There’s Something About Helen Garner

People swimming in Fitzroy public pool

By Bridget Schwerdt

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Helen Garner. It’s as if there is a strange polarity that either draws you towards the renowned Australian author or sends you flying in the other direction. 

In my case, I am a piece of plastic that has been thrown into Garner’s magnetic field, not feeling the lure towards either pole. I am not a Monkey Grip devotee who yearns to spot Garner along Lygon Street, nor am I a naysayer who ‘just doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.’ 

So where do I sit when it comes to Helen Garner?

I am by no means a woman in STEM; however, if I were to postulate a theory on why I cannot make up my mind about Garner, I would say it is because she is a walking paradox: the very things that attract readers towards her can be the same qualities that push others away.

Garner and intimacy

One thing that draws readers towards Garner is the intimacy of her writing. Her writing career began in 1997 with Monkey Grip, which involved assembling her personal diaries into a gritty work of autofiction. 

Since then, she has gone as far as publishing three volumes of her personal diaries. It seems that no matter what she writes, whether she’s reporting on a horrific murder trial, caring for a dying friend or reviewing Pride and Prejudice, Garner is always present in the story. 

Given Garner’s openness to her audience, it’s no surprise that her devotees have such a strong affinity for her. For example, deep in the throes of one of Melbourne’s many lockdowns, I recall someone in my creative writing class worrying about Garner’s welfare, to which the tutor responded: ‘Oh, Helen actually lives across the road.’

SIDE NOTE: If you are wondering how Garner held up in lockdown, she wrote about it for The Monthly.

On the opposite end of the magnet, Garner’s intimacy can also repel readers. In a 1978 review of Monkey Grip for 24 Hours, Penelope Rowe wrote: ‘is each bike ride, each knock at the door, each visit to the dunny, each Brandy Alexander worth recording?’ 

My experience of Monkey Grip aligns with Rowe’s, with the tedium of having to join Garner in her head for every thought resulting in many deep sighs of annoyance; at times, I felt like screaming ‘Nora, bestie, he’s not worth it!!!’ In short, to some readers’ annoyance, Garner has a way of bringing her audience into her head.

Garner and icon status

Another admirable facet to Garner is her status as an Australian literary icon. Her legacy began with Monkey Grip, which was one of the first success stories under the female-helmed publisher, McPhee Gribble. As Sofie Laguna writesMonkey Grip ‘heralded a new way of writing; honest, rough-edged and unafraid…it was extraordinary and, in its time, radical.’ 

In the years since Monkey Grip’s publication, Garner’s icon status has only grown. She is consistently featured on best-of lists and is a staple in university creative writing courses (in a non-fiction unit, I spent an entire week on Garner). Garner’s reach is also not limited to our shores; when I spotted three of her books on the shelf at McNally Jackson (SoHo, New York), I thought to myself ‘I will never be able to escape Helen Garner.’

There are some, however, who are also critical of Garner’s career. For instance, Garner has stepped into many ethical minefields over the years, particularly with The First Stone

Garner’s approach to reporting on the sexual harassment scandal at Ormond College was both controversial in content and execution, and came under fire from feminists across the country (most notably, Virginia Trioli’s 1996 Generation F and its 2019 follow-up). As Gay Alcorn puts it, The First Stone was ‘savage and whiny and journalistically flawed’. Additionally, whilst Monkey Grip was revolutionary for its time, several authors have since expanded the canon of Australian female writers – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung and Melissa Lucashenko are but a few that come to mind. Perhaps it is also time we give them a chance to shine as much as Garner.

A decision (of sorts)

At this point, I might be expected to somehow solve this paradox and pick a side, but I am not going to. Sorry!

When I set out to write this post, I thought an answer would come to me through writing, as it often does. Yet here I am, still a piece of plastic in the magnetic field, unmoved after weighing up both sides of the Garner camp. Nevertheless, I have realised something. Call me a fence- sitter, but if I were to pick sides, I would be flattening Garner’s complexity. To blindly adore her work is to ignore the more problematic areas of her legacy; but to hate her work outright is to deny that legacy altogether. As I have found, Garner is – in a way – like the rest of us: a brilliant, flawed and complicated person. Who am I to take that away from her by choosing a side?

Bridget Schwerdt is a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing student at the University of Melbourne and a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course. When she’s not studying, Bridget is either working at one of her three jobs (inflation, cost of living crisis etc.), busting a move at her local dance studio or dreaming of the day she’ll have time to finish writing her first novel.

Feature image: Fitzroy pool famously appears in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. Photo from user Ashton_29 on Wikimedia commons. Available with a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. 

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