously insulted other writers and her no doubt beleaguered publisher. As one industry friend of mine put it, “I think we can all agree we feel rather sorry for the junior editor in charge of that rebranding. That’s her weekend ruined.” Winterson herself gave a statement to, inevitably, The Guardian, which did not amount to a mea culpa but nonetheless hinted at a climbdown of sorts. She said that “I gave most of [the reissues] away to charity but needed a symbolic burning to raise my spirits. I am the writer I am. But I wouldn’t buy one of my books with those suburban blurbs. I am quick tempered as people know. But I come back down pretty quick too and see the funny side. I was incandescent at the time.” 

  Yet the anger and suspicion that accompanied Winterson’s actions — it would be interesting to see whether the publicity that has accompanied the book-burning has led to an increase in sales amongst the curiosity, fuelling accusations that this is little more than an attention-seeking stunt — has also been countered by many writers responding with sympathy to her plight, not least because there is a sense that as a self-avowed iconoclast she is an easier target than many of her peers. The novelist and ghostwriter Anna Wharton defended Winterson, saying “As a writer of “wimmins fiction” I am unsure why other writers are taking this so personally. They’re her books, she paid for them, she can do what she likes with them. This issue here, as always, is that people don’t like women getting angry and writers are inherently insecure and neurotic beings (myself included) and they find any slight on their own work triggering.” 

Many writers not at the highest level of commercial attainment will have a story of disappointing or frustrating dealings with a publisher. In an era where only A-list authors are accorded the respectful treatment that once a far greater number of writers could enjoy, it is common to hear about lacklustre publicity and marketing campaigns, half-hearted editorial “support” and low, even non-existent advances. And this presupposes that there will not be some greater controversy that would lead disgusted junior staff working on a title to down tools and storm out in protest.

As the suffragettes demonstrated, sometimes provocation is the only effective way of being noticed

But it is the issue of presentation that exercises authors perhaps more than any other. Put simply, not only are books quite literally judged by their covers, but uninspired and derivative design could derail an author’s career altogether. At least one novelist of my acquaintance had her sensitive, intelligent and decidedly literary book packaged with the most generic, cliched cover imaginable, resulting in disappointing sales. As yet, no further novel has been commissioned from her. 

Yet criticising a publisher’s decisions can often be hard work, especially for female writers who do not have established careers to fall back on. Wharton recounts how “I hated the first design on my own debut novel, The Imposter, but I was told for months it was there to stay because the sales team liked it. I had to dig my heels in and make myself unpopular until it was changed — and when it was others admitted they never liked it either!” 

It remains unclear as to whether Winterson was given copy and design approval over the reissues of her work. If she was, then her actions are little less than attention-seeking petulance, and she should apologise just as publicly to the staff whose efforts she has so showily maligned. But if she was not, then it is hard not to feel that she has, in a rather blunt way, drawn attention to the workings of an industry in which the input of its authors increasingly seem only one minor cog amongst many others. Her actions may have seemed outrageous, but, as the suffragettes demonstrated, sometimes provocation is the only effective way of being noticed. After all, as Wharton says, “In my opinion, women should burn more things.”

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