The Girl on the Page, by John Purcell, is a highly entertaining, brilliantly written novel about the clash between popular fiction and literary fiction; 20th century and 21st century feminism; wisdom and youth.
Amy is a twenty-something publisher and co-writer of the successful Jack Cade blockbuster franchise. She’s made squillions of dollars and has no problem spending it.
Helen is a literary icon in her late 70s who has lived in the same tiny flat with her literary husband for 50 years. She’s signed a 7-figure book deal for her latest manuscript. Literary purists, including her own husband, are appalled and have accused her of ‘selling out’.
We meet Amy while she’s sitting on the toilet at 4am, editing a book on a laptop which she broke into. It belongs to the guy she went home with last night; the toilet is also his. Amy’s sections of the narrative are told in first person. We get to be right inside her head. It’s not exactly a relaxing place to be.
And so that is how it is with me. I’m an insomniac. I drink way too much. I take naughty pics. I like to fuck strangers. And I’m a workaholic who will edit books on any computer I can break into.
Helen is the complete polar opposite. Helen and her husband, Malcolm, write literary fiction. Malcolm’s latest novel has been longlisted for the Booker. They live in a world which admires old-fashioned values. Making money from art is to be eschewed rather than pursued.
Two worlds collide: When Amy met Helen
Since Helen signed the book deal she’s stopped returning phone calls and failed to submit the manuscript. Her publisher is threatening to send in the lawyers to recoup her 7-figure advance.
Amy is sent in to salvage the situation – and to ensure the resulting novel is ‘commercial’ enough to earn back the massive advance.
The first meeting between the old world and the new is electric:
‘Good,’ said Malcolm smiling, ‘there is hope. The only reason an opportunist gets upset at being called an opportunist is because they once had ideals.’
But the smile only angered Amy further. She was as tall as Malcolm and she leant in, bringing her face close to his, and asked, ‘What good are ideals in the world we live in?’
Malcolm looked back into Amy’s angry eyes, and asked in return, with great composure, ‘What good is life without them?’
Philosophy, feminism and fun
Interspersed with thoughtful philosophy (mostly Helen and Malcolm) plus lots and lots of sex and alcohol (Amy), The Girl on the Page manages to have a dig at itself from the very title page. As Liam, Amy’s bestselling co-author, explains:
‘Girl on Girl is the working title of the new Jack Cade. It’s a joke. Girl on the Train. Gone Girl. Girl with All the Gifts. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… And they’re all about women.’
Feminism: the generational divide
One of the core themes of the book is the exploration of why older women often don’t identify with young feminists.
Helen Owen is a self-professed feminist. But she’s also uncomfortable with the modern brand of feminism. Malcolm refuses to attend the Women Writers’ Guild Award ceremony with her. As a result, Helen is so flustered she goes totally off-script in her acceptance speech:
‘But it was on reading my speech before coming on stage tonight, and reading in it my own ambivalence concerning the gender-specific award, that it struck me that he was right not to come. And further, that I was wrong to come. For any event that makes a man like my husband unwelcome is, at some very deep level, mistaken. So if you don’t mind, I think I will forgo the honour and make my way home to my husband.’
The novel’s subtle comment on Helen’s attack on feminism – apart from Amy’s very vocal ones – is brilliant. We move straight to a scene the morning after: Helen has just mopped the floors and is moving towels from the washing machine to the dryer. She then heads into the kitchen to clean up after Malcolm after he’s made coffee.
It’s clear that Helen does the bulk of the housework even though they are both full-time writers. They are of roughly equal talent and success. And Helen has sold her most recent manuscript for a 7-figure sum.
But we don’t need feminism anymore, right? Our parent’s generation already won that battle, right?
Commercial vs literary fiction: the battle is on
I love to argue with people about commercial vs literary fiction. I come to the argument armed with a degree in literature plus extensive experience in writing (and teaching people to write) in plain English. I strongly believe that the best novels are both insightful and brilliantly written (literary) and appeal to a broad audience (commercial). Accessible art, if you like.
The Girl on the Page sets this battle up explicitly and then explores it through the characters. Malcolm is firmly in the corner of literary fiction, Amy represents commercial fiction and Helen is trapped somewhere in between, desperate to enjoy the best of both worlds (money and great writing).
Why James Patterson is like baked beans
Malcolm has extremely set views of commercial and literary fiction. I love this little speech from him, in which he compares James Patterson to baked beans:
Malcolm raised his hand and held it up like a traffic cop. ‘I love Helen [his wife]. I love Daniel [his son]. I love literature. But I also love baked beans. I loved baked beans very, very much. Especially on a baked potato. Surely Helen and Daniel mean more to me than baked beans? That word “love” must have very different applications. So I’m a writer and James Patterson is a writer, both of us are writers. Which of us is baked beans?’
Literary fiction = poor, starving artist
The novel beautifully illustrates the massive financial gulf between the rewards for writers of each type of fiction. You can either be an entertainer who writes bestsellers, gets 7-figure advances and live in a beautiful terrace house in West London.
Or you can be an artist who writes critically acclaimed literary fiction and spend your entire life living in a crappy flat in a Brixton estate, wondering if you’ll be able to pay next month’s gas bill.
Never the twain shall meet.
Literary fiction will make you see all the shades of grey
Literary fiction starts to shake Amy’s blind confidence after spending too much time with Malcolm and Helen and their questioning, probing art.
It’s such a wonderful allegory for commercial vs. literary fiction. Commercial fiction offers certainty, predictability. It’s entertainment. Literary fiction is all greys. It’s high art. It won’t make you feel better. Amy muses:
She lay back on her bed. Her life had taken a wrong turn when she agreed to meet Helen. Everything was fine until then. Or at least she thought it had been fine. No, she corrected, it had been fine. Now it was shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Everywhere she turned there was judgement. Everything she did was judged. Helen and Malcolm judged. They looked down on Amy from on high and judged.
And they were harsh judges. They made her see.
She didn’t want to see.
The literary edge of commercial fiction
Personally, I think the best novels walk the line between commercial and literary fiction. There is no point in writing if nobody is going to read it. And if nobody wants to read it, can it really be called good writing anyway? Amy tells Helen:
‘I think that’s where you new novel sits, on the literary edge of commercial fiction. It has bestseller written all over it, but it will also make people think. And because of that it will sell extremely well. I’m sure of it. Most people won’t know whether it’s literature or not.’
This is how you bring people towards ideas – by making it easy for them. By giving them one or two ideas to mull over while being entertained as well (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, head over to Netflix and watch a few episodes of The Good Place).
The argument FOR literary fiction
And yet… sometimes Malcolm makes a whole lot of sense when he espouses the importance of literary fiction:
‘To me, literature is the fastest and surest route to understanding something of this life. At eighty-one, I know how brief our lives are. Mine has flashed by. And any help making sense of the world is still welcome. The quicker the better. What is literature? Literature is life’s cheat sheet.’
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.