John Purcell, The Girl on the Page (Fourth Estate 2018)
This is a quick, fun read about the current parlous state of fiction publishing – set in London, written by an Australian whose biographical note says that, like one of the book’s characters, he has written a successful series of novels ‘under a pseudonym’.
Helen Owen and Malcolm Taylor, a near-octogenarian couple who have dedicated their lives to writing literary novels, are facing a crisis brought on by Helen’s writing what everyone knows will be a best seller and receiving an advance that enables them to move from their cramped flat in Brixton to a comfortable house in a nice suburb. A raunchy young woman editor who is an expert in what sells is sent in to ensure that the rewrites will be delivered. Imagine Amy Schumer from Train Wreck wandering into the world of Glenn Close in The Wife, only with English accents.
One of the joys of the book is the counterpoint between the ideals of the elderly writers and the kind of book they inhabit. One of Malcolm’s many pronouncements:
There’s uphill reading and downhill reading. As you can imagine, uphill reading requires more effort. Downhill, less so. Readers will do both in their reading lives. Most will tend to favour downhill reading. It’s thrilling to race headlong through a book. Uphill reading is more taxing and requires a certain amount of humility. We need to accept that we won’t always enjoy or even understand all we read. It can be a hard slog at times. The ego takes a battering. But the rewards are great.(Page 281)
I wouldn’t say The Girl on the Page is a headlong race, but it’s a long way from being an uphill slog. Admirably, it refrains from quoting even a single phrase from either Helen’s or Malcolm’s Man Booker and/or Nobel worthy works, though I was convinced that these people could have written such books. The sex scenes are robustly phallocentric without going into embarrassing detail. I laughed a lot, and enjoyed the cleverly crafted illusion that the story was just one or two removes from actual publishing-world gossip. Not that I can – or would want to – imagine any of the editors or ghost writers I know engaging in noisy public sex in a suburban street after midnight.
In short, a good holiday read and – for me – a palate cleanser after Alexis Wright’s Tracker, a monumental work that makes big demands and offers great rewards, about which I’ll blog soon.