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Dec 5, 2017

Helen Garner reflects on the essential contradiction of being a professional writer

"Writers don’t tend to hang out together. In fact, they repel each other. How can writers sit in a room together?"

True Stories presents Helen Garner’s journalistic oeuvre; the many crisp, genre-defying items Garner has written between her books. Each story strikes with knife-like precision, including this extract sent exclusively to you from Crikey. In it, Garner asks what the point of a writers’ festival could be when writers tend, for the most part, to be anxious hermits. Perhaps you’ve been to a writers’ festival with a particularly reclusive literary figure and wondered the same.

Somewhere between 1978 and 1992 the gilt had worn off the ginger-bread. Festivals had lost their festiveness and turned into work. Their magic had fled.

Publishing in the ’80s became internationally monstrous, and the festivals reflected this. Publishers and agents became as important as writers — behind the scenes anyway. The pleasantly daggy mucking in together of big and small names is a thing of the past. Internationally known writers — the male English ones, at least — tend to travel in tight groups of friends from home. They do their gig, fill the boot of the hire car with Grange Hermitage, and shoot through to the outback.

Writers are no longer humbly grateful for being noticed. These days “one” would flounce home in a pet if one were shown into a chambre de bonne on the top floor of an old hotel. Nowadays “one” expects at the very least a vast, impersonal room at the Hilton. I have learnt, through watching Ken Kesey stack on a turn at a Toronto reception desk, that international hotels have a certain number of rooms with openable windows: that ‘one’ does not after all have to endure meekly the choking claustrophobia of North American central heating.

When you think about it, there’s something peculiar about the very idea of a writers’ festival. Writers, in my experience, are not extraverts. They tend to be what Joan Didion calls “lonely, anxious rearrangers of things”. Their work is by its very nature solitary—and when they’re not actually in the workroom with bum on seat and door closed, they’re mooching around the streets staring at people, listening in on conversations, sucking incident and meaning out of what’s going on around them.

Writers don’t tend to hang out together. In fact, they repel each other. How can writers sit in a room together? They understand instinctively each other’s horrible detachment and, out of what few manners are left to them, they struggle not to turn that dry-ice stare on each other. Thus, when they are together, their conversations tend to the trivial, to shop-talk. They talk about contracts, money, agents, sales figures. It’s awful.

But what can you expect? It’s a fantasy that writers discuss their work with each other. I remember a funny Frank Moorhouse story about a woman who comes
from some blighted part of the outback to live in Sydney, and searches keenly for the pubs where, she is sure, people discuss. The narrator, astonished, touched, and perhaps slightly ashamed, is obliged to disillusion her. No one talks to anyone, round here! Perhaps occasionally an acknowledgment, a swipe, a furtive compliment, once in a blue moon a sudden phone call of warm admiration … but to imagine that writers sit around talking about how to do it, or about themes (those things which exist only in the minds of high-school English teachers), or what they meant or what they’ll tackle next, shows a mistaken idea of what writing itself is like.

(Exception: I once had a short and fascinating conversation with Murray Bail and David Malouf, at Malouf’s kitchen table, about punctuation — an occasion so rare that it felt almost indecent — we were blushing; we couldn’t look at one another.)

“Everything you have deciphered,” writes the Israeli novelist Amos Oz in To Know a Woman, “you have only deciphered for an instant.”

Writers don’t know how they did it. They certainly don’t know how they’ll do it next time. And when they’re put into a group with three random strangers and called a panel, then given a topic and asked to discuss it in front of an audience, what they produce is some kind of strange heatshield, or smokescreen. Not lies. But everything “one” says, however hard one is trying to tell the truth or say something useful, comes out askew, a little bit blurred, ever so slightly exaggerated or glib or beside the point.

This explains, perhaps, why writers rarely go to hear one another read or speak, at these events. At a festival in New Zealand not long ago another guest laughed incredulously when I said I was going to hear the session of a writer I’d just met and liked. “Surely you don’t think people expect you to go! I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone to come to mine.”

When the American poet August Kleinzahler (who’s my friend) spotted me in the audience of his panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival one year, his face went blank for a second, with shock; I felt embarrassed, as if I had breached protocol. Part of this is the same neurosis that makes teenagers hate ringing up a stranger while someone they know well is in the room with them — someone who will register the exact amount of falsity in their special phone voice, their public persona.

Once at a publisher’s dinner in Sydney where I was grumbling quietly to a fellow-writer about having to get up in a minute and make a speech, he laughed and said, “Stop whingeing. Stand up and sing for your supper.”

Is that what writers’ festivals are all about?

Everyone knows that these days writers can’t just write books: they have to get out and flog them. There’s a variety of ways to do this. A writer like Tim Winton will cheerfully appear on 60 Minutes or The Steve Vizard Show, because he wants the audiences of those shows — people who wouldn’t go to a writers’ festival in a fit — to know that his book (a) exists and (b) was written by someone they don’t need to suspect of being what Paul Keating calls “a hairy-arse who’s just dropped out of university”. He wants a forum where he can show himself as an ordinary bloke who’s written a non-threatening book without any arty-farty pretensions. This, of course, is as false as any other persona. Tim Winton is in fact highly articulate and very widely read in theology and fiction; his books are rich and challenging. But he’s also a family man and a terrific fisherman. With spectacular success he presents himself at the popular end of the publicity spectrum.

Writers’ festivals hover at the opposite end. Writers’ festivals are for writers who are squeamish about deep publicity, or who don’t want to get their hands dirty; or for writers escaping from a bout of doing those things in their own countries; or for writers who are tired and jaded, and need a little break from home.

What sort of readers are they for? What is this powerful urge people feel, that makes them not only buy books but pay even more money in order to clap eyes on the writers themselves, to hear them speak and read?

Festivals “make you part of something”, one journalist bluntly stated after the Melbourne Festival. “To observe and partake in … a discussion between two eminent writers, as though they were somehow in your own living room, is what writers’ festivals are all about.” I found this oddly touching and tried to recall ever having experienced such a sense of inclusion, myself, while in an audience. I couldn’t.

 
This is an edited extract from True Stories the collected short non-fiction by Helen Garner, Text Publishing, rrp: A$39.99

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Helen Garner reflects on the essential contradiction of being a professional writer

  1. Irfan Yusuf

    I only read one Helen Garner book. Something about a master of a posh Melbourne college who went through a hearing in the Magistrates Court. As a Sydney sider, I had never heard of this college. As a lawyer who has run hundreds of these cases in NSW and Victorian courts, I couldn’t tell what the point of the book was.

    Maybe I’m just a cynical lawyer.

  2. Misha

    Irfan, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I think you’ve missed the point of literature, or at very least literary journalism. The First Stone is not about the case itself, or to be more accurate it is only partly about the case. It’s also a window into sexual politics and how we behave and what it’s like to live in Melbourne and go to college and be young, or be a Master at a college and exercise power and have your career trashed by serious allegations of misconduct. I can’t go past the Martin Amis description of good writing, which is that it’s a victory in the war against cliche. Every received or bland thought, ever regurgitation of conventional wisdom, is a small defeat. And ever fresh insight, every moment of seeing things exactly as they are and conveying what this is like, is a small victory. Chalk up enough of those small victories and you’ve got great writing. Garner is a master of seeing things we haven’t noticed and showing us what they reveal. As she is especially fascinated with the moral universe of the law I suggest you read Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief, and most especially her recent feature in the Monthly, Why She Broke.

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