Book Review: Writers on Writers presents a series of short love letters to Australian Literature

Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series was launched in October 2017 with the publication of its first two books, Alice Pung on John Marsden and Erik Jensen on Kate Jennings. The tag line for the series reads ‘Twelve Acclaimed Writers. Six Memorable Encounters.’ This sums up the idea behind the series incredibly well, which will include such forthcoming volumes as Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White, as well as three other as yet unannounced volumes. Each book contains a personal essay by a well-known Australian writer in which they talk about a stalwart figure of Australian literature who has influenced their life and career.

The style of each essay so far, varies from author to author. In Alice Pung on John Marsden, Pung chooses to write her essay on the larger than life author of such books as the Tomorrow series and Dear Miffy in the form of a letter to him, telling him about what she appreciates about and has learned from his work. She talks about the influence Marsden’s work has had on changing notions of what teenage literature is, as well as getting into some theories about just why his work has had such an enduring popular appeal among young adults. Meticulously researched, Pung’s essay delves into the praise and criticism that has been levelled at Marsden’s work, and talks about the realistic nature of the kinds of lives he gave his characters across his career to date. She says “Your fiercest critics are probably those who have the luxury of thinking that childhood should be fre of anxiety, worry, sadness, illness, stress and grief – emotions that every child feels at some point or another.” (P.8) Perhaps it is this analysis of Marsden’s work which makes Alice Pung’s essay on him so fascinating, as she relates the impact of his work back to her own experience growing up. There is deep love and respect in her words, and as a fellow John Marsden fan, I found myself nodding along.

Erik Jensen’s essay presented a challenge for me, as I was familiar neither with his work, nor with that of his subject. Kate Jennings, a poet, playwright and novelist, was the author of a highly autobiographical novel called Snake, and it is that novel and the family history behind it which Jensen, an award winning journalist and editor of The Saturday Paper, examines in his piece. Jensen’s essay is part account of his conversation with Kate, which seems to have taken place recently, and part musing on the novel itself. It is episodic, and told in short paragraphs. At first, I found this disjointed approach difficult to get into, but I wonder if that would have been the case had I been familiar with Kate Jennings beforehand. Once I got used to the style of the piece, I was fascinated by the connection between Jennings’ unsatisfactory childhood and her novel. Simply from her inclusion in this series, as someone with an interest in AUstralian Literature, I feel tempted to seek out Snake, or Jennings’ later work, Moral Hazard, as I now feel she represents a gap in my reading.

These are books for writers or literature students, and would make perfect stocking filler gifts for the wordsmith in your family this Christmas. Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White will be published in May 2018.

The Writers on Writers series is published by Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria.