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On John Marsden: Writers on Writers by Alice Pung

Laura James

Pung successfully embarks on an insightful interrogation of the themes that pervade Marsden's work.
On John Marsden: Writers on Writers by Alice Pung

Book cover image: On John Marsden: Writers on Writers via Black Inc.

John Marsden is considered by many to be Australia's King of Young Adult Fiction, but as Alice Pung explains in her contribution to the new Writers on Writers series, to her, his decades of writing mean much more. This book is one of six in the new Writers on Writers series published in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria. Each volume is written by a leading writer about another Australian writer who has inspired them, with the aim of celebrating the distinctive voice of Australian writing and shedding light on the craft.

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In this address to Marsden, structured as a letter, Pung outlines what it is about him that she finds so fascinating. Central is Pung's intimate knowledge of Marsden's many titles, helpfully all listed at the conclusion of this short 96-page volume. Though brief, what Pung creates within limited pages is a convincing two-way dialogue about young adulthood, with Marsden's views, as expressed through his books and past interviews, providing the second voice.

Pung successfully embarks on an insightful interrogation of the themes that pervade Marsden's work. By drawing on passages from his books and her own research, she unpacks the criticism that Marsden has received for his gritty young adult fiction, which for many fails to fit the mould often expected of literature written for ‘impressionable’ youth. According to Pung, Australian young adult literature has become safer in recent years with its quotas and neat endings, but today’s young people may not necessarily be the better for it.

Pung's intimate knowledge of Marsden's work ensures that the reader does not have to have a similar familiarity in order to appreciate this book, especially as it comes to be about much more than the work itself. She does an enviable job of conveying the gist of each title mentioned to the extent required to make her point, whether it be about Marsden’s subject matter, story choices or characters, and all without slowing down the pace of the letter.

This book successfully treads the fine line between personal correspondence and accessibility. Although obviously written with a readership far beyond Marsden in mind, Pung's letter does not feel contrived in its detail. Pung’s accounts of what Marsden thinks and feels read as the informed assumptions of an observant fan, friend and fellow writer, rather than someone imposing her own views through biased interpretation.

Surprisingly, what is most enjoyable about this book is not only what it reveals about Marsden and his body of work, but also what it reveals about Pung, an award-winning writer in her own right. Through recollections of her own teen experience, Pung touchingly conveys the significant impact that Marsden's stories have had on her own life and views. It is these personal connections that give this letter its emotional weight and make it such a joy to read.

Simultaneously a personal letter, a celebration of a master's work and a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to write truthfully for Australian young adults, On James Marsden: Writers on Writers is a timely reminder of the value of authentic representation in literature and the power of being seen. 

Rating: 4 stars out of 5
On John Marsden: Writers on Writers
By Alice Pung
Hardback, 96 pp, 
ISBN: 9781863959568
Black Inc. 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Laura James is a Melbourne-based reviewer and blogger, currently working in community radio.

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