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August 4, 2006

tell me place and geography aren't important here

Posted by dogpossum on August 4, 2006 10:41 AM in the category books and brisbane and brunswick and melbourne and travel

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--

Posted by dogpossum on August 4, 2006 10:41 AM in the category books and brisbane and brunswick and melbourne and travel