On Helen Garner: Writers on Writers

Sean O'Beirne

On Helen Garner: Writers on Writers
Black Inc.
29 March 2022

On Helen Garner: Writers on Writers

Sean O'Beirne

What I love in Helen Garner’s writing is a particular kind of closeness to self, the good, greedy, mistaken, emotional, fierce, sceptical, changing and disrupting self. Garner makes so much from what seems to be just her individual sense, individual observation - rather than anything made by and for the group. But I also love the beautiful strong contradiction in her work: she’s always fighting to come back enough, as well, to find enough that can stop the self; enough of a good order, a rule, a law, a family, a home.

In a brilliantly argued and very personal essay, Sean O'Beirne looks at the whole of Helen Garner’s writing life so far - from Monkey Grip to the recently published Diaries - while trying to come to terms with the demands, and the rewards, of Garner’s extraordinary, radical individualism and honesty.

In the Writers on Writers series, leading authors reflect on an Australian writer who has inspired and fascinated them. Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.

Published by Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria.


Sean O’Beirne first read Helen Garner when he was 17 years old. Reading Monkey Grip, what struck him immediately was the voice, the confident voice stating, ‘this is me, this is what and who I am, and I don’t really care what you think of me’. For a boy who felt different growing up in Melbourne’s conservative Eastern suburbs, it was revelatory, this idea of declaring one’s own subjectivity – that ‘I’ was valid. Of course, Monkey Grip was Garner’s first major publication in what has since become a major body of work. For O’Beirne the interest lies in how this sense of self – this ‘I’ – develops and changes through the rest of her work, especially as other people and voices come into her writing. Her ability to do this is what makes her work unique and special.

On Helen Garner is not a hagiography though there is much love in it. For O’Beirne, Cosmo Cosmolino, in which Garner explores faith, is a failure that was ‘a real threat to [her] whole career’. One wonders if the two writers – who meet regularly to talk about all sorts of things – had that conversation and if they did, how did it go? Though O’Beirne saysshe did recover, perhaps for many of us there was no need for recovery. This is the quality that makes Garner unique, it’s what we love, that certainty, that supreme sense of self. However, in her first major work of nonfiction, The First Stone, the personal certainty of the earlier books gives way to uncertainty – ‘I don’t understand what I’m feeling’. This admission of doubt contrasting with certainty gives the work a special humanity.

What shines in this book is great love and respect for a fellow writer and O’Beirne’s wonderful voice and observations.

Mark Rubbo is the managing director of Readings.

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