Edinburgh Writers’ Conference: ‘Mrs Winterson knew that books would always open up a dangerous world beyond the Bible, beyond Accrington, beyond slavish devotion to an unforgiving God’

HERE’S Jeanette Winterson in the big tent. No table, chair, podium or interviewer needed, because why bother being normal when you know damn well that you can tear up the stage just being yourself, on fire almost pentecostally with the love of words, with the story of how you got to be the woman you are, the risks you took, the way you turned your back on everything your deluded adopted mother wanted you to be.

Mrs Winterson – there’s a new note of forgiveness as well as mockery in the way the writer refers to her – knew that books were bad for her daughter, that they would always open up a dangerous world beyond the Bible, beyond Accrington, beyond slavish devotion to an unforgiving God. She had to censor them. So when she discovered that underneath her daughter’s mattress were 72 carefully hoarded paperbacks (Women in Love was the first she pulled out) she knew it was the Devil’s work and that they had to be burned in the backyard. As her inner life went up in flames in front of her, Winterson thought: “F*** you, I’ll write my own.”

The audience cheered, as Winterson, confident in her eloquence, must have known they would: the world of books and the imagination has few evangelists like her, and we’d all like to think that the human spirit will find some way around oppression. For Winterson, one of the defining moments occurred when she was 16 and had been to Accrington library to pick up a pile of whodunits for her mother. One of them didn’t feel right. So she opened Murder in the Cathedral, by a writer she had never heard of called TS Eliot. “This is one moment,” she read. “But know that another/ Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.” And on the steps of Accrington library, she sat down and wept.

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What if those library books hadn’t been there, if they had been banned, or even burnt? That was the question at the heart of the penultimate Edinburgh Writers’ Conference event, this time on censorship. An easy one, you might have thought. As Argentinian writer Carlos Gamerro pointed out, hadn’t his hero William Burroughs said all that needed to be said when he wrote “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”?

But no: this was a debate that, after a thoughtful speech by Patrick Ness on the dangers of self-censorship, freewheeled engagingly widely, from Xiaolu Gu’s assessment of the Kafkaesque complexities of Chinese censorship (which can often be a good thing for writers looking for a mass readership, albeit in pirated form) to Keith Gray on teen fiction (when censorship prevents authors of challenging material reaching their target audience).

And what about Arizona banning Hispanic books from its schools, asked Junot Diaz. Couldn’t the writers at least try to stop that? Damn right they could. A petition from the conference goes out 
today.