Review: Jeanette Winterson in conversation with Louise O’Neill
“The book was so powerful it made me cry,” my friend says. We are having coffee before heading off to watch author Louise O’Neill in conversation with Jeanette Winterson at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. “I had to put it down a couple of times,” I reply. ‘The sheer brutality of it meant I couldn’t continue.’
It’s not often a novel comes along that affects me like this. A narrative depicting a subject so powerful it has grown women on the verge of tears in Pret simply by talking about it.
Asking For It, I realise, is a very important book.
As the audience mill in and take their seats, I lean in and whisper to my pal. “The thing about her is that she’s just so normal. She’s like your mate.” O’Neill speaks like one of your closest 30-something friends. Candidly. Openly. Passionately. It’s the sort of chat you have with your best mate over a glass of wine – witty, self-deprecating, depressing and extremely honest.
As far as this evening is concerned, other people might be overshadowed by the presence of literary powerhouse Jeanette Winterson who is heading up the interview (“Jeanette Winterson,” O’Neill announces excitedly in the same fan-girl way my mate and I reacted when we spotted O’Neill in the back room). But O’Neill isn’t fazed.
Winterson opens the event, organised by Manchester University’s Centre for New Writing and part of its Literature Live series, by introducing O’Neill to rapturous applause. This is a woman who needs no introduction. We are here to discuss Asking For It, O’Neill’s second novel depicting the alleged gang rape of 18-year-old Emma O’Donovan in Ballinatoom, a small town in Ireland. It makes for some pretty tough reading.
“I couldn’t give the book a happy ending,” O’Neill responds. “I felt that it needed to be true to the story and the bigger truth out there. I felt a sense of responsibility to the survivor. I said to my mother that the legal system in Ireland seemed set up to protect rapists. There is no legal definition of consent in Irish law and even then it’s just two people in a room. If I gave it a happy ending, maybe the reader would feel satisfied but I don’t want that.
“I want them to be so furious that they throw the book across the room. Something needs to change. Hopefully this book will be a tiny catalyst.”
There’s a great deal of ambiguity in the novel. “We feel Emma’s confusion,” Winterson says. “The narrative is not black or white and makes for complex reading.”
Was this intended?
“In creating Emma, I didn’t want to create the ‘perfect victim’,” says O’Neill. “I wanted the reader to be complicit in the victim shaming. When I was talking to survivors of sexual violence one common thread between all the stories was self-blame. I shouldn’t have walked home alone…I shouldn’t have got into his car…I shouldn’t have drunk so much.
“I wanted to reveal how much we have failed as a society where we teach women that after the most brutal violation of their bodies, the first thing they are to ask is ‘What did I do wrong?'”
O’Neill skyrocketed to fame – and critical acclaim – following the success of her first dystopian novel, Only Ever Yours, and has become something of an accidental activist for feminism and the issue of sexual consent. Prolific on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, O’Neill has spoken out on a number of topics. But did she set out to become an activist?
“I started as just a writer but my blog took on a life of its own.”
“I remember when I wrote Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” Winterson sympathises. “Everyone suddenly wanted to talk about being gay.”
Does O’Neill identify herself as being a feminist and, in the wake of the recent trolling she has experienced via social media, is she afraid to admit it?
“I’ve identified as a feminist since I was 15. It wasn’t talked about as a teenager but there seems to have been a resurgence recently with projects like Everyday Sexism and articles in magazines like XOJane and Jezebel.”
But how does a writer who is solitary by nature, asks Winterson, deal with being in the public eye where 1,000 Twitter trolls are beating the shit out of you?
O’Neill agrees that social media can be distracting. “I need to control it. It does seem to have taken over.”
O’Neill goes on relate a recent experience of being at a retreat in the middle of nowhere and receiving a call from a journalist informing her of a website affiliated with students at University College Dublin who had, allegedly (“I must say allegedly,” she laughs, “I don’t want to get myself in trouble again”) set up an internet page in order to post pictures of naked sexual conquests alongside derogatory comments.
“It was a very normalised, almost sociopathic disregard, of the person you have just been intimate with. So of course I wrote a Facebook post and that went viral and it became horrible. I wrote a column about the fallout and one user called Ben has been leaving me messages every day for the past two weeks saying, ‘Louise, I really think you need to see a psychiatrist’.”
Recently, O’Neill has been visiting schools in the hope that she can discuss some of the themes in Asking For It with young girls and boys. She has had a mixed response. Even seasoned publishers have been reluctant to put out her novels due to their content. When I went to buy the novel from Waterstones, I was told that the book had been taken out of the Young Adult section after complaints from parents. It even comes with a ‘not suitable for young children’ warning on the back page.
O’Neill says: “It’s annoying when people say the subject matter is too dark. Have they ever met teenagers?”
With Quercus, O’Neill appears to have met the ideal publishing partner. “They have never once tried to censor my vision.”
I couldn’t agree more. With throwaway sexist comments, rape threats and ‘slut shaming’ rife in our society, it’s important that someone is willing to educate our teenagers. “I think it’s important that this book is read by young girls,” O’Neill agrees after one audience member thanks her for the positive influence she has had on her teenage daughter. “But I think it is equally as important that boys read it too.”
The evening draws to a close with a question and answer segment, and one enquiry seems to strike a chord with O’Neill. Both of her books are concerned with female beauty. Is this something she wanted to explore?
“I am really interested in female beauty. There is so much pressure put on women. I worry how I look – I suffered from both bulimia and anorexia – I still feel like I need to be attractive to be successful. We waste so much time on ideals of female beauty. I explore these ideas so a teenager will reject them because I don’t think I have managed to do it and I don’t want the young women coming up behind me to waste time on this.”
My friend and I glance at each other and silently convey our excessive fan-girl admiration and recognition that this is an incredibly important message.
“Happiness can’t come across from external voices,” says O’Neill. “It has to come from within. There’s your Oprah moment.”
Main image by Miki Barlok
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.