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The Girl on the Page is a delicious romp through the world of literature

John Purcell. Photo/Sarah Louise Kinsella/Supplied

John Purcell delivers a funny, fast-paced novel about the literary calling and the joys of creating.

“What I’m trying to say is that literature is a vocation, a life’s work with no end and no hope of satisfaction or reward. A novel is just the by-product of the novelist’s desire to understand. Understand what? Everything. Or, at the very least, one thing.”

This capacious, idealistic, earnest definition of what it is that serious writers do is part of a speech that Helen Owen, a much-admired English writer in John Purcell’s novel The Girl on the Page, gives at a literary awards ceremony.

Helen and her husband – another English literary giant, Malcolm Taylor – are nearing the ends of their storied careers, and they’re each in different ways coming to terms with what the writing life has meant to them. But Purcell’s is not a literature-as-coterie novel (think The Tenants, by Bernard Malamud, or Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee) – although it is partly that and its anecdotes about the byways of this clannish scene are lovingly crafted. It’s also, refreshingly, a story about the other side of the literary arts.

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This is a book, in part, about a commercially canny editor, Amy Winston. The Girl on the Page celebrates the literary life, but it doesn’t entirely romanticise it. We learn that Helen has taken an astronomical advance for her next novel and she’s already spent most of the money. The trouble is, the book she wrote is complex and lovely, but it will not sell nearly enough copies to justify the money she’s been paid. Enter Amy, London’s publishing “it girl”, whose editing chops are legendary. By her own reckoning, Amy’s work is “Pacy. Powerful. Punchy”. She edits and ghostwrites “explodey action books”.

According to a defensive Malcolm, Amy represents “the outstretched grasp of commercialism”. And now she’s been tasked with “putting together a bestselling book” from the suggestive, allusive, finely wrought draft Helen has written.

Purcell, who was a long-time bookseller and clearly is steeped in all things literary, has written a novel whose central tension revolves around the complex of art, integrity, pleasure, profit and publication. The Girl on the Page is funny, fast paced, frank, ribald, hip, erudite and clever. As this book reminds us, all those lovely books out there full of musings about life and art and penned by admired writers answering a higher calling are also products of the smarts and savvy of editors.

Purcell takes the writer-editor partnership and gives it an edgy, sexy plot whose centre of gravity is the publishing world. This is an entire novel about books, writing and editing, and it’s a delicious romp. At its heart, this story is about how the literary arts can cohabit with the mercantile world of publishing, and how writers and editors can help each other do better, richer, more relevant work. This is a book about the joys of creating – both for writers and for editors.

THE GIRL ON THE PAGE, by John Purcell (Fourth Estate, $35)

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.