Sep 28, 2019
NYT: Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?
Jeanette Winterson: Do books serve a moral function? Absolutely. And it isn’t a question of subject matter, because fiction isn’t obliged to tackle the world head-on. If we are only interested in the now, then the past is obsolete. Reading is such an odd act — solitary, introspective, outside of time (not controlled by time) and not subject to surveillance. Reading isn’t data. Books more than ever are agents of freedom from a snoopy controlling data-driven nightmare that pretends we are free when we have never been more scrutinized. So reading certainly has moral value — and is increasingly subversive. Literature is a compass — useful to get your bearings even if you want to go in a different direction. Literature is a tool kit. Books are the most practical of endeavors. They teach us about life, about motive, about our own darkness, about why we act as we do, and they give us back real live language. Anything that frees your brain from the karate-chop syntax of newsfeed and social media is in part a meditative act.
The purpose of art changes as society changes. Sometimes art has to break us up — sometimes art has to heal us up. Literature, because it is made of language, returns language to us. If we have the words, we are not silenced, although we learn, through the enforced quiet of reading, what it means to be silent.
I’m sure most people I know would shy away from the idea of any moral function in art, but I sort of love that Winterson is so strong-headed about it in the NYT.