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Elizabeth Kleinhenz in conversation with Chris Wallace – about Germaine Greer

November 1, 2018

Elizabeth Kleinhenz, Germaine GreerIt made for a busy night, given that the last Tuesday of the month is also my reading group night, but I had to go to this ANU Meet the Author event, because it involved Canberra academic/journalist (not to mention Germaine Greer biographer) Chris Wallace conversing with Elizabeth Kleinhenz, whose biography, Germaine: The life of Germaine Greer, has just been published.

MC Colin Steele commenced proceedings by introducing the participants, then noting that Germaine Greer’s archives had been bought a few years ago by the University of Melbourne for $3m! Not cheap, eh, but it is a significant collection about, as the back cover artwork says, “arguably one of the most significant and influential Australian women of her time.” Hmm, there are a lot of qualifications here – “arguably”, “one of the most”, “Australian”, “women” and “her time”. Whoever said this was not going out on a limb!

Anyhow, it was an excellent conversation – not just because it was about this fascinating woman, Germaine (b. 1939) but also because Chris Wallace led the conversation in a logically, but not rigidly, structured way and Elizabeth Kleinhenz was open and articulate in her responses. I’m glad I made the effort to attend.

First things first

To get things going, Wallace asked some general questions about the book itself. Its cover pic, for example. Kleinhenz responded that it was the publisher’s choice, though she was involved, I gather, in the discussion. They wanted a picture that would be attention-grabbing. And so it is.

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz,

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz, 2018, before the session

Wallace then asked about that back cover quote that I’ve already mentioned. It led to Kleinhenz talking about why she’d chosen Greer as her subject. She spoke about all the negative reactions she’d received on telling people that she was writing about Greer – comments like “that silly old bat”. But, Kleinhenz felt that Greer had made some significant contributions to women’s lives and that she’s an excellent scholar: she wanted to “set the record straight”.

She also said that Greer, despite her obvious impact on women’s lives, doesn’t like women (like me, for example) telling her that she’d changed their lives. “I didn’t change your life,” she apparently says, “you did.” Well yes, technically she’s right, but, without enlightenment from Greer, many of us may not have made the leaps we needed – or may have made them much more slowly – so I think our belief stands, whether or not Greer accepts it!

Anyhow, then, before getting into the nuts and bolts of the biography, Wallace asked Kleinhenz to say a little about her first biography on Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is, apparently, another misunderstood woman. I won’t go into details, but Kleinhenz said she had always wondered why Kleinhenz, when offered a Professorship, had declined, saying she wasn’t good enough. She found the answer, she said, when researching Greer: it’s that women of Greer and Fitzpatrick’s generation were not brought up to be equal. Greer, said Kleinhenz, saw that women had to change themselves in order to move forward.

Wallace asked Kleinhenz how it was that we had moved from Fitzpatrick to Greer. Kleinhenz, born in the 1940s, related her own experience as a young women who, although she had a good job as a teacher, “just” wanted a house and family. However, when she got there she found it wasn’t enough. She realised, as Greer argues in The female eunuch, women could/should not blame men – doing so, in fact, cedes power to men – but must change ourselves. So, she did – she went back to work.

Early, mid and late Germaine

We then got into the guts of the conversation. With Greer now 80, how, asked Wallace, do we assess her? Kleinhenz felt that Wallace had got it right in her biography, Germaine Greer: Untamed shrew, recognising that Greer writes from where she’s at at the time. In that, said Kleinhenz, she is consistent!

However, later in her career, she said, it seems that Greer “went funny”. She is known to suffer depression. Maybe she wasn’t well. Her book, The boy (2003), about the beauty of young boys’ bodies, comes from, Kleinhenz feels, an unfortunate period in her life. But some years later, she bought the rainforest – which was in fact funded, I understand, from that sale of her archives. Kleinhenz suggested that this period marks her “return”.

Wallace, though, seemed not so sure, and asked Kleinhenz about Greer’s book On rape. Wallace is appalled by it, while Kleinhenz admitted to a “softer” response, one that she has also found amongst other women of her age. She admitted that Greer takes a very narrow definition of rape, but felt that Greer says some sensible things about the legal system, for example, and about the role of violence in rape.

Research and writing

The discussion then turned to biography writing. Wallace asked whether readers are surprised that people are, in fact, rounded, that is, not all good or all bad. Kleinhenz said that she tried not to be soft on Greer in her book, but she did find Greer an interesting woman. Greer has, in fact, a lot of friends – the implication being that she must have some good things going for her despite all her critics.

Wallace noted that Greer is charismatic, and wondered whether it’s been a problem that she has been too uncritically treated, here, rather than getting “energetic” Australian feedback. Kleinhenz agreed somewhat with this. There was some discussion, for example, about Greer’s taking a cultural relativist view towards female genital mutilation, rather than opposing it categorically. Kleinhenz suggested that Greer has been criticised in Australia – but “of the silly old bat” variety rather than more “critical” criticism, that is, serious analytical discussion of her ideas. Kleinhenz also said that it’s hard to dislike someone who makes you laugh. I understand that!

Wallace then moved onto a subject dear to my heart – the issue of the archives. Were they rich, she asked. Did they change Kleinhenz’s view? Kleinhenz, laughing, started by comparing Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ordered 8-box collection with Germaine’s nearly 500 boxes that were not organised chronologically. She discussed her process – the role Wallace had played in her getting “more organised”, and how she handled the closing of the Greer archives for 12 months partway through her research. This turned out to be useful, because during this time she went to secondary sources and conducted interviews, so that when the archives opened again, she had a framework.

She shared some of the treasures, some of the things that stood out – such as letters from Clive James, Helen Garner, and a French girl who told a very personal story and to whom Greer wrote a personally revealing reply.

During the Q&A at the end, the issue of Greer keeping copies of the letters she wrote came up. Why did she – do some – people keep not only the letters they receive but copies of those they write? There’s no single answer of course. However, Kleinhenz did say that she believes Greer knows her “commercial” value. The words “no fee, no work” appear at the bottom of many of her letters. Wallace interjected here commenting that writers’ incomes are “lumpy”, so it’s quite likely that potential financial value drove her decision to keep her papers – and, Greer knew she was big. (However, it could also simply that she’s a hoarder, or, a historian who likes to keep her records? I can understand that.)

Kleinhenz also said that she suspects that Greer had probably removed some family-related material from the archives before she sold them. Also, there was not much “childhood stuff” in the archives, but the audio material is wonderful. Greer apparently records her thoughts, for example, as she goes for walks with her dogs.

Q & A

I’ve included some of the Q&A discussions above, because it seemed logical, but other issues were discussed, including:

  • Why did she choose Greer? Kleinhenz said she grew up with Greer. Greer is only three years older than she, but also lived in the same area of Melbourne, and they both went to Catholic schools. However, the main reason is that she felt Greer deserved it: she wanted, she reiterated, “to put record straight”.
  • What difference do her archives make to assessment of her? Kleinhenz answered that while they don’t contain much in terms of signficant new facts, they add a depth of understanding. Those letters she mentioned above, and other letters like those with John Atwood, whom she appeared to love at one stage in her life, helped here.
  • What impact did the birth control pill have? Kleinhenz said that Greer was highly aware of the pill and felt that women needed to think through the changes the pill brought, and how they would manage those changes, what they would do with them. This came out in the excellent notes she made for writing The female eunuch.

Kleinhenz added at this point, that Greer had felt a freak as a young person – she felt too tall, too noisy.

Closing the session

In closing the session, Colin Steele referred to the small Trailblazers book – accompanying Australia Post’s Australian Legends series – in which Greer says she’s not a tour operator, but wants to encourage people to think for themselves. This, in fact, perfectly sums up my attitude to Greer. She’s a bit (hmm, just a bit?!) of an iconoclast. I don’t always like – or perhaps, fully comprehend – what she says, but I love that she’s around saying it. She can always make me think – and sometimes, she makes me laugh!

I’d love to say more about Greer and some of the ideas generated by this conversation, but will, perhaps save them until I’ve read the biography.

Podcast: click this link to see if you think I’ve captured the conversation accurately enough!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
30 October 2018

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2018 2:58 pm

    I’ve just bought Germaine’s book On Rape, because I’ve also heard it said that there’s some sensible stuff in it and I wanted to see for myself. I haven’t read it yet, I think I need to be in the mood.

    I was offered this bio for review but I refused it because I don’t like the idea of an unauthorised bio while the subject is still alive and still perfectly well able to speak for herself. I am fond of Germaine, and admire her greatly – partly because her courage to express ideas that were long overdue *did* change my life, but also because I’ve had the privilege of attending one of her lectures, about the poet Sappho, and so have seen her in action as a brilliant academic as well as a great Aussie stirrer.

    IMO it’s high time she had an AO but I can’t imagine That Lot in Canberra recognising her contribution any time soon…

    • November 1, 2018 3:34 pm

      I hope you read the proper post, Lisa, and not my mistaken early posting email! I haven’t done that for a long time! How embarrassing with all my scribbled notes at the bottom!

      Yes, I nearly bought On rape the other day. I think I should, for the same reason as you. In fact, when she was on Q&A recently, some of the things she said made me think it might have some things worth considering in it that all the commentary had not done.

      I understand your point about unauthorised biographies and don’t tend to read them – thinking most a probably salacious – but I don’t feel as strongly as you about it. You could argue that it’s better to say what you want to say while the person is alive rather than behind their back so to speak – though of course, when you’re dead your front is never going to find out! Kleinhenz had a couple of emails with Greer so was up front with her. Also, in a way, what did Greer expect selling her archives and not putting a 30-or-whatever-year embargo on them, which clearly she hasn’t – though Kleinhenz did say she wasn’t allowed to photocopy (or even photography) anything so everything had to be written out (or typed presumably, but no-one asked her that.)

      Yes, I’m fond of Greer too. I love that she stirs the pot a bit. She can say some outrageous things at times that I don’t agree with, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she she changed many of our lives!! And Kleinhenz clearly admires her. As I said in the post, one of the points she made concerned her scholarship – though she mentioned all her work on Shakespeare.

      Good point about an Australian Award, but as you say, it seems unlikely doesn’t it.

  2. November 2, 2018 8:51 am

    I am jelous of the number of author events that you attend 🙂

    Greer is a fascinating person. Though I do not always agree with her I admire the way that she fearlessly take positions regardless of thier popularity. A well written biography of her is a book that is likely to be enlightening and worth the read.

    • November 2, 2018 9:00 am

      Yes, exactly,Brian. I admire bravery and honesty. It’s one of the reasons I like Garner so much too.

  3. November 2, 2018 6:51 pm

    I nearly always read (skim) posts as soon as they come in, then respond to them when I’ve had time to think about and maybe reread them. I thought you were being very experimental and would definitely need 2 reads but your comment to Lisa explains all. Of course your Mk I is still in my inbox, I might read it again and see what I can discern of your method.

    I admire GG of course and don’t have Lisa’s reservations about unauthorized biogs of the living (I do have reservations about authorized biogs). Public figures must be subject to criticism and yes, maybe GG has not had much informed criticism here.

    Right now I’m stopped for coffee on the Nullarbor and am unloading in Wodonga and Canberra on Monday (touch wood!). Will email you Sun night.

    • November 2, 2018 7:11 pm

      Haha Bill … but no-o-o delete Mk 1! My method for events is simply that I take notes on my iPad and then copy and post those notes into WP and start massaging away. The notes are full of typos etc because I use a handwriting app and it doesn’t always convert the writing to the right word! However, I love the idea that you thought I was being experimental.

      And haha, again, I completely take your point about authorised bios. I think Lisa probably prefers all bios to be after the person has died at which point there’s no need to worry about authorisation or otherwise.

      But yes, do email me Sunday. Monday is looking good with a couple of commitments we should be able to work around. Would be great to catch up.

  4. buriedinprint permalink
    November 6, 2018 9:13 am

    This would have been such an interesting event to attend. I have read very little of Greer (just The Female Eunuch – and many – twenty? – years ago) but that’s partly by virtue of consistently choosing fiction over non-fiction and, on top of that, as Lisa mentioned, this is not necessarily the type of writing in which one is readily in the mindset to read (navigating the world as a feminist is tiring – reading about feminism can be just as much so). But, important? I don’t need to qualify there – important!

    • November 6, 2018 9:53 am

      Haha, Buried … yes, I agree, navigating the world as a feminist is tiring. Very. I went through a period of reading a lot of feminist literature but that was mostly before kids. Bringing up kids was tiring enough!! Haha. But, I’m glad you agree that she’s important.

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