39 Comments
Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards, Bri Lee

Urgh Bri this is why I subscribe to News&Reviews!!! I've only read some of Garner's short stories (From "Everywhere I Look") but this was fabulous. Feminist/ethical/philosophical debate!!! Discussions and insights into Australia's literary scene from two brilliant Australian writers!!! Exploration of creative process and the boundaries of fiction/nonfiction!!! Productivity/life balance content!!! Thanks so much!

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Thank you, Mabel!!! I love newsletter days. :) :)

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It is fun, isn’t it!?

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Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

Garner has always walked the fine line between fiction and non-fiction. I don’t try and work out what what is real and what isn’t because the ‘truth’ will always be through her experiences and therefore there will always be elements of fiction.

When I read her diaries I try and put all the noise and criticism aside and just be taken along for the ride of her amazing observation. I’m surprised with how affronted I feel with Astrid’s criticism of the diaries even though I rationally see the points you are making. My initial reaction is, do we have to critique everything, can’t some things just be for pure enjoyment? But I don’t know where you would draw the line. Astrid, would it make you feel better if it wasn’t marketed as non-fiction?

The part about being scared to say you don’t like a popular author has made me realise it feels so much more personal to criticise an authors work compared to just not liking a musicians song or album. I wonder if that’s because of the effort that we know goes into writing something? I never give less than 3 stars on Goodreads (your favourite Bri) even if they are an international best seller.

I completely agree that we would all be up in arms if it wasn’t a straight white male who was portrayed in the villain but holy moly isn’t it just juicy sweet revenge for how awfully he treated her. I love the diary entry where he asks her not to write about him in her diary. ooooops!

Thanks for sparking such an interesting discussion!

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'Along for the ride' is EXACTLY how I feel with the diaries. Yes.

And YES to the part about him asking her not to write about him LOL.

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Along for the ride, ha! I just wanted to fall of the bandwagon. ;)

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Yes! If these were published as ‘fiction’ I think I would have enjoyed the reading experience more. That wouldn’t answer the age old question with Garner’s work as to how much fact is in her fiction, but it would be a fundamentally different public assertion of intent.

And thank you for replying even though you felt a little affronted! I feel very out on a limb here because most people react that way (hence why I was hesitant in the first place). I think you are right - it does feel more personal to criticise a writer as opposed to a musician. Maybe it has something to do with how we consume writing? As in, reading is mostly a solitary experience, whereas listening to musician can be communal and public.

Also.. yes. This is totally ‘juicy sweet revenge’!

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But even if they were sold as 'fiction' people who still be doing the same guessing game about who is who, wouldn't they?

Astrid can you explain what you mean by 'different public assertion of intent'?

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Oh, agreed. People would still guess.

‘Different public assertion of intent’ is not very clear, is it? I meant releasing a work as fiction tells the reader some (or all) of the work is made up, whereas releasing a work as non-fiction asserts that most (or all) of the work is true.

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Are biographies classified as non-fiction? They almost need their own classification of ‘non-fiction-ish. I never pick up a biography thinking I’ll get the facts and figures of someone’s life. I know all their experiences are coloured by their values and experiences.

The guessing game as to who is who is part of the fun, like you’re reading something you shouldn’t be. That might just come down to a difference in personality or different reasons why we read.

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Yeah they go in the nonfiction section of a bookstore but I agree with the 'ish'.

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Jan 19, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards, Bri Lee

Thanks to Bri and Astrid especially, from me too for sparking such an interesting discussion. There's a few threads but as a singer and a songwriter (not famous) I had to comment on the strange idea that it's more personal to criticise an author's work than the work of a musician or songwriter. Singing is especially personal and the most arresting singers expose themselves, make themselves vulnerable. Afterall it's the actual visceral voice, the body that is expressing itself. Of course songs can be fluff but the good ones are both personal and universal.

I'm not a Garner fan, but haven't read much of her. Like many others here I found TFS confused, strangely unhinged from Garner's previous feminism, biased and even arrogant. Having known of Garner's amazing work at the Pram Factory in earlier times I wonder if our feminism is never absolutely consistent; we change as times change, as language becomes more precise, as our ideas more solid.

Isn't some of the diary just plain gossip? Is that worthy of anything?

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Jan 20, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards, Bri Lee

Thank you for your piece on Garner, Bri. I find her to be such a complicated woman/writer - and intimidating! I haven't read The First Stone (I've only read This House of Grief) but I was reading Virginia Trioli's Generation F (1996) which is a response to The First Stone, and it successfully put me off reading Garner's book, with its focus on excusing the actions of men.

Also hadn't realised Jenna Mead was part of it all - she was one of my English lecturers at UTAS (as was her husband, Phillip Mead), back in oh, 2000? 2001? and I loved her to bits. It's thanks to her that I fell in love with the Australian landscape, and Australian lit (which I, like many young white Australians, had previously been bored by, or considered ugly/daggy etc.).

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Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards, Bri Lee

I did The Year of Helen Garner ™️ last year, after attending the writing workshops in Tassie! I felt like everyone knew about Helen, and I didn’t. I’d also heard the gals on Chat10Looks3 sing her praises, so I wanted to know what all of the fuss was about.

I ✨despised✨ The First Stone and ✨loathed ✨Monkey Grip. But, as I settled into the year I started picking up what she was putting down. I loved The Spare Room. I can’t remember which book it was in, but in one of her collections of short stories I read something she’d written about her relationships with her sisters and felt like she’d gotten into my mind and taken my own thoughts. I loved reading the diaries, because I felt like I was getting to know her thoughts in the way she apparently read mine. And I hate V’s guts.

I don’t think you can spend that much time reading someone’s work and not appreciate it. By the end of the year I felt like I knew Helen quite well. I don’t think we’d be mates, but I appreciate her work. Except The First Stone and Monkey Grip. But I might go back and read them, now that Helen and I are so tight, and see if I like them more...

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Hahaha I'm not surprised so many people in the comments ~despised TFS~ but I am surprised so many of you didn't like Monkey Grip! I thought it was a real snapshot of a time and place!

I'm glad you persisted and feel like you got something real out of the reading journey. :) xx

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Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

Re the Q&A about reading - I have a ‘normal’ job and read close to 100 books a year (I got to 94 before I went travelling around Europe and my reading dropped at the end of last year). For me I make a conscious effort to schedule it into my day and definitely feel I can engage with the texts 😊

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I knew someone would take (rightful) umbridge at this!

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Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards, Bri Lee

What an amazing read!! Thank you Astrid and Bri for your insights. I think it is very interesting that Astrid commented on the ethical choice of Garner publishing the breakdown of her marriage, likely without the consent of her then partner, during the time when this same conversation is being had on a global scale about Prince Harry. At first I didn’t really feel sorry for any of the royal family - it seems all a bit tit for tat - but maybe I have less sympathy (none) for them as white men of extreme wealth and privilege. I don’t know, whoever you are divorce and family breakdowns are tragic... but I’m still not sure I feel sympathy for them, or Garner’s ex husband.

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Ooh, I hadn’t made the link with Harry’s book yet! I confess, I have a copy on my TBR pile.

Like you, I don’t feel sorry for any of these privileged men! They are all the same - boring and mostly horrid. But thinking V/Murray Bail is appalling in these diaries doesn’t stop my questions about Garner’s ethics either.

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I think it's interesting that you bring up the Prince Harry stuff. I watched this video by Leena Norms ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT7W0kyEd30 ) and I think that while she doesn't let him off the hook for his privilege, she brings an incredibly compassionate perspective to his story.

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I am not watching that video or reading any more coverage about Harry's book because I am ~busy~ but I do think there's a way in which Spare is the most extreme possible example illustrating the debate we're having: on the one hand, literal maximum privilege, white dude prince; on the other hand, devastating loss of parent and raised in abusive/toxic family.

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I do agree, but having read Spare (sorry, I get that you don't want to talk about it but I do and I've got no one to talk to about it!) the main focus is on the unhealthy relationship the royals have with the press, and the role of the media in general - lack of accountability etc - which compounded his trauma.

I mean it's an all-round fuck-up, often deliberately so, and there's space here to wonder: if this family didn't set the example of suppressing emotion & physical touch, and maintaining aloofness at all costs, but instead demonstrated compassion, empathy, understanding etc., could this not have a positive influence on English society (and further)? Because in maintaining class privilege they're also maintaining male privilege - everything's entwined? I like that Harry wants to be a human being instead of a Royal, and he's willing to learn/unlearn his unconscious racism etc.

I don't know, honestly, but I'm not willing to dismiss Harry simply because of the circumstances of his birth, any more than I'd want anyone to be dismissed due to who they were born as (though I acknowledge my privilege as a cishet white woman in saying that. I will sit in that discomfit).

I'm vy interested in the conversation about such things and thankful for this space :)

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Agreed. And what Norms points out is that particularly among people who consider themselves lefties, there is sometimes the assumption that the existence of the former cancels out the latter. Yes he is privileged, and no he hasn’t done the most he could do to address to that privilege, but he’s also a man who’s grown up with the press publishing intimate details of his life when he was literally a minor. The whole thing seems toxic and ridiculous, and it seems like he’s one of the few royals who’s trying to challenge the institution!

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I realise I’m late to comment, but I’m relieved by Astrid’s confessions around Garner’s work, because I don’t get it. I read the spare room and enjoyed it, but that may be because I sat by my husband in hospital as chemotherapy drugs were pumped into his body. I might not be able to properly criticise books with cancer as a theme because they hit close to home. Although I enjoyed it I wasn’t compelled to run to the library and borrow more of her works. Then I saw her speak at our local writers festival. She was witty, smart and compelling. So, I bought one of her books that was on sale. A big heavy thing, with a blue cover. The name escapes me. I was disappointed. Some sections I enjoyed, but for the most part I wasn’t compelled. I kept reading, telling myself that I mustn’t be smart enough to get Garner. So many people applaud her so it must be my lack of intelligence that is the problem. Yet reading Astrid’s piece and comments as she read the diaries made me realise that it’s ok if I don’t like Garner. It doesn’t make me lesser in anyway. So thank you Astrid for letting me see that, and thanks Bri for bringing this topic to the table. Without it I’d have likely always thought I was less than for not being a Garner fan.

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I'm so sorry to hear about your husband.

Thank you for this thoughtful comment; I'm so glad you got so much out of Astrid's piece. It's wonderful to be able to publish her and have so many people connect with her thoughts and feelings.

Best wishes. xx

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Jan 20, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

I really appreciate your honest approach to reading Garner, Astrid. You're right that there's a reluctance to critique literary icons. There's an elitism, a snobbery at play: prove how intelligent and superior you are by 'getting' certain literary works. I come across it constantly.

And some people *do* 'get it', sometimes due to an aspect of their education (for instance, a colleague appreciates Crime and Punishment a lot more than I do because of his background in philosophy and Russian lit, enabling him to see the analogies, whereas I could not get past the whiny self-indulgent-ness of the protagonist and didn't feel it had anything interesting to say about human nature), or because the author's writing style just works for them.

And then there's the trickiness of Murray Bail. I never knew he was married to Helen Garner (whatever happened to him, anyway?), but Eucalyptus is one of my all-time favourite novels. Years later I learned about the plagiarism, and now to read how shit of a patriarchal arse he was (is?), according to Garner anyway - how will this taint my reading of Eucalyptus? Sometimes you just want to enjoy a book for its own sake, and other times knowing more about context expands the reading experience.

I guess all I'm trying to say is that there doesn't seem to be one 'right' way of reading - and I'm keen to How to Read Now, now, so thank you for that recommendation!

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There is no ‘right’ way of reading! Ever. And it is possible for one reader to read a work differently at different stages of life etc.

One of my favourite books as a teenager was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley... and she has now had serious accusations levelled against her and I probably will never be able to read the book again. It is always a negotiation between reader and book, I think.

I do resent the snobbery and elitism though. In some ways I am a part of it - I taught Classical Latin at a girls high school, so if you want literary snobbery I can deal that in spades. But mostly I think that elitism gets in the way of a wide and vibrant reading life. And the funny thing is, in Australia at least, literary books tend to sell poorly. So we put things on a pedestal and then no one reads them!

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Jan 19, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

This sheds more light on Garner's approach to non-fiction, or is it the mixing of fiction and non-fiction. A fascinating read.

https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/this-house-of-grief-helen-garner/

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This is interesting 'But whatever shift in attitude The First Stone may or may not have represented, it is now clear that it was a turning point in her writing life, which now divides into distinct halves: the first dominated by fiction, the second by non-fiction. ' I think also her marriage to V meant she stepped away from fiction, right? Doesn't she talk somewhere about giving him that turf? Feeling like she had to make space for him?

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Jan 20, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

I think that's correct - all of what you said. Much of the discussion really seems to centre around Garner's type of non-fiction. By making herself; her opinions (with a lot of sentimentality), her personality, such a pivotal part of the non-fiction, it knocks on the door of traditional non-fiction. Astrid has written about this.

I've just read This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham. It's partly about fiction and non-fiction, combining the two. It's multi-layered and really engaging. She uses the mixture of the two to add another layer of interest, even intrigue. I think it's masterful.

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And Sophie’s ‘This Devastating Fever’ is shelved in fiction!

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Yeah, the diaries make it clear she stepped away from fiction during her marriage because she didn’t think V would cope. She saw that - or more accurately she understood he saw that - as his turf.

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Bri, I am thrilled you write a reply to my piece! And love that you disagree. That is part of a healthy reading culture.

Your essay on Garner’s ‘The First Stone’ has helped me clarify my thinking a little. Part of my discomfort with the diaries related to the method Garner used. It has two parts - the original diary entries, written as she saw fit decades ago, as well as the recent decision to tweak/edit/publish them. It is the second part I find so damn not enjoyable.

I am going to go hard again on my desire for some form of published contextual statement, whether it be an introduction or an editorial comment or an authors note, whatever. Garner’s choice (or that of her publisher). If readers don’t care about that then sweet, they don’t have to read it. For readers who do, they have it there. When we consider published works that go to print (I realise that is an old school phrase), THAT is what the creator is putting out there. This is why second and later editions of works so often have new comments or statements, because things need clarifying or have changed or there is new insight etc. Those statements are gifts to a reader. Garner on the speaking circuit obviously adds to someone’s reading of these dairies, but why should an interested reader have to be up to date on whatever Garner has said on stage or on a podcast?

Also, I do think that some diary entries included could lead to confusion about people still very much alive and in the literary/journalism scene. For example, who is the ‘journalist with dangly earrings’ that Garner so clearly does not like? I assumed it was Virginia Trioli although it is apparently not. As a reader I still find it irritating. Whoever you are, I want to high five you! It strikes me as disrespectful to the reader to leave specific things (I’m referring to things that are factual, for example, a public interview that was or was not conducted; I am not referring to emotional or intangible things) without clarification.

I am loving this discussion, by the way.

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I do agree with this: 'Garner on the speaking circuit obviously adds to someone’s reading of these dairies, but why should an interested reader have to be up to date on whatever Garner has said on stage or on a podcast?' And I think I didn't explain my position clearly. I don't think people should have to go seek out interviews and paratexts to explain a book--definitely not. The work is the work. What I more meant was that her approach, once explained, was entirely predictable and sort of stock-standard.

I wonder too, using the woman with dangly earrings as an example, is it more protective of minor characters' anonymity to have the reader guessing from amongst a dozen people it could have been? I feel like maybe that does less damage than specifying who it was.

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‘Stock standard’. That is interesting. How can or why is a work be of interest to so many people if the approach is stock standard?

And true, not identifying someone explicitly does provide a cloak of anonymity. I will never know who the journalist with dangly earrings is, and it is not actually for me to know.

Garner uses a few different ways to de-identify people. Not naming, of course. Referring to people as a letter of the alphabet (which in no way de-identifies them). And I suppose she conflated people as well - and by that I mean not naming someone means she could be refer to someone over and over again and we might never know.

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Jan 18, 2023Liked by Astrid Edwards

I have had an experience reading Garner much closer to yours than all the lovers. My first Garner was Joe Cinque's consolation which I loved, but I lived a couple of streets away from the house he lived in and was physically immersed in the books setting at the time of reading and for a large chunk of my life so my enjoyment of the book was heavily influenced by this. Monkey Grip was really meh for me. I didn't hate it but didn't love it either. I never finished the children's bach and didn't gravitate to Garner again after that until I decided to read along with you having also not formed a clear opinion or comprehending the hype. I paused after the second diary to read The First Stone and honestly, it felt so strange to me that she wrote that book while in her diary expressing her frustration with how V treated her and approached their relationship. Obviously sexual assaults and strained relationships are not at all the same thing but I just kept thinking about how she expected the women (and from her tone all women) to assert their power in situations with men, all the while she's not asserting herself in her own intimate and seemingly safe relationship! The premise of the book, her not having a fixed opinion and seeking clarity, seemed great and I was hoping for more than what it actually was, Garner waffling on about her failed attempts at reaching the holy grail of the accusers to what? Have them argue their case for her own personal gratification at telling them they're wrong? It never really felt like she would have been open to altering her initial take on the situation no matter the case presented to her.

I also don't understand her feminism and disliked the lack of editing clarity and footnotes in the diaries. When I think about the diaries as fiction it doesn't really change much for me. Her work makes me think about a perspective I don't encounter much which provides me greater materials for understanding it which I'm grateful for but like you, my overall opinion is that reading Garner is a bit of a chore.

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Reflecting on TFS after reading the diaries is so shocking. I originally wrote more about this-in a very similar vein to what you've added in your comment here--but I didn't want to descend too far into armchair psychology. I don't know what the line is there, between literary criticism that compares and contrasts two texts by an author who is also the protagonist, and what... presumptuous psychobabble? There are just such CLEAR overlaps where her frustrations at herself and transferred into frustrations at the young women. Very similar language even sometimes.

Definitely this: 'It never really felt like she would have been open to altering her initial take on the situation no matter the case presented to her.' Which is why, I believe, she was willing to let that Professor J- 'get away' instead of using the notes to damn the master. Very not-okay in my books!

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Mahalia, I see you! And I now desperately wish I had dismissed Monkey Grip with he confidence of ‘meh’. It is a while since I read The First Stone, but your insight here is fascinating. And also, ‘waffling on’. I agree.

More importantly though, your comment about her own ‘personal gratification for telling them that they are wrong’ rings true for me.

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Agree agree agree.

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