Helen Garner, Robert Hughes and the Mystery of Nonfiction
It’s 45 years since Helen Garner published Monkey Grip and perhaps a while later that people realised how fine a writer she was. In 1997 there was that shock of recognition that someone had succeeded in re-creating inner-urban Melbourne, the ‘aqua profunda’ part of the Fitzroy pool, the tumult and tumbling from bed to bed of shared housing, the heartache of loving a junkie. The initial response to Monkey Grip was a response to a literary brave new world that was also the translation of something real. Indeed, there were critics such as the late Peter Pierce who said that Helen Garner had just talked dirty and called it realism. Yes, and along with this, there was the persistent accusation that she had simply published her diaries and served them up as fiction. This last point had come to seem like the most vulgar misprision by the time I wrote a full-dress defence of Garner in Judith Brett’s Meanjin in the mid 1980s.
Yet Garner blew her own cover. In her celebrated ‘I’ essay (Meanjin, no. 1, 2002), she wrote:
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