Reading guilt is something that I assume many literary scholars suffer from – we’ve never managed to read enough and are eternally ashamed for all the books we haven’t read. I also sometimes feel that the academic side to my reading is in a constant struggle with the classic joy of reading, so afterwards I’m not sure at all if a book had an academic or an emotional effect on m; should I feel like writing an article about it or did it change me personally? This dilemma is of course absurd and mostly homemade, but I mention it because my favourite book is just like that; it speaks to me on many levels at once.

Jeanette Winterson

Six or seven years ago I was at a conference, probably in Dublin where I lived at the time, and listened to a lady speaking about Jeanette Winterson’s books, both the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and also the memoir that she had then recently published, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The reading guilt overwhelmed me like so often before, I’d been meaning to read Oranges … for years without doing it, which was a shameful neglect for a literary minded lesbian. And this new book also sounded captivating. There was just one possible option: to go straight to the bookshop and then home to read.

What followed was one of my life’s most joyous reading experiences. To read those two books together is unique. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was published in 1985, is largely based on the life and experiences of the author – but still truly a novel. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young girl who grows up to realize she’s attracted to and loves other women but must at the same time deal with very hostile and difficult family situation. 25 years later Winterson would then write the autobiographical part of the novel – about her own upbringing and her search for a sexual identity – and the writing process behind it in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is an astounding memoir of a novelist, a book about a constantly evolving identity. It had a particularly profound influence on me, probably mostly because it established how being a lesbian and a novelist formed Winterson, how a written and creative expression can change our view of things and even save us from misery and ruin. She’s certainly not the first gay person that has talked about the importance of channelling censured and marginal feelings through creative writing and she’s certainly not the last.

Text: Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir,

literary scholar