It 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 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