Helen Garner’s Writing Life: Autobiography and the Fictive Self

imageBernadette Brennan’s account of Helen Garner’s writing career, A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work (Text Publishing, 2017), provides what Brennan terms a “literary portrait” focused on the writing, rather than a biography. She achieves what the title suggests, proceeding chapter by chapter through the written works, and linking the writing of these works to a broad chronology of Garner’s life.

While Brennan’s choice of a literary portrait works well on its own terms, discussion of other Australian writers and literary influences on Garner is limited, and the issue of how autobiographical writing declines the opportunity to maintain a sense of fictional distance from the writer’s self is not fully explored in comparisons with other writers of novels in English.

This is a gap in Brennan’s book, given that one of the most controversial aspects of Helen Garner’s reputation as an Australian novelist of international note is the autobiographical nature of her fiction. Overseas reviews of Garner’s novels do not appear to be so concerned with this issue. For example, a review by James Wood, one of the most eminent literary critics in the English- speaking world, does not even mention the issue of autobiography versus fiction. In fact Wood acknowledges the value of introspection in her writing, saying that “Garner’s gradual awakening to her unadmitted anger is what gives her best book, her novel The Spare Room (2008), much of its shattering power.” (James Wood, 2016).

However, the Australian reviewer Robert Dessaix remarked, in a review of the The Spare Room, Garner’s 2008 novel about the death of a close friend: “A novel is primarily a work of fiction with an architectonic quality to it that transcribed diaries just don’t have.” He goes on to say that The Spare Room does not satisfy these criteria, but is rather “a hard-hitting, flinty-eyed report from the front, not a novel.” To cap it off, Dessaix asserts that not one of Garner’s published “novels” actually qualify for the genre, including the most famous, Monkey Grip, her first novel published in 1977.

Monkey Grip is called a novel, The Children’s Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino short novels, and now The Spare Room (Text, 208pp; $29.95) is declared “a perfect novel” by Peter Carey on the back cover. But they are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels? (Robert Dessaix, 2008)

There is a sense of feeling cheated, perhaps, with a sense that Garner’s novels somehow do not “qualify” as fiction. And Dessaix is not the only Australian critic to pursue this theme. As Brennan notes, criticism of Helen Garner’s autobiographical tendencies have been a big issue in Australia from Monkey Grip onwards. There is something else though, that emerges in a remark by Dessaix which may be intended as laudatory, but sounds more like a backhanded compliment:

Nobody writes these reports from the suburban front line with quite the passion, the abrupt insights and kitchen-table candour of Helen Garner. The Spare Room is a quietly devastating book, written with superbly refined ordinariness, on ageing, women’s friendship and how to look death in the eye.” (Robert Dessaix, 2008)

On the face of it, Dessaix regards Garner’s fiction as somehow domestic and suburban in a derogatory sense, the sort of limited stuff that female writers engage in, the world of the kitchen table in the article’s title. This is part of a broader current of literary criticism in the English-speaking world which has, since Jane Austen, seen fiction by female writers as overly concerned with “domestic” issues. On this note, Becca Rothfeld makes the point that male writers with strong autobiographical tendencies have received the sort of acclaim denied to female writers who exercise “the privilege of writing about oneself”:


How nice it would be to be afforded the luxury of narcissism — the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter. And yet the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical. (Becca Rothfeld, 2015)

Brennan comes down firmly on Garner’s side of the argument about autobiography and fiction. She approvingly quotes Helen Garner’s response in the course of discussing The Spare Room:

It is morally a novel even though it’s very closely based on my real experience of those three terrible weeks in my life. By calling it a novel I’m saying: this is not a memoir, this is not non-fiction, this is a novel and there will be things in here that are invented, that didn’t really happen, and I’m going to take…every sort of liberty I need to take in order to turn it into the sort of book I want want it to be. (Quoted in Bernadette Brennan 2017, page 244)

However, Brennan does not take the wider view of comparing Garner’s work to the autobiographical novels of other writers, especially male writers. One reviewer who does make comparisons of Garner with other writers is Ceridwen Dovey, in particular with Karl Ove Knausgaard, a current Norwegian writer of autobiographical novels filled with domestic details from a male viewpoint. Knausgaard writes tell-all novels about himself, and his family and friends, grinding through a ton of domestic detail, from his years of teenage angst to the trials and tribulations of a struggling writer staying at home to look after the kids. Dovey notes that Knausgaard “has essentially appropriated a mode of expression long used by female writers, who have a history of forensically depicting the subterranean war between the banalities of domestic life and the transcendence of artistic life.”

Knausgaard’s case is a powerful example of the risks of forgoing fictional distance from the self of the writer. He has become a celebrity by writing a blow-by-blow account of such things as his alcoholic father’s death and his relationship with his partner. Knausgaard is the epitome of an autobiographical approach to writing a novel where no effort is made to disguise the real-life characters.


Apart from causing deep offence to individuals, another risk to the writer of “autobiographical fiction” is revealing parts of yourself that are not attractive, wittingly or unwittingly. Thus Knausgaard has left himself open to a devastating review by William Deresiewicz, who excoriates Knausgaard for his obsession with self, and his lack of artistic talent and imagination:

Novels matter because of what they have to tell us about people in general, not about the people who write them… With its subject and size, “My Struggle” has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s “Recherche”, the great prose epic of the self remembered — comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the “Recherche” contains that “Min Kamp” does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. (William Deresiewicz, 2014)

Deresiewicz’s comments on Knausgaard are interesting to compare with Helen Garner’s case. This is where the “savage self scrutiny” that James Wood praises Garner for comes into play.

…Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself. In “The Spare Room” (2008), her exacting autobiographical novel about looking after that dying friend, she describes not only the expected indignities of caring for a patient—the soaked bedsheets, the broken nights—but her own impatience, her own rage: “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger.” (James Wood, 2016)

This novelistic exploration of rage, grief and despair is the stuff of fiction, and has been a major feature of Helen Garner’s writing since the publication of her first novel. Nora, the narrator in Monkey Grip (1977), worries incessantly about the challenges and torments of love and sex, in a 1970’s setting in Melbourne where free love is all the go amongst a group of arty types. As jealousies arise and people get hurt in the story, Nora is left wondering, amongst other things, about her own role in hurting her female friends through a sexual liaison with their partners, and the impact of the same situation on her own psyche. However much the novel may seem to be about drugs and free love, it is more broadly a novel about love, jealousy and sexual passion. These are universal themes in fiction, hardly “domestic” issues for the kitchen table.

As Garner notes in a quote featured in Brennan’s book, the distinctions made by some critics about writing a diary as against a novel are based on some dubious assumptions:

Why the sneer in ‘All she’s done is publish her diaries’? It’s as if this were cheating. As if it were lazy. As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language. (Quoted in Bernadette Brennan, 2017, page 37).

Interestingly, Garner has consistently made a spirited defence of the writer’s duty to make judgements about their world, citing the fact that she is “tough on herself”, so that in some sense this justifies being tough on others. I don’t see the need for this line of argument, given that her writing rises above its immediate context in its exploration of universal themes, in terse poetic prose that makes her such an outstanding writer.

It is also interesting that Garner has launched a new career in “non-fiction” in recent years, a choice that has caused a lot of comment. To me the labels “fiction” and “non-fiction” aren’t that helpful, given that in both genres, writers are unlikely to overcome personal bias in the process of creating an authorial self. It is the quality of the writing that is paramount, and the lens through which the world is perceived, rather than whether we can identify if stuff actually happened.


Bernadette Brennan. A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work. Text Publishing, 2017.

Ceridwen Dovey. The pencil and the damage done. The Monthly, November, 2014. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/ceridwen- dovey/pencil-and-damage-done

William Deresiewicz. Why Has “My Struggle” Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece? The Nation, May 13, 2014. http://www.thenation.com/article/179853/why-has-my-struggle-been-anointed-literary-masterpiece

Robert Dessaix. Kitchen-table Candour: Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’. The Monthly, April, 2008. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2008/april/1343620158/robert-dessaix/kitchen-table-candour

Helen Garner. The Spare Room. Text Publishing, 2008.

–––––– Monkey Grip. McPhee Gribble. 1977.

Karl Ove Knausgaard. My Struggle, Books 1 – 6. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013 – 2018.

Becca Rothfeld. What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias. April 28, 2015. https://hyperallergic.com/187257/what-the-cult-of-knausgaard-tells-us-about-critical-bias/

James Wood. Helen Garner’s Savage Self-Scrutiny. The New Yorker, December 12, 2016.  https://www .newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/12/helen-garners-savage-self-scrutiny


Author: J.W. Garton

J.W. Garton lives in the hills outside Melbourne, Australia. His favourite writers include Penelope Fitzgerald, Patrick White, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

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