Jeanette Winterson’s book-burning stunt is a master class for staying relevant and edgy
The publishing world is on fire.
“Absolutely hated the cozy household classifieds on my new covers,” tweeted award-winning author Jeanette Winterson, OBE, CBE, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. “Turned me into a Wimmins fiction of the worst kind!” Nothing playful or weird or the up-front stuff in there. So I set them on fire. Underneath is a photo of a small stack of paperbacks, going up in smoke.
With its echoes of autodafÃ©s of Nazi books and the search for feminine fiction, it is the scandal itself. It’s also the most awesome free column inches generator, especially since they’re books (Passion, Written on the body, Art and lies and The Powerbook) which were written over two decades ago, between 1997 and 2000.
Each year in the UK, the number of books published totals between eight and 10 squillion. (For those interested, exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s around 200,000.)
Reviews, interviews, and ad space are all devoted to the newest and most exciting, the Next Big Thing. Once a book comes out a few weeks, it will almost certainly be sidelined in marketing wars, ready for the latest editorial sensation.
This is why early writers are so exciting to the press, why we see so many books written by and about celebrities, why TV and film adaptations of old favorites are celebrated with new covers.
And that means that once a book is out, it can easily be forgotten. Most books are. Books pile up in charity shops. (In 2017, the Swansea branch of Oxfam received so many copies of Dan Brown The “Da Vinci Code that they begged customers to send their future donations elsewhere.) The remaining books (those that are out of print) are sold cheaply at Poundland and The Works. Each year, thousands of pounds are pulped. So how do you save them from destruction? How do authors and their publishers maintain interest in the back catalog?
In this case, Penguin has given Winterson’s books a makeover – that is, given new, matching covers – along with rave reviews from big guns in the industry such as Rachel Cusk, The literary review, Ali Smith and Simon Schama.
Admittedly, the blurbs on Amazon sound a bit like the dystopia of young adults, with phrases like, âYou can be the hero in your own life. You can have the freedom for just one night. But there is a price to pay â. But are they really so terrible that they must be burned?
Take a closer look at Winterson’s fiery composition, and you might notice that the books are almost entirely the wrong way round, on a pile of ash that’s clearly corrugated. Only a couple is really on fire. With a squirt gun and oven mitts, she could probably fish out the rest and put them back on her shelf. It reminded me a bit of the Banksy who shredded in the middle of the auction and, therefore, was worth much, much more.
Authors typically receive a handful of books with each new publication. We give them to our friends and family, give them to charity auctions, and then, when a few are left, slip them under the bed. No one to my knowledge has ever deployed its first editions with the momentum that Winterson has just displayed.
Yes, it’s sad that some copies are charred. But with the interest she aroused, the discussion, the outrage, she reminded us of her status as an edgy and muscular author of the 1990s and 2000s, including fluid books, with their jumps in time and time. space, can now reach a whole host of new readers.
A public relations director for the publication, speaking anonymously, said, “She’s getting on the mark as a radical author who isn’t mainstream, while doing mainstream PR.”
Even the digging of female fiction, while unpleasant, is smart; female fiction sells in much larger quantities than literary fiction, which relies heavily on prices such as the Booker for its hits. âI think it’s a publicity stunt,â one Sunday Times bestselling author of such fiction told me. “And it might work, if you don’t mind looking a little bit like an asshole.” But screwing up a whole genre to elevate yourself is about as nasty a strategy as burning books. “
This certainly doesn’t bother Winterson, although she was quick to point out to critics that she is, in general, very environmentally friendly. Less friendly to other writers looking for a nice word from him for their own back covers, wit, saying, âI would just add that I have never burned anyone else’s books; not even terrible mailed. And it should be noted that in 1994, after journalist Nicci Gerrard published a moderately critical article in The observer, Winterson came to his door and yelled at him.
When they are working, posting stunts is wonderful. Hilary mantel The mirror and the light was celebrated by its publisher, 4th Estate, with a notice board in Leicester Square, sparking a storm of speculation online, it doesn’t matter that no one other than whoever manages the Waterstones Piccadilly social media account seems to have it never seen in the flesh.
Then there are the post stunts that go wrong. Witness the horror that greeted the floral table decorations, adorned with what appeared to be barbed wire, on the occasion of the release of American dirt. With the experience of Mexican migrants being used as a prop to sell a book, the overwhelming response has been sheer disgust. Not unrelated, the book sold over half a million copies and went on to become a No.1 New York Times bestseller.
Winterson’s actions seem somewhat angry; she could, after all, have simply written an e-mail to her editors. Yet how literary fiction is sold, the packaging of female fiction and how past publications can reach new audiences; all are subjects that must be put in the open.
While for its publisher, Penguin Random House, this is a useful distraction from the recent barely resolved Waterstones row in which Penguin titles were taken from UK shelves as part of a dispute over the bookstore chain’s credit limits.
Oh, and by the way, Jeanette Winterson’s books are absolutely wonderful, as fresh and exhilarating today as they were when they were first published. In all the fury, maybe it’s a shame no one is talking about it.