Helen Garner

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Helen Garner (born 7 November 1942) is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist.

Garner's first novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, and immediately established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene. She is known for incorporating and adapting her personal experiences in her fiction, something that has brought her both praise and criticism, particularly with her novels, Monkey Grip and The Spare Room.

Throughout her career, Garner has written both fiction and non-fiction. She attracted controversy with her book The First Stone about a sexual harassment scandal in a university college. She has also written for film and theatre, and has consistently won awards for her work.


Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria,[1] the eldest of six children.[2] She attended Manifold Heights State School, Ocean Grove State School and then The Hermitage in Geelong. She went on to study at the University of Melbourne,[3] residing at Janet Clarke Hall,[4] and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with majors in English and French.[2]

Between 1966 and 1972, Garner worked as a high-school teacher at various Victorian high schools. During this time, in 1967, she also travelled overseas and met Bill Garner, whom she married in 1968 on their return to Australia.[2] Her only child, the actor, musician and writer Alice Garner, was born in 1969, and her marriage ended in 1971.[2]

In 1972, she was sacked by the Victorian Department of Education for "giving an unscheduled sex-education lesson to her 13-year-old students at Fitzroy High School".[2] The case was widely publicised in Melbourne, bringing Garner a degree of notoriety.

Garner married two more times: Jean-Jacques Portail (1980–85) and Australian writer Murray Bail (born 1941). She is no longer married.[5]

Her sister Catherine Ford is also a writer of fiction.

In 2003, a portrait of Garner, titled True Stories, painted by Jenny Sages, was a finalist in the Archibald Prize.

Fiction writing[edit]

Garner came to prominence at a time when Australian writers were relatively few in number, and Australian women writers were, by some, considered a novelty. Australian academic and writer, Kerryn Goldsworthy, writes that "From the beginning of her writing career Garner was regarded as, and frequently called, a stylist, a realist, and a feminist".[6]

Her first novel, Monkey Grip (1977), relates the lives of a group of welfare recipients living in student-style accommodation in Melbourne. Years later she stated that she had adapted it directly from her personal diaries. The book was very successful: it won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982.[1] In fact, Goldsworthy suggests that the success of Monkey Grip may well have helped revive the careers of two older but largely ignored Australian women writers, Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley.[7] Thea Astley wrote of the novel that "I am filled with envy by someone like Helen Garner for instance. I re-read Monkey Grip a while ago and it's even better second time through".[8] Critics have retrospectively applied the term Grunge Lit to describe Monkey Grip, citing its depiction of urban life and social realism as being key aspects of later works in the subgenre.[9]

In subsequent books, she has continued to adapt her personal experiences. Her later novels are: The Children's Bach (1984) and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992). In 2008 she returned to fiction writing with the publication of The Spare Room, a fictional treatment of caring for a dying cancer patient, based on the illness and death of Garner's friend Jenya Osborne.[5] She has also published several short story collections: Honour & Other People's Children: two stories (1980), Postcards from Surfers (1985) and My Hard Heart: Selected Fictions (1998).

In 1986, Australian academic and critic, Don Anderson, wrote of The Children's Bach: "There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Garner's The Children's Bach."[10] The Australian composer Andrew Schultz wrote an opera of the same name which premiered in 2008.

Garner said, in 1985, that writing novels was like "trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of our own lives and bits of other people's, and things we think of in the middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected details".[11] In an interview in 1999, she said that "My initial reason for writing is that I need to shape things so I can make them bearable or comprehensible to myself. It's my way of making sense of things that I've lived and seen other people live, things that I'm afraid of, or that I long for".[12]

Not all critics have liked Garner's work. Goldsworthy writes that "It is certainly the case that Garner is someone whose work elicits strong feelings ... and people who dislike her work are profoundly irritated by those who think she is one of the best writers in the country".[13] Novelist and reviewer, Peter Corris wrote in his review of Monkey Grip that Garner "has published her private journal rather than written a novel" while Peter Pierce wrote in Meanjin of Honour and Other People's Children that Garner "talks dirty and passes it off as realism".[14] Goldsworthy suggests that these two statements imply that she is not really a writer. Craven, though, argues that her novella, The Children's Bach, "should put paid to the myth of Helen Garner as a mere literalist or reporter",[15] arguing, in fact, that it "is light years away from any sprawling-tell-it-all naturalism, [that] it is concentrated realism of extraordinary formal polish and the amount of tonal variation which it gets from its seemingly simple plot is multifoliate to the point of being awesome".[16]


Most of her novels address "sexual desire and the family", exploring "the relationship between sexual behaviour and social organisation; the anarchic nature of desire and the orderly force of the institution of 'family'; the similarities and differences between collective households and nuclear families; the significance and the language of housework; [and] the idea of 'the house' as image, symbol, site and peace."[17]

Craven comments that Garner is "always an extremely accurate writer in terms of the emotional states she depicts".[18]

Screen writing[edit]

She has written three screenplays: Monkey Grip (1982), written with and directed by Ken Cameron; Two Friends (1986), directed by Jane Campion for TV; and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Critic Peter Craven writes that "Two Friends is arguably the most accomplished piece of screenwriting the country has seen and it is characterised by a total lack of condescension towards the teenage girls at its centre".[19]

Non-fiction writing[edit]

Garner has written non-fiction from the beginning of her career as a writer. In 1972 she was fired from her teaching job after publishing in The Digger, a counter-culture magazine, an anonymous account of frank and extended discussions she had with her students about sexuality and sexual activities. She wrote for this magazine from 1972 to 1974.[2] In 1993, she won a Walkley Award for her TIME magazine account of a murder trial following the death of a toddler at the hands of his stepfather.

One of her most famous and controversial books is The First Stone (1995), an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at Ormond College. It was a best-seller in Australia but also attracted considerable criticism. Garner's other non-fiction books are: True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction (1996), The Feel of Steel (2001), Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief - The Story of a Murder Trial (2014). She also contributed to La Mama, the Story of a Theatre (1988).

Awards and nominations[edit]



Short story collections[edit]



Essays and reporting[edit]

Critical studies and reviews of Garner's work[edit]

  • Plunkett, Felicity (Sep 2014). "Our terrible projections : Helen Garner and the corridors of empathy". Australian Book Review. 364: 15–17.  Review of This house of grief.


  1. ^ a b "Helen Garner Brief Biography". Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Retrieved 24 July 2007. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Goldsworthy (1996) p. ix
  3. ^ Wyndham (2006)
  4. ^ Garner (1995) p. 164
  5. ^ a b Legge, Kate (29 March 2008). "Truly Helen". The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved 16 April 2008. 
  6. ^ Goldsworthy (1996) p. 1
  7. ^ Goldsworthy (1996) p. 14
  8. ^ Goldsworthy (1996) p. 15
  9. ^ Vernay, Jean-François, "Grunge Fiction", The Literary Encyclopedia, 6 November 2008, accessed 9 September 2009
  10. ^ "A master is rescued", The National Times, 20–26 June 1986, p. 34
  11. ^ cited by McPhee (2001) pp. 244–245
  12. ^ cited by Grenville and Woolfe (2001) p. 71
  13. ^ Goldsworthy (1996) p. 20
  14. ^ both cited by Goldsworthy (1996) p. 18–19
  15. ^ Craven (1985) p. 209
  16. ^ Craven (1985) p. 213
  17. ^ Goldsworthy (1996) p. 28
  18. ^ Craven (1985) p. 210
  19. ^ Craven (1985) p. 9
  20. ^ "The Walkley Awards". The Walkleys. Retrieved 23 July 2007. 
  21. ^ "Ned Kelly Awards". Australian Crime Fiction Database. Retrieved 15 September 2007. 
  22. ^ "Melbourne Prize for Literature". Melbourne Prize Trust. Retrieved 1 November 2008. 
  23. ^ "Garner wins Vic Premier's literary prize". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 1 September 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2008. 
  24. ^ "Garner wins Qld Premier's literary award". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 16 September 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2008. 
  25. ^ Australian Crime Writers - 2015 Ned Kelly Award Winners
  26. ^ "Helen Garner learns of $207,000 literary prize win after checking junk email". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 2 March 2016. Retrieved 2 March 2016. 
  27. ^ "Helen Garner". Windham–Campbell Literature Prize. 29 February 2016. Retrieved 2 March 2016. 
  28. ^ "National Library of Australia - Helen Garner - Postcards from Surfers )". NLA Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  29. ^ "My Hard Heart: selected fictions )". NLA Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  30. ^ "True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction)". NLA Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  31. ^ "The Feel of Steel)". NLA Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 


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