tell me place and geography aren’t important here

There’s been a bit of talk about Helen Garner around the traps recently:

I wrote this comment in the latter:

(dogpossum on 3 August 2006 at 1:29 pm)
Nice post, Weathergirl.
I remember reading all Garner’s work when I was an undergrad – I fell in love with her style. In those pre-GST days I had enough cash to splurge on books whenever I liked.
TFS almost lost me for her, but I changed my mind… no, wait, I think I was just distracted by other authors (C.J.Cherryh, most probably – nothing like a little hardcore SF by a woman writer to get things in perspective)…
When I first moved to Melbourne I’d pretend I was recognising places from Monkey Grip (though I was finding it easier to recognise places in Brisbane in the Nick Earls books I was reading, probably because I was busy enjoying be Away From Brisbane at the time). And Garner’s pieces in the Age about ordinary Melbourne stuff helped me feel at home in my new city (what can I say – I’m a stooge).
I don’t find it difficult to enjoy the way Garner puts words together, and yet also have some trouble with the ideas behind the words. Frankly, a nicely written bit of opinion is far more likely to convince me to consider a topic than something difficult or clunky… I like the line about energy, and the thought that nasty bits of writing can inspire us to do great thinking and writing and talking ourselves. I mean, that seems to define feminsim for me: being inspired to think and write and talk and act by nasty bits of writing and ideology-in-action.
As for Garner herself… I met her once at a party, and knew her daughter through Uni, but that’s all I can say. I wouldn’t pretend to know her through her writing – just as I wouldn’t expect to know a blogger through their blog, or a singer through their songs. But I might admit to vague feelings or unsubstantiated impressions.

And had this response:

(weathergirl on 3 August 2006 at 1:33 pm)
Dogpossum, thanks for contributing! I read a tiny bit of Alice Garner’s PhD thesis (something about holiday imagery on French beaches), which I think she then published as a book. She inherited her mother’s writing talent.
But please don’t mention Nick Earls on my beat. I like to think this is about interesting literature.

I did start writing a response to the response, but I ended up feeling like an idiot. Some things are best written on your own blog (especially when they stray into true blogging territory: long and boring). So here it is:
I feel like I’m dragging the discussion off into irrelevent territory, but one of the things I liked about Garner (and Nick Earls, John Birmingham and Shane Maloney*, actually), is/was the way they write about cities and construct/represent ideas of community and place. I choose those three because of their accessibility, their popularity. I choose those three in particular because I was reading them before, during and after my move from Brisbane to Melbourne, in book and newspaper-column form (the latter is a reference to Garner’s spots in The Age). I think that in that period of moving to a city where I knew perhaps 3 people, away from family and friends, I was busy making new social and professional networks – making this new city home (I want to reference the space/place thing, but I don’t have the brain right now).
I was interested in the way these authors use lots of specific references to local landmarks and people to create a feeling of ‘knowing the city’, or more usefully, ‘knowing the community’ in which their stories are based. It’s an interesting idea, especially when you take into account things like Garner’s decidedly middle (or upper?) class experiences in Melbourne today, compared to the Monkey Grip days, Earls’ Brisbane of the 80s, Birmingham’s Brisbane of the late 80s and early 90s. These are quite definitely experiences of a city inflected by class, gender, sex(uality), education, market forces, etc etc etc. Yet they are all represented as ‘common sense’ or ‘normal’ or ‘familiar’, particularly in the case of Garner’s work (which seems to rest so firmly on the strength of ‘common sense’ or ‘diary-esque’ writing as a tool to convince. I, for one, am a little sceptical of Garner’s (occasionaly quite irritating) use of ‘oh, this is just what I think, and I’m probably wrong, but…’ arguments. Can you spell passive aggressive?).
But I’m interested in the way, while reading these people at that time, I could say ‘hey, I know that place’, or more scarily (esp in the case of Birmingham), ‘I know those people!’, and found that so comforting.
This is the sort of thing that comes up all the time in discussions about Garner’s work (and in this thread above) – the idea of ‘journal-diaryistic’ writing and ‘journalism’: levels of ‘real’ and ‘true’ and so on. I think it’s worth my pointing out, at this point, that I take Earls and Maloney as writing with as ‘diary-esque’ a style as Garner, largely in response to the incredible detail about ‘real’ places in their work. While Garner writes using her ‘real’ (and autobiogaphical) emotions as a bit of a blunt object in the ‘reality’ stakes, Earls and Maloney use ‘reality of place’ in much the same way.
That I could point to a building or street in Melbourne and say “that’s where Helen went swimming or rode her bike or saw a band” or think “I remember that shopping centre in the Queen Street Mall”, was kind of comforting for a person alone in a new city. It certainly shaped the way I thought about my place within my current and past home-cities. Nothing new for ‘the media’: kind of the point, really, constructing consensual notions of place and community**.
But I do think that it’s a key part of Garner’s work, and there have been quite a few comments already [in the LP thread] about the way she uses phrases like “Any woman who has left home for university could fill in the gaps”: inviting us, explicitly to identify with Garner (or her characters), as if it was a natural and inevitable thing.
Isn’t that interesting, that the language of domesticity (and Garner is all about domestic spaces) and ‘home cities’ and ‘the familiar’ is such a useful tool for convincing us that the author’s point is ‘just common sense’? That an ’emotional honesty’ in writing is somehow more relevant or convincing than an objective account?
You can see why, at this point, I hesitated to post this comment on LP.
But my attention was caught by the way Weather Girl dismissed Nick Earls as ‘uninteresting’ work. Sure, he’s no great literary talent, but some time was spent in that LP thread making similar observations about Garner – she’s no great literary talent. But many of the commenters in that thread (and most of whom were women – perhaps just an indication of LP’s reader/commenter -ship) declared an affinity or affection for Garner based on her use of the personal and the invitingness of her lovely prose.
I’d argue that Earls has similar appeal – the use of the personal, and an inviting style (in his case, though, the invitation was to share the joke, rather than marvel at a lovely turn of phrase). With Maloney, the appeal lay in the minutiae of everyday life in Brunswick/Coburg/Melbourne (my new home suburb), and of local politics (which fascinated a girl who’d just completed an MA on women in Qld politics). In addition, I’d argue that they’re very Australian writers (though from different age/social groups), and I like to read in the vernacular.
Though we must keep in mind the fact that Garner’s books have stuck around, while Earls feels a bit stuck in that ‘grunge fiction’ moment – do people still read him, or is it just me? Maloney, on the other hand, has made his mark on the pop culture landscape, especially with the television programs based on his work.
I know that I’m a little biased, but isn’t this bias kind of the point? I was attracted by the invitation to share the everyday lives and everyday experiences of these authors’ lives, and that made me feel ‘at home’ in a new city. I certainly wasn’t ‘sucked in’ to believing that this was in any way a ‘true’ story I was being told. But that was part of the appeal: I was reading one person’s interpretation and experience of a city, and that very subjectivity was part of it’s appeal. It invited comparison with my own experience, and a dialogue with the text.
I should note: I was so interested by The First Stone when it came out that I did a pgrad essay project on the topic, exploring the newspaper responses to the book, and to their representations of ‘feminism’. This was a sort of test-run for my eventual MA project.
…and all of this has strayed quite a bit from the love/hate/niggle-fest that began in the original articles on Garner and her writing, but, well, like I said: blog.
*It’s worth checking out the ‘official’ Shane Maloney site and noting the background image of the site: Melway maps of Brunswick.
Tell me place and geography aren’t important here?
**I’m paraphrasing old school Stuart Hall there
–EDIT: fixed the dodgy link up there at the top – sorry everyone–

12 Replies to “tell me place and geography aren’t important here”

  1. It is about place and geography of course. I know someone who read Andrew McGahan’s Praise the moment she arrived in Brisbane and it’s forever intertwined with her introduction/first experiences of the place. Playing Scrabble in New Farm park and leaving the city via Milton Rd and heading north will forever resonate with me as a particular Brisbane experience because of that book and the prequel 1988. To say nothing of attending a back yard party in New Farm and seeing McGahan pouring himself a plastic cup of cask wine. When I read Last Drinks I remember walking down a street in the Valley and suddenly thinking that this was exactly the street McGahan had written about. As for Earls, I used to walk past Zig Zag Street *all the time*. And Earls himself has spoken of the influence of The Go Betweens upon his recognition that he could depict Brisbane in his work. Then there’s the work of Venero Armanno…
    But of course you know as well that it’s also about genre, value and distinction. Really, you shouldn’t have expected to compare Garner the Literary favourably with Earls the writer of Genre/laddish fiction. And, at the risk of sounding all parochial, it’s also about depictions of Melbourne the centre as ‘common sense’, while Brisbane will always be peripheral and anomalous from the view of the cultural establishment, even though David Malouf ran around these parts when he was a lad.

  2. Sam, Can you just ignore that last comment, and this one? I don’t know what I’m talking about. I should just do my thesis and not attempt to grasp the meaning of 98 comments on any topic in just one sitting. K.

  3. That’s exactly what I have enjoyed about Nick Earls. And some of his work for young adults has been very, very good (although ya literature is often dismissed in a breezy ‘I went straight from Little Women to Jane Austen’, I think there is some great ya literature around). After January is beautiful. I haven’t read it for a while, but its sense of place is pretty evocative.

  4. I’d ignore your comment if I thought it was crap, Galaxy (though I can delete it if you really want). But were you being sarky when you said ” Really, you shouldn’t have expected to compare Garner the Literary favourably with Earls the writer of Genre/laddish fiction. ” ?
    I know that the love/hate Garner article was intended as a bit of a gushfest (with asides for difficult parts of adoring her work), but I was surprised to see Earls dismissed so clearly as ‘uninteresting’. But maybe it’s a personal thing: I’m still interested in Earls as a phenomenon in that moment in time…
    Your points re YA fiction are interesting, thirdcat. While I quite like Earls’ grownup stuff (it still makes me laugh, despite it’s flaws), I think he was at his best with YA stuff. While there are sad bits, I like it that he’s writing YA fiction that’s not all terror and doom and gloom (yes, John Marsden, that’s you there).
    I wasn’t a LittleWomen-Austen kid – I went from collected books of myths and Madeline L’Engle to Piers Anthony to hardcore SFant/SFict, so I’m all about low-brow (I so want to make a neanderthal-in-a-bookshop/citadel joke, but imagination fails me after this week of teaching). I always think that anything that gets kids reading is great. Whether it’s a comic, a book or the internet. I’ve recently gone through and read all hte Dianna Wynn Jones. ALL of them in less than six months, and fell in love – if only I’d read them as a young person? I remember that they were in our house, but simply didn’t appeal to me when I was a kid – they sure do now!

  5. I was being sarky, but I did have a point. The dismissal of Earls *is* as much about cultural value and distinction as it purports to be about ‘interesting’ writing. And I can’t help it, the whole attitude just gets up my nose; it pisses me off so much, I often feel a tantrum coming on when I read it. Which is what I think I did in my first comment.
    I want to give a lecture on the concept of the cultural omnivore (see Bennet, Emmison and Frow _Accounting For Tastes_ )which it is really so much more fashionable to be these days than a cultural elitist.
    I haven’t read Earls for a long time now, but I do recall Hilary Beaton–a local playwright and at the time the Director of the Queensland Writers’ Centre–making special mention of Earls’s ya work. She thought it was his strength, and it’s no accident, I think, that he has returned to doing ya fiction with 48 Shades of Brown.

  6. It’s funny to think of cultural studies people being dismissive of pop lit as less ‘interesting’ than something Properly Literary. I’m still fascinated by the stuff that ordinary people read and write and consume, media wise, and by the very idea of ‘ordinary’ culture and audiences.
    I mean, this week in tutes I’ve been starting the session with a getting to know you exercise where I have people do the ‘shopping list’ exercise, where they repeat back every group member’s name and a particular item or fact. In this exercise I had them all name a particular media text or form that they were digging or hating or had just been consuming. As we went around the circle (and that was important – to have us all in a circle so we could see each other), there was much laughing about forgetting names and media, and I took a long time over the exercise (an hour at the longest – it’s the first week, so I wanted to establish the vibe in the class and get people relaxed and contributing), interrupting regularly to ask questions about the media they were consuming, asking people who’d already spoken to expand on something, etc etc etc.
    My goal was to encourage a polite, yet participatory discourse, where everyone had a chance to contribute in a ‘safe’ and structured way, but I also wanted to encourage people to ask questions about media consumption and what we do with media (it’s an audience studies class). I took pains to link back comments and questions to various key works and writers in the field (from Radway and Modleski to Jenkins, Hills and Ien Ang), and took care to make people feel good about liking pop culture. There was some embarassment from even the most confident students about being a hardcore trash telly fan or fan of a mainstream actor. I set an example by discussing my Smallville viewing, but we also discussed things like Radio National, blogging, media convergence and the proposed media reform legislation, etc etc – from mainstream media to cult media and on to ‘high’ culture.
    It was a really interesting and successul excercise. It’s always nice to see a group go from quiet and uncomfortable to incredibly loud and enthusiastic (my last group on Friday had to be told at least 4 times to quieten down and take turns speaking, rather than shouting). And I made a point to mention that our passions for media are often starting points for the most interesting research projects.
    So, I can’t understand why you’d possibly dismiss mainstream or ‘everyday’ media as ‘uninteresting’: I’ve spent at least 10 hours this week talking about the most ordinary media with enthusiastic and interested students who’re now keen to go back and do the reading they’d missed (can you BELIEVE that?!), and who’re all fired up to learn about this stuff.
    I mean, isn’t that the whole point of cultural studies (and media studies – hell, and FEMINISM) that we look at the everyday lives and media of people who’re not members of elite groups (where elite=academic workers in this instance)?
    Hell, it’s worth talking about Gray’s Anatomy if it means that 100 students get so excited about theory and research that I have to tell them repeatedly to ‘stop shouting or I’ll have to seperate you’. It just seems to make all that research and writing that I’ve done worth while. To plug into that entry on the Dawson op ed piece – isn’t the point of our work to be able to participate, at some point, in public discourse? And most usefully, with academic and popular discourse? To talk about everyday stuff in a range of ways?

  7. See I’m not sure that the LP folk are of the CS persuasion, but I’ve gathered a few of them are sociologists so to my mind there’s no excuse for not knowing Bourdieu and works he’s inspired.
    I have no problem with not liking a writer per se. If you don’t like Nick Earls’s work, you’re entitled not to. But when the expression of that ie ‘not interesting’, elides what’s at stake in perpetuating the high/low culture divide then I get a bit cranky. Nobody has to defend their intelligence when they state they like Helen Garner, but it’s worth noting that you’ve written a whole post, complete with the invocation of critical methodology, in defense of liking genre writers.

  8. Why, I’m not sure where I found that idea… could it have been with a very excellent and skilled teaching friend…?
    I hereby abase myself in honour of Galaxy’s greatness…

  9. I read Nick Earls as a depressed early 20-something with a shocking love life and a tendency to hysterics, and it was his very ordinariness and normality that made me enjoy his work so much.
    Yes, not a great ‘writerly’ talent (compare with other grunge writer like, I dunno, Christos Tsiolkas), but his work made me feel something — community, place, friendship, happiness, seeing people around my age struggling with similar problems — that I was lacking in my life at the time.
    Beyond that, as someone with a background of cultural studies I do see the value in looking at everyday media, what people actually consume as opposed to ‘what they’re supposed to consume’. We’re at that point with TV — we can actually have a serious discussion about shows like BB, yet there still seems to be such a huge investment in literature in the high/low divide.

  10. I don’t know Nick Earls’s stuff, but the charitable reading of that comment would have to be that it was a not-thought-through throwaway line. I don’t endorse it, nor that general attitude wherever it pops up, but I sort of doubt the person who made it would really defend it to the death anyhow.
    Not sure where I’m going with this!
    As someone who’s writing about both pulp and canon fictions (and a lot that falls in between) and not making value judgements and distinctions except between what is interesting and successful on its own terms and what isn’t, I’d still want to maintain that I find it more satisfying in every way to study Jane Austen’s novels than to study Walter Tevis’s or Ernest Tidyman’s. We can have serious and illuminating discussions about any of them but Jane Austen has substantially more to say – it’s like reading the ocean, fathomless. All three can be springboards to other interesting chains of thought, but the point where that’s all that’s left to do because the text’s own resources and offerings have been exhausted by criticism is much further away with Austen than with the other two.
    The trick is to realise that textual plenitude of that kind is not “better” per se than say minimalism and simplicity, and if it’s accorded a higher status or value in culture then the assumptions under that need to be interrogated. I think most people I work with assume this too, about genre and value, but it’s not always articulated.
    This is already too long, but I would like to ask a question about “the everyday”, in those CS quote marks – is consumption of canonical or high art an everyday activity, and if it isn’t what is it?

  11. That is a good point, re the throwaway line in the comment, but I think it’s still one of the key points in this discussion – whether or not we devote our attention to a particular author or text, and why.
    Re the everydayness of consuming high art… i think I’ll do a quick post on it, as it’s something I think about a bit.
    and don’t worry about too long a comment: the internet is big. It is our responsibility to fill it up.

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