‘Three Paths for a Novel: A Review of John Purcell’s “The Girl on the Page”’, by Madeleine Gray

The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy, and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

— Iris Murdoch, ‘Against Dryness,’ Encounter, 1961.

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to [Joseph O’Neill’s] Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to [Tom McCarthy’s] Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard.

— Zadie Smith, ‘Two Paths for the Novel,’ The New York Review of Books, 2008.

I love literature, but I also love baked beans. I love baked beans, very much… 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 one of us is baked beans?

— John Purcell, The Girl on the Page, 2018.

Fifty-seven years ago, in 1961, before the conglomerisation of the book-publishing industry, before the canny invention of ‘literary fiction’ as a distinctly sellable genre, and eight years before the Man Booker Prize for Fiction had even been established, novelist Iris Murdoch wrote her now infamous polemical sketch, ‘Against Dryness’, for Encounter magazine. In this essay, Murdoch boldly characterised what she saw as the two competing modes of thinking and writing about the self that had developed in the twentieth century. On the one hand, she asserted, there was the notion of the self as a free, self-determining, discrete, rational agent — a Liberal mirage of wishful thinking in the wake of fascist totalitarianism, and then of the intellectually stultifying Welfare State. On the other hand, there existed the post-Humean conception of the self, which saw individuals not as “isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy”. The task of writers of literature, then, wrote Murdoch, was to resist constructing fantasies reliant on the “consoling dream” of “the dry symbol, the bogus individual, the false whole” — and instead to embrace “imaginative” writing which accepts the incompleteness of the self and of reality. Literature, Murdoch concluded, was to “arm us against consolation and fantasy”, but also to allow us to “rediscover a sense of the density of our lives” and then, finally, to “invigorate without consolation”.

Forty-seven years later, in 2008, Zadie Smith published her now notorious essay for The New York Review of Books, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. In this essay, Smith modernized the literary polemic that Murdoch had outlined so long before, substituting Murdoch’s literature of “the consoling dream” for what she saw as its modern counterpoint, ‘lyrical realism’, and the literature of “the incomplete self” for an anti-realist prose inspired by the aim of “flatness”. Where Murdoch had finally gestured to compromise between generic poles as the space where truly great literature resides, Smith argued that compromise would not do: in order to shake the modern novel out of its formal and thematic complacency — a complacency, Smith implied, that had to do with the transformation of the literary world into a literary industry reliant on the cultural capital bestowed by literary prizes with little taste for experiment — authors would have to disavow realist aims and embrace the prospect of novels functioning as “surface alone”.

The author whose work Smith chose to promote as the exemplification of this aim was British avant-garde novelist Tom McCarthy — a man whose disdain for ‘the middlebrow’, for realism, and for the idea that novels can be socially productive, is as frequently avowed by him as it is condescending. Smith’s adulation was for McCarthy’s first “embrace of the void” novel, Remainder, and her praise very much contributed to McCarthy’s subsequent welcome by the highbrow literary world, which, like a BDSM submissive, seems to crave intimacy with those who deride it.

McCarthy went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize not once, but twice — for C and for Satin Island, respectively. McCarthy’s career began in the art world, with Remainder first being published by Metronome Press in Paris as a limited edition art book — then, of course, with rights sold in the UK to Alma Books and then to Vintage in the US for mainstream distribution worldwide. Despite his work’s subsumption into the literary mainstream—and then even into the cinematic mainstream, as Remainder was turned into a major motion picture starring Burberry model Tom Sturridge in 2015 — McCarthy continues to decry the small-mindedness of the literary world, telling White Review, for example, “There’s definitely a more intelligent set of conversations around culture and around literature going on in the art world. In the art world, people look outwards.” McCarthy’s fictional projects still extend beyond the literary to the world of conceptual art: McCarthy is General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a “semi-fictitious” organisation, which is, according to its manifesto, dedicated to “bring[ing] death out into the world… Our bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death.”

McCarthy’s literary success is a fascinating testament to what cultural theorist James English terms “a process of capital intraconversion”, whereby the contemporary literary market works as an “economy of prestige” as perceptions of rarefied aesthetic value intersect with market value, the avant-garde eventually gets subsumed into the canon, and what was once subversive becomes the benchmark for institutional acclaim. In her 1961 essay, Murdoch praised two authors in particular for succeeding in doing the radical, in writing against dryness — Nabokov and Beckett. By 2008, Smith wrote that Nabokov and Beckett were two writers who were claimed by both sides of the realist versus anti-realist literary economy. The literary world is inextricably connected to the commercial demands of the book-publishing world, and trends circulate through both, re-categorising works whose genre homes were thought to be established, making money out of texts whose original raison d'être was to scorn the infusion of art with capital.

It is in the context of considering this complex modern world of literary markets, genre binaries, book publishing, and capital intraconversion that bookseller and author John Purcell’s debut novel, The Girl On The Page, emerges. The novel’s protagonist is Amy Winston; a beautiful, young, highly successful commercial fiction book editor. Amy is brash, sexual, and takes an avowedly utilitarian approach to the mechanics of book construction. In Amy’s mind, a book is good if the most people read it. Berating her biggest-selling thriller author for his floridity, Amy delivers her homily on writerly best practice, asserting, “Commercial fiction is like driving using a sat nav. You know where you’re going and you take the most efficient route.” In Amy’s mind, most people like to read books that keep them gripped like fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a fast car that someone else is actually driving.

Amy’s task, in the novel, is to persuade a literary author to bend to this commercial writerly practice. Eighty-year-old literary giant Helen Owen has been given a two-million-pound advance by Amy’s publishing house for a manuscript that is expected to be an explosive bestseller. Having now spent the advance on a fancy new terrace in West London, Helen is having second thoughts about the literary-ethical implications of submitting that manuscript.

The problem is this: all her life, Helen has been a ‘literary’ author, not a ‘commercial’ one. Accordingly, she has had the respect of her peers, and very little money. Helen’s husband, Malcolm Taylor, is also an old-school ‘literary’ type. In an amusingly Tom McCarthy-esque use of literary reference, Malcolm characterizes his latest book, A Hundred Ways, by quoting from Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, commending Miller’s desire to write “a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty”. Malcolm says his book is “just a tiny blood clot. That’s all it is. And it’s travelling along an artery towards our collective brain — culture.” Naturally, Malcolm’s tiny blood clot of a book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and progresses toward victory over the course of the novel.

Malcolm deplores Helen’s lucrative first manuscript, thinking that in writing it, she has sold out. Shamed by her husband for the damage she has done to the holy concept of ‘literature’ by penning such a commercial tome, Helen has written two other versions of the manuscript, variations on the same theme. The first manuscript, as we know, subscribes to the tenets of commercial fiction: it is fat, it is fast, it is plot-oriented, it was written, says Helen, “by not trying”; it will definitely sell well. The second version is half the length, written with precision and patience. It is good, but it will not sell well. The final version is almost a novella, written “at a molecular level”, “striving for some intangible other”. It is “sublime”. It may not sell at all.

Here are three paths laid out for Helen’s novel, each manuscript characterised not by its content, but by how it will sit in the book publishing market in relation to its two fellow iterations. Amy knows that version one will recoup Helen’s advance, but — in a masterly stroke of satirical grace on Purcell’s part — after reading version three, Amy must admit that it exists in a different, transcendent literary league, “leading [her] to memories [she] would normally avoid. Asking things of [her] [she’d] prefer unasked.” Would submitting version one for publication, then, be an insult to Helen’s oeuvre, legacy, and writerly integrity? What value does a brilliant book have if no one reads it? Might it be possible for a literary author to diversify her or his brand, or must the pretence of artistic autonomy be safeguarded for a fictional work to be deemed seriously good? As Purcell has Malcolm ponder, what is literature, and what is baked beans?

Balking at the task that lies ahead, Amy characterises the difference between her and Helen’s approach to writing by bemoaning: “She’s like Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. And I help write explode-y action books.” Though Purcell’s point is clearly to have us question whether a clear conceptual divide between commercial and literary fiction can even be said to exist outside the demands of market forces, Amy’s comparison of Helen to Murdoch seems apt, especially if we take into account Malcolm’s characterisation of the difference between his and his wife’s novels. Malcolm says that in literary fiction, there are two co-existing traditions — “the ‘is’ tradition and the ‘ought’ tradition”:

He said that writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen were examples of the ‘ought’ tradition. They were always writing about how we ought to live. And Helen was the daughter of that line. Her writing sought change. While Malcolm was the son of the ‘is’ tradition. So he was at pains to describe the world as he found it.

While the ‘ought’ tradition that Helen supposedly represents seems to align with the kind of “invigoration without consolation” that “allows us to rediscover the density of our lives” proposed by Murdoch to be literature’s ultimate purpose, the ‘is’ tradition that Malcolm attaches himself to is eerily reminiscent of the McCarthy-esque school of literary fiction that finds itself in vogue at present. It is extremely unsurprising that when listing his literary heroes in The White Review, McCarthy trots off old faithfuls Nabakov and Beckett — as well as Joyce, Burroughs, and Kafka, so as not to leave a bleak, inaccessible literary stone unturned. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s constant refrain in writing his follow-up to A Hundred Ways is that it is “Darker than I thought possible. It sits upon me like a blanket wherever I am, blocking all light. There’s no hope. No redemption. Nothing.”

Without giving too much away, the fate of Malcolm’s follow-up novel, and the one he writes after it, becomes the fictive space in which Purcell can stretch his philosophical wings, wondering as to the fate of fiction that subscribes to the promise of evisceration as a literary aim. But what is important to remember, and where Purcell really does pull off quite a feat, is that this book, The Girl on the Page — which deals with such complex questions about the purpose of the novel, the ascription of literary merit, and the market divisions between “types” of fiction — is itself a thoroughly enjoyable, even easy, read. Purcell’s novel is a page-turner about non-page-turners. It’s a babushka doll of a text, necessitating the reader’s knowledge of and subsumption in the world of the literary highbrow in order that they might relish this romp. In the act of reading The Girl on the Page, presumed divisions between modes of literary knowledge come undone. Purcell straddles both realms, and when the final page is turned, the reader is left with a feeling, which goes something like this: “This book was very good. It dealt with so many literary issues, and it was in parts very moving. But it is never going to be longlisted for the Booker. Why is that?”

The publication of The Girl on the Page comes at an interesting time in the unfolding history of the global literary market and of literary prize culture. In a truly surprising turn of events, 2018’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — a prize that has historically tended to favour the self-serious and the sombre — was awarded to Andrew Sean Greer for his unabashedly comic novel skewering the self-importance of the literary world, Less. This year, for the first time ever, a graphic novel — Nick Dranso’s Sabrina — was longlisted for the Man Booker. Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was also longlisted off the back of her first novel Conversations with Friends’ immense critical and market success last year. The continuing rise of Rooney’s literary star in particular is a fascinating trajectory for an author whose writerly impetus is, according to an interview with Yen Pham for LitHub, avowedly “relational” rather than “linguistic”, who gently mocks those authors who awake from slumber with a desire to experiment with form, and whose protagonists spend as much time criticising English Literature academia as they do lamenting their interminable existential angst.

Could it be that the game is changing, that the gap is being bridged, that as consumers of literature we are finally beginning to cede that the rigid categorisation of books into brow heights is an anachronistic practice still cultivated only so as to divide us into market categories all the easier to sell to? The Girl on the Page, at least, seems to embody a self-conscious lifted brow, and then a cheeky wink in that direction.

Madeleine Gray is a writer and critic, who holds a Masters (with Distinction) in English Literature from the University of Oxford. She has previously written for Curve, LOTL and The Human Rights Defender, and is currently based in Sydney.