It took Kate Jennings’ death for me to finally pick up one of Black Inc’s Writers on writers books, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings. The series, says Black Inc, involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. It continues, “Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.” Let’s see how Erik Jensen goes!
But, who is Erik Jensen? Most of the series’ writers are well-known, such as Alice Pung, Stan Grant, Michelle de Kretser and Nam Le, but a couple are less so. Jensen is a Walkley award-winning Australian journalist and author. He’s probably best known for being a founder, and still editor, of The Saturday Paper. However, in 2014, he also wrote a biography, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen. It won a NIB Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Literary Awards’ Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction. As you’d expect for this series, then, he has some cred.
However, his writing seems to be primarily non-fiction, so why Kate Jennings? Fortunately, he answers that in the opening paragraphs:
I had looked up Kate because I was a fan of her essays – pieces about her life, mostly, ruthless in their precision.
In the next paragraph, he launches without warning into describing the opening of Snake (my review), Jennings’ autobiographical novel. You have to be familiar with Jennings and Snake to get what’s going on here, but it’s unlikely you’d be reading this, I think, if you weren’t. What follows is an introduction to Kate Jennings, realised through interweaving the content and trajectory of this novel with his interviews and communications with Jennings and, occasionally, others.
I was moved by the insights, and impressed by the richness of the portrait Jensen achieves in around 100 small-book pages. He is clearly very fond of Jennings. Indeed, he concludes his essay with
This essay is for Kate Jennings. It is a love letter to her work and to the life that produced it. As a friend and a writer, I am grateful for both. More than anything, I want to thank Kate for the generosity she has shown – in agreeing to this essay, in being so open with the material, and in how with her own work she has shown me what to do.
However, Snake is a tough book. It portrays a dysfunctional family, with a difficult and self-centred mother. Jennings tells Jensen, “I was so very lonely. And at the mercy of my mother.” To his credit, Jensen also talks to Jennings’ brother, Dare, whose perspective on the family is very different. Dare, writes Jensen, “remembers the same mother Kate does, although he remembers her differently. They had a very different relationship. It was warm, close.” Dare supports Kate, but his experience of the family was different. He was the adored son.
This brings me to that whole issue of autobiographical fiction, which is Jennings’ forte (much like her friend, Helen Garner’s.) Jensen writes that “Kate writes close to life. Not completely close, she says. She does make up things. ‘I round the corners,’ she says, ‘and make the really ghastly stuff a little better.’” She writes to work out what she thinks. She also says that “the emotions were autobiographical but not necessarily the story“. This is a significant distinction, and serves as a reminder that fiction needs to be “true” but should not be read as “factual”.
Much of this wasn’t particularly new to me, given I’ve read both Snake and her fragmented biography, Trouble. However, Jensen value adds. For example, he writes that he sees Snake as “the Great Australian novel”. He gives it to people inscribing it as such. One recipient was Ian Donaldson, a former professor of English at Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. Jensen shares Donaldson’s reaction:
‘The great Australian novel?’ he writes the next morning. ‘Yes, I’d agree, it certainly warrants that sort of ranking, though that phrase as conventionally used conjures up a kind of laborious realism which Snake so spectacularly lacks. I loved its spareness, its brevity, its ability – like the creature it mimics – to strike without warning then vanish without trace.’
You can see why I like Snake too – its spareness! I was interested in Johnson’s comment that a GAN “conventionally … conjures up a kind of laborious realism”. Do you agree? Anyhow, Snake, “a poet’s novel” as Jensen calls it, is not that.
After spending some time on the content of the novel, Jensen also discusses its path to publication (including the rejections) and its reception. Australian reviewer Elizabeth Riddell was not particularly impressed, but in North America, Carol Shields (in The New York Times) and the Publisher’s Weekly, were highly positive. Yet, the novel was soon “lost”, or, as Jennings put it, “pretty well ignored”, largely she felt due to the feminists who “couldn’t accept the treatment she gave her mother”. Seven years later, however, it was re-released, with the Age describing it as “probably the most accomplished, realistic novel about bush life to be produced in the past decade”.
Jennings shares much of her life with Jensen, including her challenges with alcohol and depression, and her loving marriage to Bob Cato. The result is a picture of someone who was both “obstinate and fragile”, as Jensen writes in his The Saturday Paper obituary (8 May 2021), who had great successes but also faced tough challenges, and who was, above all, an uncompromising and stylish writer.
In other words, through exploring Snake, from multiple perspectives, supported by critical truths about Jennings’ life, Jensen does meet Black Inc’s stated aims. It’s intelligent and compelling. I have now bought another in the series.
On Kate Jennings: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2017