Review: ‘Good on Paper’

9780980740547Good on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship and won the prestigious Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award, and so, guided by word of mouth and those impressive credentials, I sought this out. It’d been awhile since a book had tickled my funny bone, and this looked primed to do it.

In truth, Good on Paper was something I’d wanted to read for awhile. Its subject matter struck me as brave – surely prospective publishers would’ve seen it as the author biting the hand? As a student of publishing, and as a keen observer of the industry, I was eager to see how Morgan would portray publishers. From the offset, it was clear they’d be lampooned, and that their work practices would be examined and mined for comedy. Who wouldn’t want to read that?

The book opens with an introduction to Nettie, our everywoman, as she is contracted for the most memorable editing gig of her career. In a cast of larger-than-life weirdos, Nettie effectively functions as the voice of reason. Morgan has written Nettie as a single working mother with relatable, everyday insecurities. As is wont to happen to editors, she is trodden on a lot, but proves her mettle with a relentless work ethic and general strength of character (that’s right! No wallowing!). I enjoyed Nettie and was impressed by Morgan’s efforts to make her convincing.

Nettie is contracted by my favourite character, Augustus, the pragmatically minded Managing Director of August Publications. Augustus seems somewhat pompous, but is mostly acting out of desperation. His mission statement is to enrich and ennoble the literary scene with thoughtful, original works. But such an enterprise proves financially unsustainable and so, driven by a need for remuneration, Augustus is forced to consider works that have more commercial appeal. It’s the quintessential balancing act of the independent publisher and, with the scale tilting towards financial ruin, Augustus is driven to take the biggest financial risk of his career.

Enter Josh Henry, one-time literary wunderkind. On the strength of a few short stories, Josh was the unlikely (and perhaps implausible) talk of the town. He was scooped up by a major publishing house and his novel, the endearingly pretentious The Future We Left Behind, was rush-released to critical condemnation. His career in shambles, Josh fell off the grid until – you guessed it – Augustus seeks him out and gives him an offer too good to refuse.

Augustus tasks Nettie with overseeing the rewrites of Josh’s failed manuscript. The pair wishes to help Josh actualise his true vision for the novel, but they also hope to use the lingering negative publicity to their advantage. As par the course for failed writers, Josh has descended into alcoholism and is paralysed by his insecurities. Although initially something of a cipher, Josh Henry is an interesting (if exaggerated) portrayal of the working writer. His inability to produce new work frustrates Nettie, but is all too relatable to other writers.

Although Good on Paper’s focus is locked squarely on the troubled and enigmatic Josh Henry, I found Nettie’s relationship with her daughter, Charlotte, its most compelling aspect. This mother-daughter subplot was essential and humanising, and stopped the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.

As a literary-themed caper, Good on Paper is first-class. Nettie’s friend-turned-rival, the debonair, faintly ostentatious Xanthe, proves an interesting foil, and the pace scarcely relents. Morgan’s aim here was not dissimilar to what Max Barry achieved with his corporate satire Syrup. A taut, almost singularly minded novel, entertaining the reader was at the perpetual forefront of its objectives. Thankfully, Good on Paper is more grounded and reined-in than the sometimes outlandish Syrup. This is a real tale with real people, but shown through an absurdity filter. For a book reported to be about something as seemingly dry as the Australian publishing industry, Good on Paper is refreshingly larger than life.

Despite my enjoyment, I did have some minor issues with Good on Paper. Firstly, I must admit I grew fatigued by the various reversals which occur towards the novella’s end, a criticism which I also levelled at Syrup. Although a short, rollicking read, I found there were also a few transitionary scenes could’ve been pared back. Like a diligent babysitter, Nettie checks on Josh, gets the ring around, appears to make headway, then rinses and repeats. Though perhaps intentional (it could be demonstrating the day-to-day frustrations of life as an editor), it was hard not to feel like the plot was treading water towards the middle. Josh Henry’s hijinks endlessly compound and, although this ratchets up the tension, it felt, as the novel’s central complication, a bit frivolous. To that end, I wonder whether Good on Paper would’ve been stronger with a few more compelling subplots; or, failing that, as a short story, (it could’ve been one perspective in a multi-POV anthology about the publishing industry). Who knows, though? These are just the nitpickings of a highly critical reader.

Ultimately, Morgan has written a witty, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining meditation on the importance of editors. (There’s even a loving nod to the career of Max Perkins.) Morgan seems deeply versed on the rigours of publishing, and he must be commended for exploring what could be seen as an ambitious, esoteric subject matter. I think writers – particularly Australian writers – will get a real kick out of it. His unique vision of Melbourne’s literary scene was a real treat.

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