The Australian writer Helen Garner published her debut novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. It was an immediate sensation. The novel follows a doomed love affair between the protagonist Nora and a heroin addict named Javo, amid the countercultural milieu of Melbourne’s inner north. Reviews were positive, but many were dismayed at what they considered Garner’s shameless use of autobiographical material. The crime writer Peter Corris was scathing: “Helen Garner has published her private journal rather than written a novel,” he said. “The “I” of the book, Nora, is indisputably the author herself and the other characters are identifiable members of the… Pram Factory set in Melbourne.”
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Writing things down can be compulsive for those of us who’ve formed the habit. These are people who have notebooks always tucked in a shirt pocket or a grubby tote bag, who have scraps of paper they do not throw away, who type homilies into the Notes app on their phones. We write things down because we want to remember, and to save things. In her essay “Woman in a Green Mantle,” Garner references poet Philip Larkin, who once said, “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art. Garner writes that she has “had it up to here with rhetoric about art, but the urge to preserve—I understand that. I’ve been a captive of it for most of my adult life.”
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Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1942, the eldest girl in a working-class family. She attended the University of Melbourne, where she studied English and French. She married young, had a daughter, and then quickly divorced. For most of the 1970s, she lived in the communal counterculture of Melbourne’s Carlton and Fitzroy North, in a milieu which had strong ties to the influential performance collective La Mama, based at the Pram Factory, and to the feminist consciousness-raising groups that proliferated early in that decade.
In 1972, Garner was sacked from the education department after she taught an impromptu sex education lesson to a class of thirteen-year-olds at Fitzroy High School. “Getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living,” she wrote.
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With her daughter at school, Garner began to write. She spent mornings in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, poring over her old diaries and working on what she thought might be a novel. The novel was Monkey Grip, and it launched her career as a writer. It also launched the debate, which has never ended, about how much of her self was in her work, and whether it was somehow unseemly, or inappropriate.
So Monkey Grip did emerge from Garner’s diaries. It was in the diary that she found a shape and a story. But Bernadette Brennan, Garner’s biographer (and, in all transparency, my former professor at the University of Sydney), notes in her book A Writing Life that “Reading Monkey Grip as poorly disguised reality not only dismisses the creative process of shaping the story, it also ignores how and why the diarised basis for this novel contributes to its meaning.”
Link to the rest at LitHub
PG is of the (always and eternally) humble opinion that whatever an author puts into a novel, true or false, is just fine, absent copyright infringement or libel.
Who cares if the novel is based on the author’s life and acquaintances or on Hobbits?
There is likely something of a fiction author’s actual life and experiences in almost every novel, even if it is incorporated in the predilections of one or more fictional characters, the point of view and attitude of a disembodied narrator or the author’s ideas about what a truly evil person would think.
If a book purports to be non-fiction, PG prefers either a fairly-close approximation of reality or clearly-identified speculation about what might have happened when there is no reliable record or recollection available.
In a cookbook, for example, PG would be a bit put-off if fictional ingredients were required (unless it was a fantasy cookbook).
That said, all books are artificial creations. General Douglas MacArthur, as portrayed in many and various biographies and accounts of his participation in two world wars of the Twentieth Century, is not the real Douglas MacArthur, but a Douglas MacArthur created from facts selected by a biographer from the much larger group of facts contained in the man’s life.
A biographer focused on MacArthur in the Philippines may quite likely not include a complete, accurate and detailed account of his actions and experiences during the 1914 United States occupation of Veracruz.