Sexing the Cherry

Some theory derives from thoughtful interrogation of texts or the world or somesuch.  Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault – they all read deeply and their writing led others to think intensely about good stuff like identity construction or the postcolonial condition or why Henry James was probably gay.  Much as I bitched and moaned about reading that theory, it opened up my approach to life and – more importantly – to literature.

But, then there are those fiction writers who you could swear read way too much theory before they wrote.  They write these books that make you wonder, “Was this author intentionally trying to write something post-modern?”  Sexing the Cherry is one of those books.  It’s a paint-by-numbers postcolonial text that leads me to believe Jeanette Winterson composed it with a volume on Homi Bhabha by her side.

It’s as though she had a checklist of appropriate postcolonial themes.  Gender-bending?  Check: there’s the requisite princess who marries a woman disguised as a prince.  Fluid sexuality?  Check: the prostitutes are screwing the nuns and the men all come in to stick it to corpses in the brothel.  Colonial power echoing in today’s corporate structure?  Check: modern mercury in the river is cleverly juxtaposed with seventeenth-century prudes who try to stifle women and sexuality.

We’re all supposed to feel wicked smaht because we can follow Winterson’s pace and point of view shifts.  Look!  Bright, shiny language!  Words are the star attraction, except, of course, it’s really the author who is front and center.  When Jordan, a seventeenth-century man on a quest for a dancer who doesn’t exist, joins a street cleaner who captures old conversations floating above the city, we are supposed to all faint with excitement over our ability to decode Winterson’s point about words leaving a trace.  Well done!  We’re all so much smarter than Oprah’s book club readers!

Someone really ought to tell Jeanette Winterson that she’s not half so clever as she thinks she is.


19 responses to “Sexing the Cherry

  1. laughing. mostly because reading Winterson seldom made me feel smaht. rather, dumm. and vaguely illiterate. and occasionally hopelessly bourgeois.

    so thank you for allowing me this moment of schadenfreude.

    that said, i remember kinda getting a lighthearted kick out of Cherry, i think b/c i enjoyed the retelling of Cromwell & Charles the First, and something about Winterson’s fey if heavy-handed pomo-ism brought out the magic for me.

    slinking away now… 🙂

  2. I’l definitely make sure to NOT read this book! i love a good read, but i hate snobbery and “look how smart i am” sort of literature.

  3. Oh, I so agree. Here’s my own rant on the book:

    I like the idea you’re getting at with this blog, the whole edge of the page thing. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  4. i read that ages ago, and i can’t remember anything of it. so, unmemorable.

    have you read alice thomas ellis?

  5. Great review Emily. I think this kind of paint-by-numbers writing is the new didacticism, and I rather prefer the old kind. At least Dickens complicates and undermines his messages.

    I hated The French Lieutenant’s Woman for similar reasons. (What? Your characters aren’t real? You created them and can do whatever you want with them? Wow, I sure never knew that! What a great lesson in Post-Modernism. Thank you John Fowles.)

  6. i think i’m going to like your book reviews, even if I’ve never heard of the book.

  7. I so agree with you. I found her to be trendy and irrelevant. Oprah’s Book Club, indeed!


  8. Gah–I hate that I’m going to say this. But Sexing the Cherry was published in 1989, before Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), before Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991), before Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), and only two years after Spivak’s In Other Worlds (1987). I know you weren’t being literal about how Winterson wrote her novel, and I’m not saying you should like it, but it is worth noting that it came out when the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies, and queer theory were themselves undergoing transformative changes or in fact just coming into existence. What seems like a “paint-by-the-numbers” text now would not have seemed that way in 1989, or at least not because of its engagement with theories of gender, sexuality, and postcoloniality.

  9. I apologize for being a jerk and getting all pedantic.

  10. no apologies necessary, dear. but, the fact that she wrote something that could so quickly be dated is probably due to the fact that it is all style with little substance. writers can be of their period without being totally defined by it. i am not saying they need to be “universal,” but if what she had to say were more subtle, perhaps the book would be easier to bear. as it stands, her ego about engaging these topics threads through the text.

    thanks for the reminder to be more careful with my glibness.

  11. Alright, really let me have it — I really liked Sexing the Cherry. I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying, and any time I’ve read interviews with her or personal essays she does come across as quite unlikeable and terribly impressed with her bad self, but Sexing the Cherry didn’t make me feel smart or like an insider — I just thought it was fun. I loved the Dog Woman and the twelve dancing princesses and the words floating above the city (although that may have been because I wrote something similar when I was a rookie pomo-exploring grad student). For all her flaws, I find her writing style always gives me something new.

    Will duck and cover now.

  12. no need to apologize! that’s what this is about — talking about books and expressing different takes.

  13. This isn’t a book I’ve had any desire to read – and thanks to your review, that hasn’t changed. I’ve added your feed to my Books Blogroll, and am interested in seeing what else you’ll talk about here.

  14. So, did you like the book? (Grin)

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be sure to pass on this one should I ever come across it.

  15. Yeah, what Painted Maypole said.


  16. Hmmm, I still wonder if she knew she was writing something whose style would render it quickly “dated”–could she have know that in 1989? Is she to be held responsible for subsequent turns in literary theory (broadly defined) that would make her novel later seem too pat and too clever by half? Maybe…

    But I do know what you mean about books like this. I’ve thought of them as “Books Academics Like Because They Say Things Academics Want Books to Say,” in which the question of quality flies out the window. I have a small handful of such books on my personal list, but not, for example, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which a lot of people seem to want to put in this category.

    And I’m not sure I’d confine Sexing to this category because, well, I like Winterson. The novel strikes me as an incremental outgrowth of her two previous works, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion, and a prelude to her subsequent novels, which would go on to explore similar themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. So, yeah, I don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud avoiding work. I also happened to hear recently a surprisingly powerful reading of a student’s short story; rather than write a traditional analytical or historical study of this particular controversial topic, she decided she would address it (and analyze it) in a short story. I was dubious, but it worked…with a take your breath away kind of effect. Probably not exactly what Winterson was going for, but maybe a little bit?

  17. Wow. Now, I’m really interested in knowing – if in twenty years time someone wrote a review of your book (which will undoubtedly be published in the next few years) which ran along these lines, how would you feel? Still, maybe there’s no such thing as book karma. Yes, Winterson’s book was written in the full flush of theory-led work, and it shows in places. But when I read it, I felt I wanted to give props for all that it was trying to do, all it was reaching out for. And the relationship between Jordan and the Dog Woman seemed to me to have survived the test of time.

    I guess I shouldn’t feel protective of Winterson. Sexing the Cherry was a massive hit for her at the time and I don’t expect she cares any more what people think of it! 🙂

  18. I hate lots of big words too. Except my own.

  19. Ah, the land of the free!
    You have the right to free speech as long as you speak English.

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