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’…

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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.