‘Ordinary Readers’ and Political Uses: Re-Examining Helen Garner’s Non-Fiction Writings about Filicide


Helen Garner’s literary non-fiction book This House of Grief (2014), as well as her two essays ‘Why She Broke’ (2017) and ‘Killing Daniel’ (1993), all deal with instances of filicide. This article begins by offering a reading of these writings in which I argue that they perpetuate a mythologisation of family violence which prevents us from viewing that violence as an ameliorable social injustice. I look at Rita Felski’s injunction to engage more deeply with what she calls ‘ordinary readers'’ uses of literature as a way to question the relevance of the kind of critique put forth in the first section; ultimately, I find that the context of Garner’s popular reception actually vindicates a critical focus on the political import of the writing.

Helen Garner’s work occupies a privileged position within Australian letters. She has attracted significant popularity, critical acclaim and increasing academic interest, having won the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2006 and the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize in 2016 for her non-fiction. She was ranked eighth, the highest literary writer, in a 2005 Sydney Morning Herald poll of ‘Australia’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals’. She is the subject of an Oxford University Press monograph by Kerryn Goldsworthy, and a more recent biography by Bernadette Brennan. Her book The First Stone (1995) threatened her popularity within a literary and academic culture sympathetic to the ideals of an emergent third-wave feminism. However, in recent years with the publication of less controversial works such as The Spare Room (2008), her collected non-fiction writings, and short stories, her reputation as a beloved Australian literary icon has been cemented.

The focus of this particular reading of…

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Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: Family conflict, filicide, The ordinary reader, postcritique, New Journalism, Helen Garner, Rita Felski, Literary non-fiction.

Cite as: Gawen, Naish. ‘‘Ordinary Readers’ and Political Uses: Re-Examining Helen Garner’s Non-Fiction Writings about Filicide.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.356041b119.