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Demystifying Helen Garner: Part Two

November 16, 2012

By Alice Robinson

When it comes to arguing about the similarities, differences, cross-overs and relationships between fiction and non-fiction writing, there really isn’t a better poster girl for the debate than Helen Garner. Almost every interview about, or review of, her writing worries at whether the book in question – be it Monkey Grip, The Spare RoomJoe Cinque’s Consolation or any of her other troubling, category-resistant works – is really rooted fiction, or fact.

There exists a deep and seemingly inexhaustable readerly interest in the factuality of particular texts. Readers seem to desire some kind of assurance regarding the precise impact of the writer on the way they have represented real people, ideas and events in their work. Readers want to know exactly which parts of a work are true (a fraught notion in of itself), and with which the writer has taken “liberties”. The desire to pin down the boundaries between what is true and what has been embellished or made up is particularly strong if a work is marketed as memoir, in which case there is an expectation that adherence to some kind of “reality” has been observed. Some writers – like Robin Hemley, and in quite a different way, Dave Eggers – address the uncertainty around representing a definitive, universal reality or truth head on in the way they construct their texts. But it seems to me that most writers who set out to write about life struggle to articulate exactly how they have impacted the construction of the events they have set down. Some magical alchemy occurs in the writing process. Reality, memory and language collide, terraforming new versions of the past. It can be a difficult task to articulate exactly in what way those new versions are, or are not, aligned with the lived experience (and whose lived experience, exactly?)

When it comes to fiction writing, all the same readerly anxieties apply, only in reverse. If a work is marketed as fiction then the reader can safely assume that the narrative and characters are the work of the writer’s imagination…or can they? If there is any hint whatsoever that the writer has drawn upon their own life to construct their novel or story, then readers go berserk for uncovering which parts of the seemingly fictional text are “true”, and to what extent. As a case in point, I think it is fair to say that readers and reviewers found Garner’s novel The Spare Room particularly troubling, particularly since the protagonist, though not necessarily Garner herself, was named Helen. To complicate matters further, Garner was open about the fact that she had drawn upon her experience with a sick friend in order to write the “novel”. There is a great discussion of Garner’s writing and its failure to satisfactorily or comfortably fit as either fiction or nonfiction here, in The Monthly.

All of this is, in part, why I get my students to read Garner’s work every semester as part of my Writing Fiction class. Her work makes for such fertile grounds for discussion (and argument). Is the writing fiction, or nonfiction? How do we define either one and who has the right to categorise? Why do we care either way? All you’re gunning for as a university lecturer in a tutorial situation is to get some good, hearty discussion going. Often, achieving this is no small task, particularly as the semester grinds on and students become weighed down by all the pressures of school work, and life. However, I find that when we read Garner’s work my job is made far easier. The conversation is rich and easy, a pleasure to behold.

I’ve been teaching Writing Fiction for some time, and while I ensure that much of the material changes from semester to semester, I almost always encourage my students to read one particular set of stories as part of the course. The stories form what I like to think of as a literary spat or intrigue, one chartered across published short fiction and essay. They are so compelling because they seem to sum up many of the issues around defining fiction and nonfiction I’ve outlined above…and more I haven’t, including for example, questions of ownership over particular lives and narratives, and the writer’s boundaries and responsibilities when it comes to representing other people in text.

The first story we look at is Helen Garner’s ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, published in Postcards from Surfers in 1985. This is a crisp little love story of sorts. In it, the protagonist, a single mother, has an affair with a married man, Philip, depicted as a kind of charming man-child. I wanted to say to him, to someone, ‘Listen. Listen. I am hopelessly in love.’ But I hung on, the protagonist says at the end of the story, arguably resigned to Philip’s inadequacies but helpless in the face of them, anyway.

The second story we look at is Kate Jennings’ ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ – published several years after the Garner story in 1990 – in Jenning’s collection of stories, Women Falling Down in the Street. The story opens like this:

Philip. Yes, I knew Philip. I was one of the women who had their hearts broken by him. Or broke their hearts over him, a distinction that did not escape the notice of a famous Australian woman writer in a recent short story…What surprised me most about her story was that she did not bother to change Philip’s name.

Jennings goes on to dissect Garner’s version of events, and of Philip: The writer depicts Philip in her story as a footloose wanderer traversing the dark nights of the soul. I beg to differ. Philip was a hustler. Now the students are really interested. Jennings has published something outing Garner’s so-called fiction as fact! Philip exists! But which version of this Philip character is correct? And in writing their version of events, which writer has conducted themselves in the right way? Should Garner have used Philip’s name? Should Jennings have responded to Garner’s story as she did? Where is the truth of the matter in these two pieces?

The third piece we look at is another of Jennings’, an essay titled ‘Moral Trouble’, from her book Bad Manners,published a few years later still in 1993. In this piece Jennings reflects on the many issues that can arise between writers and readers when the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are unclear, or are open to interpretation.

When I was preparing my book of short stories, Women Falling Down in the Street, for publication, I toyed with the idea of using a sentence from a novel by Tim O’Brien as an epigraph: ‘A thing may happen and be a total lie; another may not happen and be truer than the truth’. It would have been a signal to the reader not to take the book at face value. In the end, I left it out, but I rather wish I hadn’t, because many people took the stories as being the unvarnished truth.

Now the students are wondering whether ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ is really all it appears to be – is Jennings’ account fictional, or fact? Which did she intend it to be at the time? Is this new essay merely an attempt to soothe some of the feelings hurt by what she originally wrote? This question, in particular, is always of interest to the students. Is ‘Moral Trouble’ an explanation, an alibi or an apology, if any of the above? Jennings goes on to addresses the fallout from ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ when she writes: ‘Several years back a boyfriend, circa 1974, threatened to sue me’. We take it that she means Philip. The plot thickens.

The fourth piece we look at is an article that writer Caroline Baum published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. In this piece, Baum describes how she was sent the proofs for Women Falling Down in the Street for an advanced reading. She mentioned to the friend she was staying with at the time that she thought Jennings had written about Helen Garner and a man called Philip F. The friend, another writer, ‘looked extremely uncomfortable. Philip F could only be one man. “He is one of our closest friends.”‘ Baum’s friend immediately asked to read the story, but as it hadn’t yet been published, Baum balked. The friend read it anyway behind Baum’s back and immediately called Philip F, who threatened to sue Jennings for defamation. Of all this, Baum writes, ‘An unrepentant Jennings says now: “That whole story was a satire sending up people who write so close to life and let imagination take a holiday’. We can assume that she is having a dig at Garner, but what is really interesting about all this is that reach of the fiasco; how, when “real life” is written about (or at least, when readers think that “real life” is being represented) just how many people are affected and implicated. Not only those who are appropriated for the page, but also their friends and acquaintances, even readers and reviewers.

Anyone who thinks that writing is an innocent, contained act cannot possibly hope to hold onto that notion after following the paper trail I’ve just outlined. Writing is a fascinating, sometimes dangerous, minefield. At the end of the class, my students certainly leave with plenty to think about.

So, this brings me to the question I asked Garner. Considering the above, what I really wanted to know was what she had made of all of this. After all, it was her story ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ that provoked the ensuing series of (litigious) publications, spanning almost a decade, and entangled so many people in the complex contact zones between fiction and nonfiction writing, and exposed poor Philip to so much writing and rewriting.

As Garner was preparing to leave the workshop, I took my chance.
“Excuse me, Helen? Can I ask you a question?”
I hastily explained that I got my students to read her story in class every year, and that we always debated it heartily in of itself, and in relation to the Jennings and Baum pieces that followed it.
“I’d really love to know what you think about that whole thing,” I said. “I mean, I’m curious to know why you used Philip’s real name to begin with, and what you made of Jennings portrayal of you and he later on.” At first, Garner seemed perplexed, unsure of which story I meant.
“There’s always someone called Philip in my stories,” she said. I was mildly surprised that this fascinating literary feud, something that had so engrossed my students and I, was so peripheral to her – but also, I wasn’t. It seemed to fit. (Recently I’ve heard a number of writers deride academic ponderings of their writing and its so-called meanings, but that’s a post in of itself). In any case, I went into considerable detail in order to jog Garner’s memory.
“I mean that story Jennings responded to,” I concluded. “You know. About your boyfriend, Philip.”
Garner appraised me, thinking. Then she broke into a smile. “Oh, that one. I don’t know what all that was about. My story was entirely made up.”

I had to laugh. That we had spent so long debating a story we had read as partly, if not entirely, autobiographical – alongside Jennings and Baum – when it was, according to its author, just a work of fiction.

Helen Garner is giving a keynote speech on the 22nd of November as part of NonfictioNow. You can purchase stand alone tickets for her event through The Wheeler Centre, or attend one or all three days of the conference if you’re keen to soak up the wisdom of the other exciting and esteemed panelists as well.

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