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The Novel According to Bezos

Amazon transformed the publishing industry. Has it done the same for literature itself?

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl. Verso, 336 pages.

When Mark McGurl published his history of creative writing programs in 2009, reviewers described it in terms like “welcome and overdue.” The Program Era finally codified what everyone involved anecdotally knew: the MFA was the defining institution of recent U.S. fiction.

Shortly after its publication, the editors of n+1 proposed an alternative tagline for contemporary literary history. While the university creative writing program was dominant, they acknowledged, it was still only one half of a binary: “MFA vs. NYC,” as they christened it in an editorial that mushroomed into an essay anthology. The argument was that MFA programs and New York publishing were separate if interdependent economic systems that gave rise to their own cultures and encouraged different kinds of writing. An MFA writer might publish a book of short stories in the hope of securing a teaching job. An NYC writer might focus on selling a novel for money they could live on—and, with that goal in mind, veer inexorably toward clear prose and tight plotting.

Absent from these accounts was the internet, toward which more and more writing was then and is still orienting itself. Like alignment with MFA or NYC, this orientation might happen on the level of form or on the level of marketing. In the latter case, as the scholar Simone Murray writes, authorship has “shifted from a largely invisible process undertaken in private” to “an ongoing public performance punctuated by periodic book publications.” At the same time, internet-born forms have risen to the level of art in the hands of some writers and, in the hands of others, started to infiltrate traditional books. “Why were we all writing like this now?” the narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This asks of the popularity of prose fragments. “Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-​between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” (The portal being the internet as seen through the eyes of a habitual Twitter user.)

While McGurl’s perspective is presumptively anti-capitalist, he asks us to stand in awe at the fruits of Amazon’s ambition.

Like anyone with a Twitter account and an interest in literature, McGurl, a literary critic, has surely been watching all of this unfold. Now he’s back with a new book arguing that, rather than any of the above, “the most significant novelty” of internet-enabled literary history is Amazon. But he is quick to admit that Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon has a shakier foundation than The Program Era. This time, the titular literary period is not a validation of historical fact but a “critical fiction.” Like the Pound Era, so named by Hugh Kenner in his eponymous study of literary modernism, the Age of Amazon is “only debatably deserving of the honor, but . . . helpful in bringing certain phenomena to our attention.”

These phenomena make up—or are somehow related to—the literary genres that have thrived alongside Amazon and especially its Kindle Direct Publishing program. KDP lets anyone publish and sell books, in print or electronically, provided they give Amazon a cut. “Although it is difficult to find exact data,” McGurl writes, “it would appear that millions of texts have been self-published via KDP, and that hundreds of them have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” Predictably, this corpus is replete with genre fiction. From alpha billionaire romances like Fifty Shades of Grey to litRPG (stories narrated as if the reader is inside a video game) to adult baby diaper lover erotica (also known as ABDL), the genres are compelling in their own right—or so McGurl argues—and, further, they shed light on the state of “literary fiction,” which both defines itself against genre fiction and increasingly incorporates generic tropes. An alternate title for this book might have been The Novel in the Age of Genre.

McGurl makes the case for the framing he chooses instead by insisting, first of all, on Amazon’s sui generis literariness. He spends a great deal of time arguing that the company is “a kind of super-author” writing a global epic, and also that it “wants to be a great literary work in its own right.” While McGurl’s perspective is presumptively anti-capitalist, he asks us to stand in awe—as if before a great, problematic work of art—at the fruits of Amazon’s ambition: “Honestly, to not be impressed with what Amazon has accomplished, as distinct from approving of it, could only betray a willful ignorance of the facts on the ground.”

He justifies these claims with the same tactics any critic might use to assert a work’s status. There’s discussion of theme and technique: Amazon, like so much fiction, is driven by a central contradiction, McGurl writes, “impatience to deliver faster and a willingness to think long term.” There’s discussion of pedigree: Amazon not only started as a bookstore but did so with an assist from two-time novelist MacKenzie Scott, then Jeff Bezos’s wife, who studied under Toni Morrison at Princeton. There’s discussion of influences: Citing Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (from which he also borrows his subtitle), McGurl tells us that Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day inspired Bezos to found the company. So the “whole sprawling enterprise is, in a sense, a reading” of the novel.

Bezos has said he was struck by Ishiguro’s portrait of regret, presumably the butler Stevens’s. He’s also said it was to avoid regret that he quit a good job to start his own company. Building on Stone’s report that the former led to the latter, McGurl develops a more elaborate theory:

At first one assumes . . . Bezos wanted to avoid being the servant of his legendary Wall Street boss Mr. Shaw, wanted himself to be the lord and not the butler, but a closer look at the novel suggests a more complex psychology at work. It is as much a matter of emulating Stevens the butler, who has his own “psychotic” obsession with service, as with not becoming him.

Like virtually all of McGurl’s arguments for Amazon’s literariness, this one is clever but unconvincing, resting on freestyle extrapolations from the barest of correlations. While Bezos does extoll the value of customer service and did seem to aspire—unlike Stevens—to a lordly position, nothing about his statements suggests that these traits have anything to do with the novel or his appreciation of it. And Stone’s book, in its current printing, no longer even contains the claim that The Remains of the Day engendered Amazon, presumably because MacKenzie Scott herself disputed that story in a 2013 Amazon review of The Everything Store. “It’s a good beginning, and it weaves in nicely with what’s to come,” she wrote. “But it’s not true. Jeff didn’t read Remains of the Day until a year after he started Amazon.”

In addition to stemming from questionable premises, McGurl’s attempt to read Amazon as a literary epic is strangely executed. He analyzes Bezos’s letters to shareholders, the company’s official blog, and other corporate texts; in his analogy, these might be the artist’s statements, or else the protagonist’s. But the “inspiring anecdotes, personalities, celebrations, and smiles” the Amazon blog features are not literary specimens; they are eminently representative examples of enterprise-scale marketing and branding. And, even if the reverse were true, it would still be the case that McGurl does not meaningfully engage with the responses of other critics or characters, which is to say the countless books, articles, reports, and posts documenting the company’s monopolistic practices, invasive surveillance, and employee abuse and mistreatment. Granted, “this is not a book about Amazon,” as McGurl stresses. “It is a book about the novel in the Age of Amazon.” Still, if you’re going to cite “impatience to deliver faster” as one of the company’s core literary attributes, it seems worth emphasizing that this impatience has led to injury and death.

McGurl’s arguments that Amazon has merged customer service and global domination with literature are applied more fruitfully to the writing it publishes and distributes. He observes, aptly if not originally, that Spotify-like Kindle Unlimited subscriptions have made fiction into an “‘always on’ utility” that prioritizes “serial plenitude over singular encounters.” Thanks to Amazon’s having recently become the largest publisher of fiction translated into English, this plenitude includes such options as Spanish zombie novels, Chinese historical romances, and Russian fantasy. McGurl describes Amazon Crossing, the imprint responsible for translations, as “a new wrinkle in recent literary history,” the first path novels can take en masse into English even if they’re not bestselling or highly prestigious.

Amazon, thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing, is also the first path that masses of novels can travel to masses of eager readers without the help of traditional publishing gatekeepers. After the company’s literary qualities, these works are McGurl’s second big piece of evidence for its literary novelty. That the books unquestionably exist makes this criterion somewhat more convincing. McGurl seems to have read many KDP-enabled masterpieces, and he intersperses his theorizing with lively summaries. (His most rousing endorsement is for Penelope Ward and Vi Keeland’s romance novel Cocky Bastard: “There is no justice in the literary field—this novel is far superior to Fifty Shades of Grey . . . with a real sense of humor as well as a sidekick role filled by a blind baby goat.”) But he is less concerned with individual novels—which are often, by design, repetitive and derivative—than with how and why the genres they belong to move through readers’ lives and devices.

Romance novels, he argues, for example, help readers cope with a consumer culture that offers an overabundance of options but little means or time to pursue them. On the one hand, these novels reliably “manage a potentially problematic plenitude” by narrowing the heroine’s (and reader’s) options to a transcendent One True Love. But that hand only pretends not to know what all the others are doing. As a genre, romance endlessly supplies distinct yet predictable stories readers can enter at will, offering respite from the “existential limitations” of being a person. This all seems true of pre-Amazon romances, too, but McGurl suggests that Amazon has intensified the abundance, along with the need to cope with it and the means for doing so.

This intensification may be due in part to the explosion of subgenres that spark and then quench readers’ desire. “In the KDP space,” McGurl writes, qualifiers multiply, “such that a work is not a gay military romance but a Bisexual and Gay Threesome MMF Military and Cowboy Romance, and so on.” He sprinkles his account of this multiplication with a grab bag of observations, some of them less about genre or Amazon than about the uses of novel-reading more generally. The one that most directly supports his argument for Amazon’s literary originality is this: the linguistic innovation once associated with modernist experimentation now occurs at “the level of serial generic permutation.”

Even if you agree with the intriguing though debatable idea that the unit of literary experimentation has changed from the sentence or the book to the genre category, it’s not clear Amazon, or any single entity, is responsible. While McGurl writes that the “genre system” was “radically pluralized by Amazon,” even he seems to acknowledge, in a brief discussion of fan fiction, that generic iteration is a collective achievement. Huge communities on sites like Literotica (established 1998) and Wattpad (established 2006), neither of which he mentions, have been pluralizing fictional subgenres at scale since before Amazon even introduced the Kindle (established 2007).

Of course, people on other platforms aren’t typically publishing novels, except serialized, and even then they’re not usually sold as “books,” e- or otherwise. Remember: McGurl’s object of study is not just the literary Age of Amazon but the place of the novel within it. From that perspective, it makes sense to focus on the company’s supremacy. The curious thing about Amazon is that, unlike most of the rest of the internet, it prioritizes the least “online” unit of writing: the book, of which the novel might be the most indissoluble variety. By enshrining the book,[1] even as a metaphor, Amazon is actually the least novel of the platforms that have played host to literature (amid, as everywhere, a lot of nonliterature): Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot, TinyLetter, Substack, etc.

McGurl argues that both genre and literary fiction in the Amazon era are defined by their attempts to deal with the problem of too much information.

The rest of the internet flits in and out of McGurl’s frame as he shifts from discussion of Amazon and toward analysis of the literary environment it theoretically presides over. His arguments become tighter as their ties to the company loosen. One concerns the “genre turn”—the propensity of literary fiction from the past twenty years to incorporate elements like zombies and superheroes. Books such as Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days do not represent a breakdown of high-low distinctions, McGurl thinks, but instead maintain a “mutually reflective” relationship to the genres that inspired them. Other literary fiction, meanwhile, relies on “the authority of the real” to maintain “its increasingly tenuous superiority of esteem” over genre fiction. This is an interesting angle on autofiction’s genesis, even if other digital media seem to have played a far more definitive role than genre in that process.

It’s always hard to know what to stress or not, what to put in and what to leave out. This is the whole problem of writing, and the internet has only made it worse. McGurl argues, in fact, that both genre and literary fiction in the Amazon era are defined by their attempts to deal with the problem of too much information. They may take an “epic” approach (as in a lot of sci fi, fantasy, and systems novels), attempting to process the overload. Or they may, like romance (or autofiction), depict a contracted world that shuts the overload out. McGurl himself, while he might seem to be tackling a vast system, has actually written more of a critical romance. As he puts it:

Given the multiplicity of agents engaged in the making of literature now, the nomination of Amazon as first among them all can only be . . . a way of framing the story of contemporary fiction in such a way as to throw a particular set of heretofore under-examined realities into relief.

Tending to agree with McGurl’s later characterization of his framing as “purely speculative” and “possibly crazy,” I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief. I appreciated the effort, however. On the first page of his introduction, McGurl observes that the things people say about the internet are often “beset with a deflating sense of déjà vu, of a rightness that is no match for overfamiliarity.” This is absolutely correct. But in the pages that follow he makes the internet unfamiliar again.

[1] This may be changing: In July, Amazon launched Kindle Vella, a Wattpad-like, “mobile-first” service that allows writers to sell, and readers to read, serialized stories.