Of Helen Garner and J.M. Coetzee

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I haven't written much here lately about the on-going problems I have had with the old, archived entries on this weblog.  Mainly that's because it a long tedious process with, I assume, little interest to anyone other than myself.  But the one thing this process of re-posting does provide me is the opportunity to re-read pieces that have appeared here over the years.

Just recently I've been looking at a number of my "author watches" - posts in which I attempt to provide a series of catch-up links relating to one specific author - and just this morning I was editing the Helen Garner Watch #2 post which mainly dealt with reviews of her latest novel, The Spare Room.

As a part of that re-editing I had to go back to some reviews of Garner's novel to ensure my posts were aligned properly and easier to read.  In particular, I had another look at Robert Dessaix's review of the book in The Monthly, and I was quite taken by how critical Dessaix had been about Garner's insistence in referring to The Spare Room as a novel.  He also criticises the author's earlier works, The Children's Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino, for the same reason, stating "They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels?" 

My view at the time, and the one I still hold, is that if Garner wants to call her works "novels" then that is what they are.  To assume that a reader's view of a book holds greater weight and credence in the wider world than that of the writer strikes me as nonsense.  I can argue till I'm blue in the face that The Road is science fiction, but if the author doesn't think it is, then it patently isn't.  I will argue for that novel's inclusion in the sf canon as much to show how the edges of the sf genre blur into other categories as to poke a bit of fun at readers who say they don't read sf, yet are quite willing to read this novel, and Harry Potter and Margaret Atwood, and lots more besides.

And the reason why this topic has come up again is the Combined Reviews post I wrote earlier today regarding J.M. Coetzee's latest book Summertime.  While not having read either book, I am struck by the similarities:  Garner has a protagonist named Helen in her book, and Coetzee has a protagonist named John Coetzee in his; Garner's novel is a fictionalised account of a personal experience, and Coetzee's is a fictionalised account of a part of his own life.  Is there much of a difference?  Not to me. 

I've quoted Peter Craven's review of Summertime in my Combined Reviews post and it's interesting to note that he refers to the work as a "more or less fictionalised memoir" and as a "book", but never as a "novel". You might think that a rather pedantic debating point; I don't, and I don't think Craven does either.  I believe he chose his words very carefully.

So what of Craven's view of Garner's book?  In his selection of best books for the 2008-09 summer period for, co-incidentally, The Monthly, Craven refers to it as the author's "first novel in years", firmly flagging it as fiction, which he first did in a profile of the author for "The Age" newspaper in March 2008.

Will Dessaix now review Coetzee's book and re-define it as a "memoir" rather than a "novel"?  Based on Craven's view of the two books you'd have to think so.  I'll keep an eye out.  

1 Comment

When he was asked to comment on whether his work was autobiographical in
nature, the American novelist Wallace Stegner made this (perfect, I reckon) observation on the process of writing fiction:

"You break experience up into pieces and you put them back together in
different combinations, new combinations, and some are real and some are
not, some are documentary and some are imagined.... It takes a
pedestrain and literal mind to be worried about which is true and which is not true. It's all of it not true, and it's all of it true."

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 10, 2009 11:55 AM.

Combined Reviews: Summertime by J.M. Coetzee was the previous entry in this blog.

Reprint: Racing Poetry is the next entry in this blog.

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