20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sean O'Beirne, Setting

‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 138 pages; 2022.

On Helen Garner is the latest volume in an ongoing series about Australian writers written by Australian writers. There are ten in the series so far (see below) and this is the latest to be published.

Sean O’Beirne is a Melbourne writer, so it seems fitting that he would write about Helen Garner, who is also a Melbourne writer. I’m not familiar with O’Beirne’s work, but according to the blurb, he wrote a satirical short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End, which was shortlisted for several awards. He also works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria.

In this essay, it’s clear he is a deep thinker and not afraid to write intimate details about himself, traits he shares with Garner.

His main thesis is that Garner writes a “closeness to self” that allows her to be completely honest and open, to say the things that others may think but never say, and in doing so this allows her to get closer to the truth.

He argues that she does this in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her fiction, he says, is particularly close to the truth because much of it is based on her first-hand experiences or people she knows, and, indeed, Monkey Grip, her debut novel, was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career.

He compares this approach with other writers, including himself, who may get to the truth but only by using fictional characters as a foil to say the things the actual writer would be too guarded to say in non-fiction. He puts it like this:

And I notice too that in this whole book I haven’t given you one specific incident, telling as me, about my family, my dad, my mum. About Mr and Mrs O’Beirne. I can’t, I can’t give them to you. But ‘Mr and Mrs O’Dingle’ — I’ll tell you what those people did. As soon as I make some new names, as soon as I get the freedom of some substitution, it is remarkable, I get a feeling in my head like all the lights coming on, my own lit-up feeling of permission.

He explains how it isn’t just as simple as the use of first-person narratives, of inserting an “I” in the story, to get to this truth. The use of “I” is to act as an eye witness, to give a “sort of limited verification” of being present, that “I was in the room, these things happened, I saw them”.

But for many writers, including Janet Malcolm whom he references (and whom I love), this is a device used to suggest that the writer is a “participant observer” and that they know about the subject and are reporting it with a level of intelligence.

But what Garner does, argues O’Beirne, is to go one step further and not be afraid to admit that she’s confused or frustrated or angered or is out of her depth in situations in which she is reporting. And in doing that, the veil of objectivity, of being a passive observer, is lifted.

The book looks at Garner’s novels and short stories as well as her non-fiction books to make these points. Anyone who is familiar with Garner’s back catalogue will enjoy the references.

I have not read much of Garner’s fictional work so these did not resonate as much as her narrative non-fiction, including The First Stone (read pre-blog), Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and her diaries. It does make me keen to explore those works of fiction, though.

Writers on Writers series

The 10 books in the series are as follows:

And there’s a new one forthcoming: ‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks, which I will look forward to reading when it is available.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it earlier this year because I am a Garner fan and thought this would make for an interesting read.

14 thoughts on “‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)”

  1. Kim, you say that Monkey Grip ‘was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career’.

    At first glance this sounds both dismissive and accusatory, as if Helen had committed some kind of literary crime.

    If I could write diary entries as sharp, insightful, and honest as Helen’s have always been, I might also be a famous author. The Spare Room is also based on diary entries, as are her last three books (Yellow Notebook, One Day I’ll Remember This, and How to End a Story).

    In Helen’s case there is no such thing as ‘just’ a diary entry. She writes devotedly every day of her life as a means of practising her craft. So did Samuel Pepys, Anais Nin, Anne Frank, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Alan Bennett, and many other renowned diarists. Let’s afford Helen the same respect and admiration that we give to them.


    1. Teresa, that’s not me saying it – I am reporting on what O’Beirne says in his book. I’m a massive Garner fan and have read all her non-fiction, including the diaries (bar the last one which is in my TBR), so telling me to afford her respect and admiration sounds like you are having a go at me. I’m not sure how you would think I am being accusatory when I’m just summarising what O’Beirne states.

      It’s well known that when Garner published Monkey Grip people criticised it for being her diary entries. In an essay Garner herself wrote, called “I”, published in Meanjin and which O’Beirne cites several times in his book, she says she was defensive about this criticism and claimed it was a novel. “But I am too old to bother with that crap any more,” she writes. “I might as well come clean. I DID publish my diary. That’s exactly what I did. I left out what I thought were the boring bits, wrote bridging passages, and changed all the names” (p30 in On Helen Garner) The essay is here: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/i/


      1. I’m so sorry, Kim. I was reading in the half-dark on my iPad and didn’t register that this quote was from Sean O’Beirne, not from you. Please accept my apologies.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The one in this series that I’d like to read is ‘On J.M. Coetzee’ by Ceridwen Dovey, basically because I really liked his early stuff and then became mystified by his later stuff which came after Elizabeth Costello. (Plus, I really like Ceridwen Dovey).


    1. I have to admit I gave up on the last Ceridwen Dovey novel… I think campus books really aren’t my thing. And it’s been ages since I read any Coetzee, although I have two in the TBR. Perhaps I should dig those out…


  3. Thanks for the links Kim, I really enjoy this series (what I’ve read so far). I tend to read one if I’m reading, or about to read, a book by said author. Which means I have Patrick White on my radar for November.


  4. Oh, I must read this one, though I don’t know the writer doing the writing on in this case. I have also read and reviewed Stan Grant’s on Thomas Keneally, and I have Nam Le’s On David Malouf. I keep trying to get it at the top of the pile but down it slides again.


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