On Kate Jennings: Writers on Writers by Erik Jensen

Laura James

While it may be a love letter, this is also an essay about memory and its unreliability.
On Kate Jennings: Writers on Writers by Erik Jensen

Book cover Image of Kate Jennings: On Kate Jennings: Writers on Writers by Erik Jensen. Image via Black Inc.

‘This essay is a love letter,’ writer and editor Erik Jensen is quick to explain in his Writers on Writers volume, a tribute to the acclaimed novelist, poet and pioneering feminist Kate Jennings. Beginning with one of Jensen’s first encounters with Jennings in New York several years ago, this biography is a weaving together of telling elements from Jennings’ first novel Snake, recollections from her childhood in rural NSW and her life since, spent mostly in New York.


While it may be a love letter, this is also an essay about memory and its unreliability. On multiple occasions, Jensen calls attention to inaccuracies and potential biases in Jennings’ retelling of events, only to dismiss them with the argument, ‘but the sentiment is the same.’ In biography, facts and accuracy are often prided above all else, but as Jensen subtly explores, this focus does not account for the muddying that happens with perspective and time, prompting the question, when looking at a life or a work and the moments that influenced it, does it matter what really happened if the emotions ring true? Human beings are complicated and Jennings proves no different.

These questions and themes about the nature of storytelling, writing from experience, and the fallibility of memory slowly emerge through expertly linked, succinct fragments. Small sections of Jennings’ novel Snake are summarised and explored by Jensen, and break up the predominantly chronological telling of Jennings’ life.

These parallel stories – complications of fact and fiction – are cleverly woven together in a way that reveal the award-winning writer slowly, in intriguing bite-sized pieces. Despite the often serious subject matter covered, of loss, a difficult childhood, mental illness and alcoholism, the compelling structure of this essay ensures that it is not a harrowing read, but rather an experience of gradual unfolding, of peeling back the many layers of a masterful writer to reveal what made her and her first novel.

Unfortunately, despite receiving high praise and Jensen’s conviction that it is the Great Australian Novel, Snake has fallen into obscurity since its 1996 release. This, more than anything else, highlights the importance of this new Writers on Writers series in the competitive and often fickle business of Australian publishing. ‘Short books are forgotten,’ writes Jensen in reference to Snake. Whether that is true, there is no doubt that his short book, On Kate Jennings, along with the other titles in the series, will help to revive interest in a fascinating selection of Australian writers, however short-lived that may be.

5 stars out of 5

On Kate Jennings: Writers on Writers
By Erik Jensen

Hardback, 104 pp, RRP $22.99
ISBN: 9781863959834
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.