… and a defence of commercial fiction.
As an editor, I was completely drawn to the cover of The Girl on the Page. Funnily enough, not for the reasons those of us who work in the publishing industry would want us to – yes, we design books so that you do judge them by their covers – but because it was covered in all the tools of my trade. I thought the cover design was so clever, using proofreading symbols and other editorial mark-ups to create the cover and marketing copy. Ingenius. I was bound to like this from the start.
It was always a joke around the lunch table with my colleagues when I worked in-house that someone should write a book about the mad world of publishing. But it seems that John Purcell has beat me to it.
Amy Winston is a hot young book editor whose success has her spiralling out of control. Having risen up the ladder to astronomical heights at break-neck speed having found the next Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication. Along the way, we meet a cast of characters both fully-formed and flawed. We see discussions of the role of literature and its value but also see a family breaking apart and the strength, or should that be fragility, of the human identity and resolve.
Purcell is obviously an insider to the industry and this gives him an authoritative window into the world, although I must say that I found Amy a little too extreme. Plus how she gets into the industry is nigh on impossible but for the sake of the plot, I’ll leave it.
However, what I found most interesting is the discussion about commercial and literary fiction. Liam, Amy’s thriller-writing co-author, is desperate to break away from the bestsellers and be taken as a serious, literary writer, raising the question as to whether commercial fiction isn’t “serious” writing. The literary figures of Helen and Malcolm are certainly given more esteem in this book – Liam doesn’t turn out to be the nicest guy – but that’s not to say that commercial fiction doesn’t have its place, and not simply to fill the coffers of the publishing houses. (As Amy points out its the commercial books that pay for the literary ones to be published.) So I was slightly annoyed that commercial fiction isn’t given it’s due in the book.
One of the literary writers in the book, Malcolm says, ‘[…] To be honest, I’ve never particularly liked the idea of literature. I’m still suspicious of the word.’ And I wholeheartedly agree with them. There really shouldn’t be a place for elitism in the world of the written word. What is ‘literature’ and what is not is irrelevant. We understand the world around us through narratives; without them, our lives have no meaning, just a consequential list of decisions leading to the only outcome. And in the publishing industry, we are in the business of creating those narratives. Malcolm goes on to surmise it very well, but substitute “literature”, for any form of the written word, from high-brow prize winners to the latest trashy thriller on the supermarket shelves:
‘To me, literature is the fastest and surest route to understanding something of this life. What is literature? Literature is life’s cheat sheet.’
This is a thought-provoking, gripping and yet heartbreaking look into the publishing industry, but also into the literary soul. You can never be sure what you can find there, although John Purcell is right in that it’s normally accompanied by a glass of bubbly. [There are a lot of toasts in the publishing industry.]
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