Become a member


November 29, 2023

Sophie Cunningham presents ASA Medal to Helen Garner

On 14 November 2023 at the ASA’s Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote event in Melbourne, the Australian Society of Authors awarded the 2023 ASA Medal to Helen Garner.  The following is a transcript of ASA Chair Sophie Cunningham’s speech.

The Australian Society of Authors is delighted to announce that the 2023 ASA Medal has been awarded to Helen Garner.

It gives me particular pleasure to make that announcement in Melbourne, Helen’s home town. While she has lived in, and written about Sydney, for long stretches of time, in Melbourne we like to ignore all that. It’s possible that Helen finds that extremely irritating. The thing is — and I think that I speak for many of us here — that I simply can’t walk through the Edinburgh Gardens, or go to the Fitzroy Pool, without thinking briefly of Helen, and her first novel Monkey Grip. That was published in 1977, when I was 14, and it’s impact was so great it was as if a bomb had gone off. 

The folks of Melbourne were already familiar with Helen’s charismatic, observant presence because of her time at the Pram Factory, or, perhaps because teachers had gone out on strike in support of her in 1972.  I first met Helen in the early 80s when she came to visit literature students  at my university. Then, because this is Melbourne, I had the chance to work with her and get to know her in the late 80s and early 90s. I minded her house in Barkley Street for 6 months 30 years ago — a date I’m sure about because I threw my thirtieth birthday party there and I’m suddenly uncertain that I ever told her about that. These are the kind of confessions it’s best to make when there are other people in the room. 

For most of her publishing career Helen has been published by Melbourne-based independents. That is, she hasn’t just written about Melbourne, she’s been vitally important to Melbourne’s cultural institutions— first McPhee Gribble and, in recent decades, by Text Publishing.

The explosive impact of Helen’s work which was first felt when Monkey Grip was published has continued for more than forty years. One of her contemporaries, Peter Carey,  said of her work recently, ‘How is it that she can enter this heart-breaking territory and make it not only bearable, but glorious, and funny? There is no answer except: Helen Garner is a great writer.’

Helen’s literary output is extensive. I won’t list all the titles in this speech but they include novels and novellas —The Children’s Bach, The Spare Room; stories — Postcards from Surfers;  screenplays —The Last Days of Chez Nous; and works of non-fiction including The Feel of Steel, This House of Grief and her extraordinary trilogy of diaries. 

Monkey Grip was awarded the National Book Council Award in 1978, Cosmo Cosmolino was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in1993, her Time feature ‘Did Daniel Have to Die?’ was awarded the1993 Walkley Award for Best Feature Writing, and The Spare Room won the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Fiction Book Award and the 2009 Barbara Jefferis Award. Despite this I think it’s fair to say — in fact I think I’m quoted as saying this to Helen in How to End a Story — that Helen’s work has been relatively overlooked when it comes to awards, a fact which is at odds with the high esteem she is held in by readers and the industry as a whole. It was pleasing, then, that this has changed in recent years and Helen has received the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2006, the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature (2019), and the Lloyd O’Neil Award for Services to the Australian Book Industry at the Australian Book Industry Awards (2020). 

I’m wondering, in some cases, if this awards’ business isn’t the dark side of a writer being so known and loved, and of Melbourne being proprietorial. We haven’t always viewed her work with an objective eye. I know that I’ve held her books to my heart I’ve been so in awe of how she’s managed to capture, well, everything. Other times I’ve argued with them, holding them before me as if Helen and the book were one, and she was in the room. To quote the great editor Diana Athill, ‘Garner is one of those wonderful writers whose voice one hears and whose eyes one sees through. It is impossible not to follow her as she brings to life the events and feelings she is exploring’. It always feels personal with Helen and I don’t doubt that her capacity to make people feel that way has been burdensome for her.

This is one reason why it’s wonderful that her work is finally being embraced internationally. Helen has recently returned from a trip to New York to promote her work because she’s been discovered all over again. It’s given the ASA — and I hope Helen — such a kick to read what people coming to her work for the first time would say. Here is the New York Times. ’Helen Garner is a prodigiously gifted writer, one with many quivers in her bow … It’s high time American readers knew her generous, category-defying imagination.’

And NPR. ‘This Australian writer might be the greatest novelist you’ve never heard of. I sometimes think that great writers come in two types. The first show very little interest in the everyday world of people and events. In the other group, you find writers who dive headlong into our shared world of romance and pettiness, family and political squabbling. You get all this and more in the work of Helen Garner, who, at 80, occupies the galvanizing spot in her culture once held in America by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag … Garner’s great gift is an ability to cut to the heart of things. Her elegantly direct prose is always wrestling with that essential feminist concern: the politics of domestic life. And she’s not afraid to be thorny. This isn’t to say that Garner’s work is dark or nasty. Crackling with curiosity and unpredictability, she embraces the many-sidedness of life. The house of her imagination sets aside nice big rooms for love and pleasure and forgiveness’

In conclusion: Helen Garner’s impact on the Australian literary culture is immeasurable and unparalleled. She has been integral to the Australian writing scene for decades. Not just as a writer but as an advocate behalf of the ASA. For those who are interested in the detail, Helen Garner joined the ASA on 25th of October, 1978. Just a few months ago she made a powerful submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation. Helen has been a critic and commentator, and a chronicler of our times. She has mentored her fellow writers and I don’t doubt that there are writers here tonight who have been on the receiving end of her generosity and support. I know have been and was always grateful for her generous and public enthusiasm about a book I wrote a few years ago.  Gestures like that make a material difference to writer’s lives. I’d like to finish with a quote from another Australian author who I know has valued Helen’s support:  Charlotte Wood. ‘Garner makes me look at who I am. I think this is why readers love her. Not only for saying the unsayable about the body or the heaving shifts of the heart. We love her for how, in seeing and naming our endlessly fallible human conduct with such exactitude, she somehow steps through shame and self-justification into truth, and takes us with her. And later, after we’ve stared ourselves down through a long dark night with that pitiless gaze, she lets us wake in a clear morning and forgive ourselves.’