Helen Garner’s Education


On the 14th of December 1972, a schoolteacher named Helen Garner found herself fired. This essay argues that the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place. I go on to show how her subsequent hiring by various universities in a succession of writer-in-residencies left related yet distinct marks on her taut minimalist masterpiece, The Children’s Bach (1984). My claim is that Garner’s firing therefore ironically heralds the belated emergence of a period of Australian literary history in which the new diversity of literary fiction cannot be fully comprehended, as Mark McGurl argues in his seminal study of postwar American fiction The Program Era (2009), without close attention ‘to the increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education’ (ix).


On the second last day of that school year, I was summoned to the Education Department in Treasury Place and carpeted by the Deputy Director of Secondary Education. He asked me if I had ‘used four-letter words in the classroom’. Transparent to the end, I replied that I had. He dismissed me on the spot.

  • Garner, postscript to ‘Why Does the Women Get All the Pain?’ 36

On the 14th of December 1972, a schoolteacher named Helen Garner found herself fired. We can find the cause of her dismissal in the half-page article she published just over a month prior, ‘Why Does the Women Have All the Pain, Miss?’ (1972). Garner was sacked because of what she did with a set of history textbooks, which had been defaced in the usual crude way: the illustrations in ‘all but a few of the copies’ had been endowed with a ‘monstrous cock . . . in heavy biro’, ejaculating ‘a colossal stream of sperm’ toward ‘the cunt of a woman’ scribbled on ‘the facing page’ (3). Or rather, she was given the boot because of what she did not do, once she and her co-ed class of twenty-nine eleven-to-thirteen-year-old students found themselves exposed to this pornographic graffiti. Garner did not simply ignore the puerile doodles; she did not just feign blindness to the marginalia of students past and get on with her lesson on Hellenic gender roles. Instead, she decided to laugh at the drawings, which meant her class felt that they could laugh too, and once the last of their giggles had subsided she put to them the innocuous-seeming question that would bring about the end of her career some two months later: ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ (3).

They did. They had many questions, and at least as many misconceptions. So Garner explained to her class that she would answer them in no uncertain terms: ‘the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?’ (3). There were no complaints; one boy wordlessly locked the door. What ensued was a conversation that Garner recalls as ‘the only totally honest lesson I have ever given’, in which ‘not a second . . . was wasted’, because ‘their curiosity made authoritarian behaviour on my part completely unnecessary. They asked, and I gave’ (3). The next day, when presented with follow-up queries in the form of ‘a stack of papers six inches high’ on her desk, she let her class know exactly what a refusal to mince words in her answers would eventually end up costing her: ‘I’ll get the sack if it gets round I’ve been saying “fuck” and “cunt” in the classroom’ (3).

It did eventually get round, but not only through gossip in the schoolyard. At roughly the halfway mark between these lessons and her firing, Garner’s candour also found a literary outlet. In ‘Why Does the Women Have All the Pain, Miss?’, first published under the pseudonym Ms X in the November 1972 issue of the countercultural broadsheet Digger, Garner penned a frank account of the lesson in which she anticipated her dismissal in the unequivocal terms quoted above. That this piece might directly precipitate her early exit from the classroom surely could not have escaped her notice. As Brigid Rooney sensibly concludes, ‘once the account was in the public domain, parents were bound to, and did, complain’: by ‘sharing intimate details of her own sex life’ with her class and then publishing a description of doing so, Garner had already ‘crossed over from teacher to writer’, in the sense that she had practised a pedagogical form of the carefully premeditated acts of self-exposure which ‘would continue to serve her literary and public career’ (156).

Unintentional as this crossing over debatably was, and exceptional as the career that ensued is, this essay nonetheless argues that there is something surprisingly typical – even representative – about the relationship between Garner’s lessons and her literary practice. That is to say, the close connection between Garner’s teachings and her writings exemplifies an interrelation that has become increasingly integral to the workings of the national literary field due to a series of structural changes. Garner’s dismissal took place on the brink of institutional upheavals which would programmatically yoke fiction-making to pedagogy by re-housing its production within a new site of concentrated aesthetic education: the tertiary creative writing classroom. Put otherwise: a few years after Garner was fired, writers began to be hired – not to teach sex education in secondary schools, but creative writing in universities, and this sweeping process of authorial professionalisation has left its marks on the works of student and teacher alike. If there is any single defining characteristic of the corpus of fiction published in the pre-bicentennial decades then it is surely, as Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman claim in The New Diversity (1989), its sheer formal ‘heterogeneity’ (8), an aesthetic diversification assisted by the contemporaneous doubling of university enrolments (which increased by twenty-five percent from 1972–1975 alone) as a result of the short-lived abolition of tuition fees from the beginning of 1974 (Forsyth 89). That Garner would later take up numerous offers to teach in such tertiary classrooms allows us to see her untimely exile from the system of secondary education as an event of at least ironic significance to this period, and indeed to the last half-century of Australian literary history, insofar as it both kickstarted the career of one of our finest writers and ejected an aspiring novelist from the education sector at a moment when it was in the early stages of creative writing’s disciplinary formation.

As I will demonstrate, the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place. I go on to show how her subsequent hiring by various universities in a succession of writer-in-residencies left related yet distinct marks on her taut minimalist masterpiece, The Children’s Bach (1984). Garner’s firing therefore ironically heralds the belated emergence of a period of Australian literary history in which the new diversity of literary fiction cannot be fully comprehended, as Mark McGurl argues in his seminal study of postwar American fiction The Program Era (2009), without close attention ‘to the increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education’ (ix).

Her dismissal might seem an unlikely candidate for so bold a designation when set against, say, the sweeping institutional changes that preceded Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s more notorious dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975. But the two are not so readily extricable, as it was precisely the establishment of the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1973 (with quadruple the budget of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which it replaced) that produced what we can in hindsight see as the literary-historical significance of Garner’s firing: more specifically, it was the Board’s acceptance of a proposal put forward by one of its members, the acclaimed novelist David Malouf, that set the wheels in motion for no fewer than one hundred and sixty-three writer-in-residencies at tertiary institutions throughout Australia between 1974 and 1988 (Shapcott 123). Such residency schemes were taken up by ‘virtually every university and CAE [College of Advanced Education]’ (Dawson 141); their popularity, and with it the recognition of undergraduate demand for creative writing classes, catalysed a gradual institutionalisation of literary craftsmanship from the mid-1970s onward, so that as of 2020 ‘40 of the 43 accredited universities in Australia have creative writing courses, majors, and degrees at either or both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels’ (Holland-Batt and Jefferey 339). As even a cursory review demonstrates, the graduates and staff of these programs dominate the prestigious end of the literary field, at least insofar as they receive major literary prizes with greater regularity than their uncredentialled counterparts.1

When compared with the long-term affiliations of such contemporaries as Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley and Gerald Murnane, who taught creative writing at Macquarie, Curtin and Deakin Universities respectively for a combined total of over half a century,2 Garner might seem like a relative stranger on campus. She witnessed creative writing’s institutionalisation at first hand primarily through the series of writer-in-residences that she undertook while drafting The Children’s Bach, and through assorted short-term teaching appointments. Yet as we shall see, one affordance of this view from the educational system’s peripheries – thematised in narratives that insistently, as Rooney observes, set versions of the ‘lonely female author, forever the amateur . . . against dehumanising, institutional, professionalising forces’ (157) – is that it inflects her fiction’s artfully compressed response to that same system’s pedagogical and verbal norms. Garner’s relative externality to the university, and thus her later work’s emblematic significance as an illustration of the transnational reach of creative writing’s influence on literary production, is an implication I will return to in this essay’s conclusion. But to arrive there, we must first revisit the well-intentioned expletives that landed a young schoolteacher in so much hot water. By considering the ends to which such words were repurposed in Garner’s classroom, we will see how she found in the shortness and frankness of four-letter words an early form of the intimate candour that would come to define her narrative art.

Coming to Terms

Could words like ‘fuck’ do more than offend? Over two decades after she had been compelled to make the switch from teaching to writing, Garner chose to republish a lightly revised version of ‘Why Does the Women Have All the Pain, Miss?’ with the title ‘Why Does the Women Get All the Pain?’ in her first collection of non-fiction prose writings, True Stories (1996). There, a newly appended postscript reflects on the terms for which she was dismissed in a way that suggests the peculiar influence they exerted over her subsequent writing. By this stage in her fifties, Garner finds herself ‘jolted by the crude naivety of what I said and did’ – painfully aware that to some readers it will no doubt ‘seem obscene’ – and regrets that she ‘wasn’t a good enough writer, then, to render . . . the tenderness of the way we talked’:

The bluntness of the language, mine and theirs, obscures the delicacy and the urgency of their inquiry, the warmth and sweetness and gentle curiosity of the glances that passed between girls and boys, across a divide where jocularity and abuse had always been the common currency . . . The conversations were an interlude, a strange, electric, privileged moment, in the working lives of twenty-nine children and their teacher. (36)

Her lesson’s tenderness, a matter not of its diction but of its tone, eluded her ill-fated first attempt to record it in print. The issue was that the four-letter words which had allowed Garner to temporarily bridge the divide between her male and female pupils were, no doubt, either identical to or synonymous with the terms her students had previously used to abuse each other: when reproduced as stark dialogue their language retained all of its blunt force, but not the intonations that had momentarily repurposed it to a softer end, and thus the success of her iconoclastic pedagogy risked receding into the shock of its unapologetic profanity. But there is nothing to indicate that Garner came to believe this was a risk which could possibly have been avoided, only better managed by a more experienced writer. For Garner bluntness ‘obscures’, but it also clarifies; the openness of lesson and recollection alike was enabled by her flat refusal to mince words, and this was not to be regretted (36). ‘Transparent to the end’, even if it meant confessing to her verbal crime before the Deputy Director of Secondary Education, the language of the lesson became for Garner a matter of principle (36).

What else might four-letter words enable? We know that they caused Garner’s early departure from the school: her honest answer to the question of whether she had ‘used four-letter words in the classroom’, with which this essay began, saw her dismissed on the spot (36). Yet the offending terms were not, or at least not only, those that immediately spring to mind. Garner’s dismissal had about as much to do with the expletives Amanda Laugesen ties to the ‘rise of the “four-letter word”’ over the 1960s and 1970s – terms to the tune of ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’, ‘cock’ and ‘shit’ – as with the public attitude toward homosexuality implied by such four-letter epithets as ‘homo’, ‘dyke’, ‘poof’ or ‘leso’ (216). Retaining the pseudonym Ms X, Garner added fuel to her own firing by recalling the class’s discussion of queer sexuality in the December 2nd issue of The Digger, where it is printed just a page apart from ‘Bisexuality: Joining the Middle’, an autobiographical account of same-sex attraction which bears her real name (2–3). As Rosi Braidotti lets slip in an essay otherwise decidedly hostile toward Garner, the threefold accusation leveraged against her by Fitzroy High’s Parents and Teachers Association was actually of ‘running unauthorised sex education classes; using explicit four-letter words; and talking much too enthusiastically about homosexuality and bisexuality in the classroom’ (130). Garner alludes to the specifically homophobic brand of puritanical conservatism underpinning the third charge in her postscript, where she notes that readers ‘have forgotten how cramped and fearful and hypocritical Australian attitudes toward sex were, in the early seventies’, though she does not explicate further, preferring to leave unstated the political stakes of her choice to answer her students’ questions about queer sex (36).3 Garner’s lessons can thus be framed as significant events in the embattled genealogy of inclusive educational praxis; as the grassroots activism of a libertarian feminist who was among the first to bring to her classroom the intimate openness of the consciousness-raising groups in which she was an active participant. But for this essay’s purposes, the crux of the matter is that what we could call the inclusive sexual realism of this lesson was enabled by and inseparable from Garner’s commitment to the pedagogical value of explicit instruction, a commitment that takes its most overt form in her use of four-letter words.

In the sense that such words were – and no doubt remain – the lingua franca of the schoolyard and the streets alike, they also invited into Garner’s classroom some of the verbal reality of the world beyond it. Seen in this light, they seem oddly congruent with the excursive and experiential approach to teaching she describes in her autobiographical essay ‘The Schoolteacher’ (1972). There, she relates her quiet support for the school’s multicultural student body in their tireless struggle against the administration’s efforts to ‘assimilate [them] into a recognizable mould’, and revels in the ‘hundred subtle ways’ that such disciplinary initiatives invariably found themselves ‘defeated’ (23). Leading her classes by foot on frequent excursions ‘to the baths and the park . . . to Melbourne University, the Fitzroy Gardens, along the Merri Creek, to the Carlton theatre, the cemetery, [and] St Patrick’s Cathedral’, she and her students spent ‘as much time out of the school as in . . . ignoring each other’s roles and, when it was appropriate, ignoring each other’ (24–25). Among the assigned roles they chose to ignore were no doubt those decried by Ivan Illich in his seminal critique of the education system, Deschooling Society (1971), where he inveighs against the threefold construction of teachers as the custodians, moralists and therapists of the young on the grounds that ‘classroom attendance’ under this mix of ‘pastor, prophet and priest . . . removes children from the everyday world . . . and plunges them into an environment far more primitive, magical, and deadly serious’ (31–32). These were sentiments thick in the countercultural air, circulated enthusiastically in print by the Digger: on its front page, the October 1972 issue announced ‘THE REVOLT AT BLACKTOWN BOYS HIGH SCHOOL’, a piece prefaced by an excerpt from Everett Reimer’s School Is Dead (1971) which declared schools ‘the universal church of a technological society, incorporating and transmitting its ideology . . . and conferring social status in proportion to its acceptance’ (3); in the second issue of 1973, once Garner had been appointed to the paper’s editorial collective, they published the words of another pseudonymous teacher who had fallen foul of the Education Department, encouraging those still stuck in the classroom to ‘Tell yourself I am not a teacher. Give the kids some breathing space and see something of what they are and what life is’ (2, emphasis in original).

If ‘The Schoolteacher’ demonstrates that Garner had long been in the habit of telling herself she was not really a teacher, and encouraging her students to ignore this fact too, it also shows how their common resistance to the disciplinary structure of the school simultaneously worked to cultivate specific practices of storytelling in her class. Garner’s unsanctioned excursions provided the experiential basis for her students’ autobiographical writings, as well as her own: following an accident during an excursion to the stonemasons, ‘the kids wrote the story’ of the mishap and ‘turned it into comedy’ (26). Their ‘weekly report[s]’, which frequently took the form of letters addressed directly to Garner, disclosed ‘who was wagging, whose parents didn’t know, who was stealing and what and from who, who’d been sprung and who was in love and who was scared’ in a manner that tested the limits of her professional discretion, demanding she make up her mind about ‘which side of the fence I was on’ (27, emphasis in original). Keeping their secrets to herself was one way of choosing their side, answering their questions about sex another. But so was using four-letter words to do so, and so, less obviously, are such early writings as ‘The Schoolteacher’ and ‘Why Does the Women Get All the Pain?’. Her own true stories of life in and out of the classroom are, after all, merely an elevated and reflexive form of the weekly autobiographical reports penned by her students. Their purpose is to frankly narrate, and thereby impart to their readers, a version of the lessons in sexual and confessional intimacy that she chose to share with her class. And should we not therefore see in these recollections, even in the very bluntness of their expression, a powerfully explicit statement of the relation between narrative production and educational practice that the rise of creative writing has rendered so integral to the literary field?

Explicit Instruction

Maybe, maybe not. Not if we want to oppose a certain fantasy of unschooled creativity to the twinge of constraining shame that adheres to the lineaments of institutionalisation. This is what Charlotte Wood seems to do, when she praises Monkey Grip on the grounds that it ‘exhilaratingly does everything a contemporary writing workshop would frown upon’ (xi). Such workshops, per Wood’s account, are inhospitable to novels that are ‘structureless’, that lack ‘epiphanies or redemptions’ or ‘diagnosis’ and otherwise flout ‘narrative conventions’ via devices like ‘unrelated vignettes’ or other acts of ‘breathtaking authorial disobedience’ such as the narration of dreams (xi–xii, emphasis in original). Despite the obvious spuriousness of such generalisations, which could only be made by a writer unacquainted with the vast array of experimental novels that have emerged from such workshops since their mid-century inception in the United States, Wood’s valuation of the novel is fascinating for its idealisation of what she mistakenly characterises as an amateur’s unschooled artistic freedom: in contrast to the way ‘writers now are swamped with instruction and ambition before they put down a sentence, inundated with mentoring and doctorates and pitching sessions and “pathways to publication”’, Wood imagines that Garner’s first novel owes its form to a compositional process totally innocent of institutional pressure, whereby its author simply read, wrote, then ‘rode to the publishing house and delivered her envelope’ (xi). Garner’s writings are not so much innocent of as more or less direct responses to such pressure, and Monkey Grip is no exception to this rule. ‘I did publish my diary’, Garner unabashedly declared in her statement of method, ‘I’ (2002), and when the craft of its composition is described in this way the methodological continuity between Monkey Grip and her earlier essays becomes apparent. Garner’s reports from the classroom, themselves something like replies to and reworkings of the questions and weekly reports she invited her pupils to write, inform the unaffected transparency of her pseudonymous narrator Nora, who brazenly discourses on matters ranging from the gap between feminist theory and practice to single motherhood, heroin addiction, contraception and masturbation. Read in light of her firing, Monkey Grip’s one hundred and forty-three instances of the four-letter word ‘fuck’ and its conjugations thus bespeak an ex-schoolteacher unapologetically conversant in the terms of her dismissal, who brings to the realist novel her lesson’s notorious interest in the value of explicit instruction.

‘Whenever he touched my cunt’, recalls Nora, recounting sex with her junkie lover Javo, ‘my clitoris seemed to be in the exact spot where he first came in contact with my flesh: I was ready for him before we started, as if hastening all my processes to be there for him. I took his cock and put it inside me, and looked down at his wrecked and beautiful face, how it melted and turned gentle and even the eyes blurred, up that close’ (286). Had she not already dropped out of Fitzroy High to drop acid and raise her daughter in a collective household at 259 Scotchmer Street, Monkey Grip is precisely the kind of novel that would have seen its author fired for her troubles. But in the mid-seventies, cycling between the State Library of Victoria and countercultural social circles in which, as she wrote in ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’ (1996), ‘a person could offend by being “too articulate”’, Garner came to perceive those choice words that had caused such consternation in the department of education as an embarrassment of narrative riches (109). They were an embarrassment in a more literal sense, too: a decade after ‘crawl[ing] out of Melbourne University with a hangover and a very mediocre honours degree in English and French’ she would spend her free time in the La Trobe Reading Room, financed by the Supporting Mother’s Benefit, learning not ‘to despise your own timid attempts to tell a story on paper’, not ‘to turn on yourself the blowtorch of your tertiary critical training’ (110).

As Garner recalls in Yellow Notebook (2019), writing became for her the vocation of a two-time-dropout, the work of a ‘middle-level craftswoman’ practiced in defiance of what she took to be the verbal and critical norms of the secondary and tertiary classroom (91). So when Peter Pierce, reviewing Honour and Other People’s Children (1980), wrote that Garner ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’, it is fair to say he clocked her choice words but missed their point entirely (113). As Kerryn Goldsworthy perceptively notes, he and other reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (19). But the point, really, was that she could not be sacked again: Monkey Grip was her way of becoming fluent in what she had been fired for, of presenting in novel form her own frank alternative to the sanitised realism of the classroom.

We can see this in the way Nora’s story, famously lifted and trimmed from her author’s diaries, derives many of its narrative highs from a liberal sample of the aforementioned four-letter contraband: put simply, Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’ (100). ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’ (145) muses Nora midway through the novel, but it is precisely Javo’s inability to draw any distinction between the two that compels the novel’s achingly terse end, where her resolve to live without him is strung taut between two well placed four-letter words in a phrase that repeats verbatim the counsel of another of her lovers: ‘Time to go home’ (207, 333). Contra this precis, Monkey Grip’s eddying structure lends the novel a veneer of plotlessness, of itinerant movement in and out of contact with the lives of its large cast of Melburnians and Sydneysiders. It is sustained by the logic of relapse, which is to say the circular reasonings of emotional and substance abuse, and by Nora and Garner’s shared ‘addiction to words’ (198): their mutual need to ‘communicate in that clever shorthand we all use’ (207). But while this logic and its choice of diction in one sense mark Garner’s externality to the educational system, its author nonetheless locates in her narrator’s crisp syntax another kind of relation to the school: namely, the residual influence of ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’, the authoritarian primary school grammarian whom she credits with first teaching her younger self to ‘take a sentence apart, identify its components, and fit them back together with a fresh understanding of the way they worked’ (464).

Thus for all Nora’s aversion to the scholastic ‘prison’ where her precociously literate daughter Gracie learns only ‘boredom’ from her ‘jailers’ (44), her candid narration of sexual pleasure could be said to extend the teachings of Garner’s terminally frank classroom: her plain words echo those of the radically progressive schoolteacher-cum-author in ‘Why Does the Women Get All the Pain?’, who remembers herself ‘drawing awkward uteruses on the board and pointing at my own body to where I think my uterus is, and explaining what a clitoris is and what it’s for, and telling them that no, you don’t always have to ask for a fuck, that often it just happens’ (32, emphasis in original). Such candour is also evident in Garner’s novella Honour, when Kathleen unflinchingly explains to her daughter Flo that ‘they had to make a little cut in the back of my cunt, to make it bigger and let you out’ (50). Reproduced as casual dialogue, profanity loses some of its power to shock and offend, but perhaps not its capacity to educate; hence Germaine Greer’s desire ‘to take all the steam and violence out of [cunt]. It’s a factual word and it should be a gentle one’ (qtd. in Laugesen 223). We can see in this view a version of Garner’s previously quoted commitment, in ‘Why Does Women Get All the Pain’, to four-letter words as in fact ‘the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex’ (32). So therefore, to Rooney’s account of Monkey Grip’s inner-suburban countercultural commitment to ‘reinvent[ing] the rules about drugs, sex and parenting’ we ought to add the fourth term that its author deemed ripe for reinvention: education (155). This is not to downplay the significance of the novel’s gender politics, which betray the influence of such feminist classics as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969) and Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), nor the fact that most of the narrative takes place just prior to Whitlam’s dismissal and it thus narrates a moment of brief naivety before the ‘symbolic end of Australia’s most radical socio-political experiment’ (Rooney 155). But it is to suggest that, despite Monkey Grip being bookended by dismissals personal and political, when the former has been mentioned at all it has often been deemed to play second fiddle to the latter. Yet Monkey Grip extends the work of Garner’s terminally frank classroom insofar as it is nothing if not a series of lessons in intimacy, in its passions, infidelities and pains. And so, in the bare words of Javo’s poem to Nora – one of the many amorous missives that characters leave for each other throughout the novel – we can see this work, and the labour of tacit instruction that underpins it, made affectingly plain:

you just keep teaching

without telling

keep loving

without expectation . . .

I’m learning something new

all the time

all the time getting better at liking this flesh of mine. (58; italics in original)

Beautifying Bluntness

The Children’s Bach is a novella set in a different key. Its tightly limited narrative scope is focused, as Goldsworthy observes, ‘very firmly on private and domestic life’ (47). Yet we can see one of its central conceits prefigured near the end of Monkey Grip when Nora, wounded by ‘that familiar creeping sensation of being made use of by Javo’, steals and reads his journal (310). There, she finds not only evidence that he has ‘fucked’ with Claire, but a description of their sex that when read becomes ‘a knife inserted neatly between my ribs’:

‘Where am I?’ I asked in my body.

‘You’re here,’ she said with her eyes. (311)

What Javo saw in Claire’s stare is recognised by Nora as akin to what she herself sees when she looks into his eyes, remembered at their best ‘as blue as blue stones or as water coloured by some violent chemical’, their stained translucence seeping into and intensifying her impression of the ‘blue, blue air’ (7). Her reaction suggests it is not the fact of his infidelity, but its intensity, that leaves her despondent. Yet soon after, we learn that Claire’s grounding gaze is nothing but a diarist’s poetically licensed fiction: in answer to Nora’s strained insistence that ‘it is all right about you fucking with her’, Javo admits that Claire in fact ‘fucks . . . with her eyes shut’ (315, emphasis in original). In this moment of compellingly understated reflexivity, the novel quietly alludes to the process of its own composition, briefly laying bare the facts behind Javo’s intimate fiction in a way that inverts the process of excision by which Garner’s diaries became Monkey Grip.

As we shall soon see, such beautifully subdued reflections on narrative method suffuse the minimalism of The Children’s Bach, permeating even its title, which hints at the way the novella formally riffs on an inescapably pedagogical form: the children’s musical textbook. For McGurl, the creative writing classroom is nothing if not the site of a ‘re-performance, in a more elevated setting, of the original acquisition of verbal self-control for which the children’s primer was the program’; with his terms in mind, we can begin to see how the acoustic-syntactic performance for which the novella’s titular textbook is the program offers, for the purposes of this essay, a particularly instructive example (294). Emerging from the time Garner spent teaching on various university campuses during a succession of writer-in-residencies, its narrative and stylistic performance of emotional self-control makes The Children’s Bach a fascinating instantiation of McGurl’s claim that literary ‘minimalism is in part a product of the era of mass higher education’, and thus of my own claim for the rise of creative writing’s under-recognised significance to Australian literary history (293).

‘No one’s safe, once they’ve been inside a university’ reads a 1983 entry in Garner’s Yellow Notebook, penned during her writer-in-residency at Brisbane’s Griffith University (72). Her conviction here makes a general rule of her reservations about academics’ ‘brittle manner, their tendency to monologue, their habit of irony, of picking up words in tweezers’ (72). Though some of us might recognise ourselves in this caricature, this should not keep us from observing that Garner’s own ruthless editorial practice of ‘trimming so close to the bone that a reader will require either good will or sensitive nerves’ would soon result in a novel which practically demands such careful tweezering (90). In a similar vein, her unwillingness to ‘sit around in a university trying to categorize myself’ as a ‘realist or not’ rather confirms her as a pragmatic realist, as does her impatience with an unnamed lecturer’s account of ‘technique’, which she feels bears little resemblance to ‘what I do in my notebook’ (73–74). Garner’s reservations are thus supported, as her quietly self-deprecating tone suggests, by first-hand experience. While she is somewhat unusual among her contemporaries in the sense that she has never held a long-term seat at either end of a creative writing classroom, via a trio of writer-in-residencies and assorted sessional teaching appointments Garner came to spend her fair share of time on campus (Brennan 73, 79). In an interview with Candida Baker she bemoaned Griffith University’s ‘uncongenial . . . post-structuralist sort of faculty’, their insistence on the death of the author an outrageous piece of sophistry to the writer working and living among them. It was nonetheless in such company that she drafted much of The Children’s Bach, finishing and publishing her novella while in residence at the University of Western Australia (154). Yet it seems that exposure did little to acclimatise Garner to the tertiary system: she would continue to feel ‘inadequate around academics’ and ‘uncomfortable around universities’, to worry that she was ‘inferior and despised and frowned upon’, going so far as to cast such ‘institutes of learning’ in psychoanalytic terms as ‘the equivalent of the negative father, in that I desperately want them to approve of me but I behave in such a way that they won’t’ (153–54).

‘One could behave like this only by numbing something’, declares the third person narrator of The Children’s Bach as Athena leaves her husband and children without an apology or explanation, ‘and the skin of the body, as if to compensate, peeled back and laid bare the nerves’ (110). Misbehaviour – here abandonment, later infidelity – at once numbs and bares her emotions: this seemingly shameless departure, witnessed by her husband and son from the veranda, elicits a compensatory self-flaying that exposes the very fibres of her feeling. So it is easy to forget that her thoughts, despite the emotional rawness they relate, are in fact focalised in tactful, well-behaved prose. That is to say, Athena’s first moment of uninhibited self-expression is also carefully composed, even micromanaged, in a manner reminiscent of the narrative acts of ‘verbal self-control’ that McGurl sees as ‘analogous to the self-protective concealments . . . triggered before, during, and after the fact of shameful exposure’ (294). He has in mind exposures of a slightly different kind, the kind routine for writers on campus: the culture of workshop peer review native to their new institutional home, McGurl argues, could be said to permeate the emotional economy of minimalist literary fiction through its characteristic ‘dialectic of shame and pride, of self-hatred and self-esteem’ (284). In his account, it is a dialectic particularly pivotal to the humbly minimalist fiction of the old program hand Raymond Carver, whose work Garner deeply admired: in One Day I’ll Remember This (2020), she savours ‘the jagged voices, the catastrophes, the spare language and the striving for spare imagery’ in his short stories, in which ‘the simple becomes tremendous’ (131). Bernadette Brennan suggests the admiration was mutual, quoting a letter from Carver to Peter Craven in which the former states he’s ‘a fan of her work’ (77). But it was also mutually informative, in the sense that the ‘excisions and understatements’ that for McGurl typify Carverian minimalism are equally the tools of Garner’s trade (294). ‘About writing:’, reads a succinct 1981 entry in Yellow Notebook, ‘meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there, only revealed’ (22, emphasis in original). Meaningful smallness might take the unadorned form of four-letter words; it might also, as it does in The Children’s Bach, look like Athena’s correction of the adulterous ‘we’ to the solitary ‘I’ in her letter home, or the series of simple sentences (‘Things rot up here. It must be the sea air. . . . I walk round the city. I look at pictures, I look at the water’) that riddle the paragraph yet are cut from her correspondence (112–13, emphasis in original). Unvarnished yet meticulously snipped and trimmed, Garner’s prose manages feeling via the practice, as McGurl writes of Carver, ‘not of explaining, but of beautifying shame’; it is a ‘disciplined reconfiguration of the self’, exercised via ‘an aesthetic of risk management, a way of being beautifully careful’ (294).

In Garner’s hands minimalism would also become a way of beautifying bluntness, of emboldening oneself out of an emotional rut and into the act of self-exposure. ‘Oh shut up’, she castigates herself at the end of a paragraph in Yellow Notebook spent agonising over her then ‘almost-finished book’ The Children’s Bach (103, emphasis in original). This italicised reprimand is a way of bending a surplus of words to her will, of enforcing verbal control over her twofold embarrassment at ‘the smallness of my scope, the ordinariness of it, its bourgeois nature’ and the risky prospect of what ‘critics will say’, what ‘friends will think and not say’ (103). When the voice of Garner’s diary instructs itself to shut up, however, it does not just truncate the explanation of her particular brand of novelist’s shame; it also boldly demands an end to that shame, managing the force of her will to end the process of verbal disclosure in a way that enables her art. Another entry’s determination to ‘absolutely currycomb the tics and adverbs and adjectives-in-pairs out of this goddamn novel’ is also a statement of confidence in the process of excision, of a minimalist’s pride in the appealing bareness of well-behaved prose (112, emphasis in original).

So, for the all the self-silencing directness of Garner’s injunction to shut up, one cannot help but hear something like a countervailing expressive loudness in the bravura syntactic-acoustic performance which concludes the novella that prompted her anxieties in the first place, The Children’s Bach. This impression of a sudden increase in volume is in part brought about by an abrupt shift in syntax – witness the sheer length of the anaphoric prose poem that ends the novella, which seamlessly weaves an exclamation in the future continuous into a single long sentence that conjunctively bridges no fewer than three hundred and seventy-one words – but it is further amplified by the defiant boldness of the amateur pianist Athena, who in the prose poem’s final stanza overcomes the timidity of her previous efforts in an ecstatically virtuosic performance:

and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air! (160)

E. Harold Davies, editor of the musical primer from which Garner’s novella borrows its title, encourages his students to pursue a ‘touch clear and tender, sensitive, full of delicate shadings; and next, to search eagerly for every bit of melody, particularly in the left hand part’: for teachers, this promises ‘absolute independence of the hands, and perfect equality of all the fingers’ (v, emphasis in original). Ambidextrously balancing, via her left hand, the steadiness of domestic rhythms with the independent artistic flourishes of her right, Athena’s performance implies the Fox family will survive both her and her husband’s infidelities, and that her choice to return to Dexter and their children will not mean the end of her modest ambitions as a pianist. Or it would do so, were it not for the ‘empty house’ that, it is quietly implied, is the only setting in which an act of self-expression so uninhibited could ever take place. Athena is convinced that she does ‘not play well, that her playing, even when correct, was like someone reciting a lesson in an obedient voice, without inflection or emotion, without understanding: a betrayal of music’ (36). This lack of confidence is not helped by Dexter, who advises that she should ‘practise when [she’s] the only one home’, on the grounds that ‘it’s a bit dreary having to listen to someone picking their way through those pieces’ (50); later, when she ignores him while practising, he raises ‘his foot in its holed sock and thump[s] it on to the upper keys’ (106). Insofar as her triumphant performance is a rejoinder to his criticisms, it is therefore also a concession, a dutiful carrying out of his instructions to practice only when no-one else is home. If it still seems a stretch, at this stage, to point out that the end of The Children’s Bach imagines the practice of art as at once constrained and enabled by the matter of residency, it may seem less so in light of a phrase from one of Garner’s notebooks, in which Dexter is referred to as ‘an academic, but not the modern killer kind’: according to these notes, he works as a teacher, though this information is cut from the published novella (Grenville and Woolfe 75). Boldly performing to an empty house, from a certain angle Athena might just resemble a writer carefully managing the fact of residence among her critics.

‘The piano is such a lonely instrument’, reflects Athena to herself: even in performance, you are ‘always by yourself with your back to the world’ (64). Is there a comparable loneliness to writing, even in the age of the writing program? ‘Art has a social problem’, writes Michael W. Clune, because our relations to it are ‘always disguised forms of relations between persons’ (137). Most people understandably prefer not to think of artworks as merely more or less successful attempts by artists to capture another person’s attention, and thus most artists ‘depend on the pretense that they are not doing what in fact they are doing: asking you to recognize them’ (Clune 135). Performing to an empty house is one way of solving this problem, by ostensibly seeking no one’s approval but your own, but unless that performance is described in a novella that other people can read it cannot be a work of art to anyone but the pianist herself. If the writing classroom, confronting the author with the reality that their work must soon become the object of another person’s attention, serves in one sense to amplify art’s social problem, then the minimalism it has cultivated can be seen as at least a partial aesthetic solution: in contrast to more gregarious displays of maximalist attention-seeking, minimalism’s pleasures lie in the quietness of understatements and omissions intended, at least on a first reading, to go largely unnoticed. But if we want to understand The Children’s Bach in relation to such classrooms then it is important to notice that Billy, Athena’s cognitively impaired youngest son, is the model for his mother’s solution to art’s social problem.

‘“I used to be romantic about him”’, declares Athena in a moment of unusual callousness toward her non-verbal child, ‘“I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s . . .” (she knocked her forehead with her knuckles) “. . . nobody home”’ (54; emphasis in original). Her sentiments are echoed by Vicki, who coolly describes him as ‘empty, open, nothing but a conduit for meaningless rage or bliss’ (56). But if an empty house is the necessary precondition for Athena’s performance at the end of the novel, then the fact that ‘nobody [is] home’ inside Billy’s head is analogously what enables the perfection of his song’s tune, its rhythmic synchronisation with the motion of his swing, and his unaffected melodiousness:

When she heard his voice she thought he was going to start screaming again, but it was a song. She pushed and pushed, until at the top of each forward flight he lay on his back in air. What was that song? Of course he sang no words, only a round-mouthed ooh-oohing, but the tune was perfect, its rhythm was timed to the rushes and pauses of the swing, and his voice was high, sweet and melodious. She let the metal seat raise her, she hooked her fingers over its edge, sent him flying away from her and threw up her arms to receive him again. He sang a verse, a chorus, another verse, and the words ran back to her in her mother’s voice and she joined in: ‘Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing / Onward! the sailors cry.’ (55)

A prelude, of sorts, to Athena’s bravura coda, Billy’s rocking flight while he sings his wordless song is quietly keyed to the motions of his mother’s concluding performance, as the arpeggios she will send flying meet and echo his airborne ooh-oohing. Some of his emotional inarticulacy is also hers, as sound and spectacle alike stand in lieu of verbal exposition of their feelings: Athena’s song might intimate her reconciliation with Dexter, or the recurring unwilled dreams in which she searches for her former lover Philip, or nothing at all. Likewise Billy’s interiority is left implicit, his declared emptiness unsettled by Vicki’s impression of the ‘warmth and depth of his flesh’, in a way that leaves the reader to infer what they will (57). But this is precisely what renders the unaffectedness of the music they make analogous to the aspirations of Garner’s narrative tableaux: their musical statements are invariably understatements, in the sense that they never straightforwardly enunciate the thoughts and feelings that inspired them.

What The Children’s Bach implies, then, is that Billy’s state of rapt absorption in sound presents a possible answer to the social problem of an artist in residence: against debilitating self-consciousness, like that which prevents Athena from playing while in earshot of Dexter, it sets the possibility of musical soliloquy, of performance unaffected by or in the absence of an audience. By way of conclusion to this section, I want to consider a third example of such a performance in the novella. In a telling malapropism, Billy’s older brother Arthur declares that he is ‘going through a period of self-conscience’ by way of explanation as to why he hasn’t really thought about the fact that Vicki lives with them in their spare room (100). What self-conscience stands in for here is either self-consciousness or self-confidence: in either case, its function for Arthur is to stand in for the explication of how he feels about the presence of a relative stranger in his home, of she who will later care for him and his brother while Dexter attempts to convince Athena to end her affair with Philip and return to their family, and with whom Dexter will later have a one-night stand that she will claim means little to her but will wrack him with guilt. Yet what he really seems to describe is a state of self-absorption, an unaffectedness that renders him impervious to Vicki’s injunction to ‘shut up’ (122, emphasis in original):

He had not heard a word. His eyes had gone out of focus, his pitch was up, his pace was accelerating, his smile was the one-sided, manic grimace of the born raver: he was away on the high seas of narrative. In the wide planting of his feet, his blithe assumption of an audience, she saw Dexter, oh poor Dexter, gone away on a plane to try and pull the sword out of the stone. . . . She pushed the chattering boy aside: he turned to follow her, pointed his rapt, jabbering face in her direction, but she stepped out into the passage and closed the door on him. He took no notice: as she walked away, his chipmunk voice rattled on without interruption. (122)

Consumed by the act of telling – specifically, of retelling the plot of the film Excalibur (1981), which seems to have captivated his imagination through its depiction of his namesake – Arthur assumes his claim on the attention of an audience, then does not even notice when that audience ignores him. Conjoining his father’s assumption of an audience to his mother’s triumphantly private performance, his narration remains unaffected by the presence or absence of listeners. And this is a condition toward which, as I have argued, The Children’s Bach aspires, through the minimalism of a form shorn of unnecessary exposition and explication, and through the beautifully subdued reflexivity of its characters’ performances. It is a condition that, as Clune observes, suggests much about ‘the salience of the creative writing program to the project of aesthetic education’, in the sense that the residency of writers on campus ‘approximates modernism’s highest goal’: creative autonomy (204). Today such conditions remain an imperfect fantasy, subject to the demands of teaching, scarcity and professional precarity. The achievement of The Children’s Bach’s is to imagine, and testify to, how even limited forms of autonomous residency can enable superb feats of controlled self-expression.

The Short of It

It’s probably true that my ‘talent’ is limited. My range is, anyway. Or so I am always being told.

  • Garner, Yellow Notebook 34

Minimalism: an education in the art of the limit. Literary periods, too, invite us to consider how limitation might be enabling, or what it might allow us to know. As Caroline Levine argues, they are at best ‘artificial unit[ies]’, useful only insofar as the distinctions they draw allow ‘meaningful understandings of cultural experience to emerge’ (55). Levine claims our collective failure as literary historians has been that the institutions ‘so crucial to the work of historicizing literary texts’ and establishing the boundaries of literary periods have rarely themselves been the subjects of ‘analytic attention’: we have largely failed, for instance, to ‘address the fundamental problem of how institutions actually impose order on historical time’ (56). This is a failure we might begin to correct, as McGurl does in The Program Era, by attending to how the discipline of creative writing has impressed its own form of institutional order on the novel in our time. But I think it would be a methodological error to begin, as Eric Bennett does, with the assumption that the internationalisation of such writing programs was but an eccentric form of American cultural imperialism, fostering ‘a literature of individualism and domesticity and suppress[ing] a literature of solidarity and big ideas’. Such generalisations at best drastically underestimate the originality of Garner’s contribution to Australian literary history and lose their explanatory purchase altogether when applied to the novels of Kim Scott, Brian Castro or Alexis Wright. Clearly, we need an account of what the rise of creative writing has meant for literature in Australia, and the southern hemisphere more generally, that does not simply see this literature as the homogenised ideological product of institutions exported from the north. In an aptly small way, this essay has contributed to such a project by paying close attention to the relation between literary form and educational practice in just two of Garner’s novels, an approach I hope has demonstrated both the significance of these relations to her fiction and, more generally, the absolute necessity of attending to the field’s institutionalisation if we hope to understand the last half-century of literary production.


This essay has benefitted immensely from the incisive critical attentions of Jan-Melissa Schramm, Kasia Boddy, its anonymous reviewers, and the editors of this issue. Special thanks are also due to Peter Hayes, who kindly pointed out two factual errors that I have now corrected. At the invitation of Monique Rooney, I gave a version of this paper as part of the ANU Centre for Australian Literary Cultures seminar series, and I could not have asked for a more receptive, generous and intelligent first audience for it. Any errors that have persisted despite so thorough a winnowing are, of course, my own.


  1. Between 2011 and 2020, three of the ten recipients of the Miles Franklin Award have been the novelistic products of doctoral degrees in creative writing. Three of the four novels awarded the Stella Prize have also been the direct product of such degrees, as have four of the eight Australian/Vogel Literary Awards conferred in this period. Of the Miles Franklin Award recipients since 2000, Thea Astley, Kim Scott, Frank Moorhouse, Alex Miller, Tim Winton, Alexis Wright, Anna Funder, Evie Wyld, Sofie Laguna, A. S. Patrić, Josephine Wilson, Melissa Lucashenko and Amanda Lohrey have all studied (or are currently studying) and/or taught creative writing at the tertiary level.

  2. Curtin was until 1987 the West Australian Institute of Technology. Murnane began teaching creative writing at the Prahran College of Advanced Education, which was merged into Victoria CAE in 1981, and then incorporated into Deakin in 1992.

  3. Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby recalls that the American Psychiatric Association continued to list homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973, the year after Garner’s dismissal (674): if Benjamin Law’s estimate of ‘nearly 200 stories [in the Australian] either about, or mentioning, Safe Schools, amounting to over 90,000 words’ from February 2016–2017 is a reliable yardstick, then similar attitudes continue to underpin public anxiety over the acknowledgment of non-heteronormative sexuality in the classroom over four decades on (40).

Published 28 October 2021 in Volume 36 No. 3. Subjects: Education, Feminism, Self expression, Sexual politics, Sexuality & sexual identity, Use of language, Women writers, Writers on writing, Politics of Writing, Helen Garner.

Cite as: Steinberg, Joseph. ‘Helen Garner’s Education.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.6626e85fa4.