The Strange State of the Novel in the “Age of Amazon”
A conversation with Mark McGurl about how the company changed the way books are written and the consequences of a service oriented reading culture.
By Hannah Gold
The Amazon Books retail store in Pacific Palisades, Calif., 2020. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
One can read countless novels without coming across any mention of Amazon, but the company’s dominance of the literary marketplace is unquestioned. From its origin in 1994 as a modest online book vendor, Amazon has grown to control the lion’s share of the e-books market and sell more than half of all print books in the United States. In the interim Amazon acquired Goodreads and Audible.com and established 16 publishing imprints of its own. Given this context, it seems almost quaint to note that the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, ranks Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel Remains of the Day among his favorite books and is said to have used it to model a “regret minimization framework,” part of his corporate ethos. Bezos’s ex-wife Mackenzie Scott, who’s written two works of literary fiction and has a net worth at least 50 times greater than J.K. Rowling’s, is the richest novelist in the world. Inspiration for the company’s Kindle e-reader was derived from Neal Stephenson’s 1995 science-fiction novel The Diamond Age, which features a book that changes according to the needs of its owner.
As one of the most profitable companies in the world and as a bookseller, Amazon has amassed a surplus of visibility; less is known about its effects on literary production in terms of aesthetics and sociality. This is precisely what Mark McGurl, in his new book Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, sets out to discover. “Amazon,” he writes, “is nothing if not a ‘literary’ company,” one that is “making an epic narrative out of the speedy satisfaction of popular want.” To survey the vast expanse of Amazon’s literary domain, McGurl makes frequent excursions into popular genres rarely considered among academics and critics—LitRPG, crowdsourced novels, the Alpha Billionaire Romance, contemporary zombie fiction, and adult-baby-diaper erotica—prompting a reassessment of the literary center and the literary fringe.
McGurl argues that without explicitly mentioning the company that controls their commercial destinies, many of these novels owe their characteristic structures and styles to the “sheer expressivity of Amazon’s corporate culture,” coupled with the vast expansion of America’s service industries in recent years. What it means to be a reader has changed too. The incessant prodding to consume more leaves the reader nursing a curious sense of emptiness and need. This is not unrelated to McGurl’s observation that “the sped-up culture that delivers that novel to your doorstep overnight is the same culture that deprives you of the time to read it.” We discussed the faux-populism of corporate publishing platforms, “mommy porn,” and the cultural significance of novels in the Age of Amazon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HANNAH GOLD: When your own professional writing career first intersected with the behemoth of Amazon, how did you realize the next book you wanted to write was a materialist analysis of Amazon’s shaping of literature and the literary landscape?https://buy.tinypass.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=NmGa4IzWHL&templateId=OTFVM3RHWZ0B&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EXAO0X9CQ04A&iframeId=offer_6a607d574eb5007ae5e3-0&displayMode=inline&widget=template&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thenation.com
MARK MCGURL: My first encounter with Amazon was as a graduate-student customer. When the company came online and suddenly gave easy access to the whole backlist of literature and criticism, I was hooked. And that access remains one of its most unambiguous benefits to readers and especially to scholars. Things got more complicated as the company continued to grow and it became clear that its market power was a problem. Then it made the Kindle happen. Then it supercharged the world of self-publishing when it launched Kindle Direct Publishing, and on and on.
This was in line with my general methodology, which is to take the institutional contexts within which we read and write as seriously as possible. My previous book, The Program Era, was on the amazing rise of creative-writing programs and their increasing centrality to the writing profession. So that book was about the institution of the school. This one is about a market institution, a world-changing corporation, which just so happens to have started as a bookstore.
HG: You write that Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s self-publishing platform, “was designed to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of American literary production.” And yet the company that provides these services mints misery in all kinds of ways, makes us dependent on it. Amazon excels at being needed, such that even if one were to swear off using its platforms, the company has worked its way into the heart of contemporary literary culture, you seem to suggest. What do you think about this apparent contradiction and how Amazon complicates or subverts notions of literary innovation?
MM: Not everyone uses Amazon, but it is a powerful example of the virtually universal seductions of consumerism and, thus, of our general complicity in its bad effects, economic, environmental, and otherwise. In some ways, Amazon is simply the most successful, Internet-enabled embodiment of the consumerist way of life. It succeeds by plugging into us at our most vulnerable points—our desire for greater comfort, for material and psychic optimization, all in a general context of time-famine. More specifically, it is an astoundingly useful service to readers of all kinds. To take just one tiny example: the Kindle. It is lightweight, and you can increase the font size. That doesn’t matter much to me right now, but for my older parents it’s a game-changer.
Disconnecting the circuit between Amazon and our self-seeking pleasure centers will be one of the great challenges of the present and immediate political future. As of now, Amazon seems as impervious to resistance as Facebook does. They both have a tight grip on our brain stems. I tend to think our relation to Amazon will only change fundamentally when the wider context does—that is, after one of the many large-scale crises headed our way. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to resist it in the meantime. Amazon has shown some signs of responding to public criticism, however inadequately. Like everyone else, they want to be loved. We should keep up the pressure.
HG: The number-one way I get roped into a conversation about Amazon is when people, usually a little older than me, ask if it’s OK that they use it. They list all the benefits, as if to ask for my permission. So many people use Amazon knowing about the labor abuses, the monopolization, environmental degradation, Bezos’s vast wealth. I imagine one of Amazon’s great emotional byproducts, for some, is shame. Several moments in your book reminded me of this, particularly reading about all the kink subgenres Amazon mines for profit. Then there’s Kindle Direct Publishing’s “Guide to Kindle Content Quality,” which explains that readers can tell the company about problems with their books, including “Disappointing Content,” which it further defines by way of saying, “We do not allow content that disappoints our customers.” I’m wondering what you think of the relationship between shame and satisfaction, literary and otherwise, in the Age of Amazon.
MM: It would be easy to overestimate the amount of Amazon shame out there. As we sit here today, Amazon is among the few most admired brands and institutions in the world. In a more abstract sense, there is something to what you say about shame. Traditionally, literature with a capital L has been thought of as a higher-order pleasure, worthy of being cultivated through education. Until relatively recently, it seemed shameful for a middle-class person not to have read her share of the classics. That is now a quite rarefied feeling, in my experience, but there is a residual shame in encountering literary forms being put to, say, lushly erotic ends. It is said that the Kindle was crucial to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey as “mommy porn,” because there was no embarrassing cover to hide from one’s family or coworkers.
HG: You write, “Could it be that the torch of cultural experimentation once confidently carried by modernism and the avant-garde is now carried by an online retailer? Does the spirit of innovation now reside in new ways and means of textual distribution rather than of either content or form? To claim so would be a stretch, surely, but would not be entirely outlandish.” A lot of 19th-century literature will have a passage like this, where it posits the effects of the mechanical production and distribution of art on the soul of the times. Do you see the material conditions of Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems as having an aesthetic effect on novels, or are less tangible factors—algorithms, the flow of capital, social media—the more deterministic elements here?
MM: This is such a difficult question to answer! It is the core problem of the historical-materialist literary analysis that I do, where you begin with the insight that literature is inconceivable until its myriad concrete supports are in place but grant that it typically achieves relative autonomy from those supports. What, then, is the relative balance between different forces of determination? The central claim of my book is less that Amazon is now dictating how books should be written and more that it symbolizes a shift in the cultural context within which they are read—in brief, a context utterly dominated by the service mentality.
That said, look at the obvious rapprochement we are witnessing between literary writers and what an earlier period would have seen as lowly genre forms. Colson Whitehead and Sally Rooney are two great recent examples. He has always played off genre forms—detective fiction, the zombie novel, and now, with Harlem Shuffle, a heist novel—in his prize-winning literary fiction. She is, by her own account, an author of romance novels of a highly literary sort. Both offer readers a kind of immediate pleasure that might have seemed questionable to James Joyce and his ilk, who thought it necessary to ask the reader to do some hard work to earn their pleasure.
HG: Professional literary critics and authors tend to hold Goodreads in disdain, and these genre-fiction books you spend the bulk of your book analyzing are virtually never reviewed in literary publications. Would you care to comment on this divide?
MM: Goodreads is fascinating. In fact, I was disappointed that I didn’t find a way to do more with it in my book. On the one hand, Goodreads is an ongoing user-interface disaster, in my opinion. It has obviously been put on the back burner of Amazon’s concerns since they purchased the site in 2013. It is so stale. And yet it is kind of wondrous to see a platform where, indeed, anyone can have their say as a critic. At this moment, there is already a highly intelligent review of my book on Goodreads from someone who got early access to it. It is not as tightly edited as it would be if it appeared in a magazine, but it says some very smart things about the book. And then, yes, there are whole fan communities devoted to popular genres who now have a place to share thoughts and opinions on works that you won’t find reviewed in the major periodicals. I think this is great, even if it is all connected to Amazon’s imperial ambitions.
But that’s what is so confusing about the cultural logic of the platform in general, whether it’s Goodreads or Kindle Direct Publishing. As a relatively passive registration of people’s desire to have their say, you get all kinds of things, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the scary to the utterly ordinary.
HG: You write that in the maximalist tradition (Joyce, Rushdie, DeLillo), “the unfolding of ‘history’ presents an ongoing proliferation of traumatizing data, or bad news. It is the job of the novel to narrativize that data against the threat of its falling into ethical meaninglessness as an immense panorama of futility and anarchy, as one damned thing after another.” What are the qualities of literature best able to withstand Amazon? What makes a work of fiction resilient now?
MM: The great strength of literature is in the uniqueness of the pleasures it offers, which no doubt has something to do with how the reader converts text into narrative, taking themselves cognitively elsewhere in the process. A lot of ground has been lost to TV and the movies and other visual entertainment over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries in the competition for people’s leisure time, but this basic unique affordance of the fictional text remains essential to the daily lives of people worldwide. Where literature is weak is in the matter of cultural authority. It’s not clear that either individual writers or literature as a whole has the same formidable presence as an arbiter of values that it once did. Instead, it offers different kinds of solace to its readers, whether as an attempt to give meaning to history or in retreating into some nicely imagined comfort zone of personal resonance and intimacy.
HG: In contrast to the modernist novel’s proliferation of consciousness and choice, you argue that certain genre fiction, especially romance, is responding to and shaped by “an economy increasingly defined by the conscripted provision of services rather than the industrial production of durable goods.” You have a gender analysis of this literary/economic phenomenon that I found fascinating, and I’m wondering if you can describe it a bit here.
MM: Yes! I did not start off researching the book with the question of gender in mind, not at all. But once I began to look beneath the upper reaches of literary fiction, it became overwhelmingly evident as a basic principle of organization of the popular literary world. On the one hand, women read more than men, generally. They cumulatively are more important to the publishing industry than men. And romance, the “girliest” of genres, is far and away the best-selling category of fiction worldwide. On the other hand, the “genre system,” as I call it, also includes genres like the military thriller, which would appear to be the province almost exclusively of male writers and readers. And then, sure enough, the different positions of men and women in the contemporary deindustrializing economy are reflected in these different genres in various ways.
HG: You posit a critical schema where Bezos can be read as the author of contemporary literary culture, and Amazon as the protagonist. Elsewhere you suggest the consumer, or customer, is a zombie. What role, then, do you see Amazon’s million or so employees playing?
MM: This is one of the interesting paradoxes of Amazon. It was founded in a spirit of worshipping the customer, with employees asked to abase themselves before this new god. That is still the company’s official ideology, but when you have a million employees, it becomes hard to sustain. I think Amazon knows this. I think management and its PR apparatus is very much on the case, doing what they can to avoid seeming like Earth’s Worst Employer. As for the role of those million workers in the unfolding of contemporary literary history? Until now, they have largely been a silent participant in that history. It’s important to point in their direction, lest we forget that almost every single consumer is also an employee of some sort. Their overall well-being depends just as much, if not more, on their working conditions as on the conveniences of their Prime membership.
HG: Reading the romance sections, I sometimes wondered whether your own book is searching for a redemption arc as well. For instance you write, “If I generally find it difficult to get behind Amazon’s theory and practice of literary life, skeptical as I am of its corporate populism, these opportunistic maneuvers at the very margin of the unregulated [Kindle Direct Publishing] genre system seem self-evidently redeemable and loveable for their existential courage.” I wondered whom you see as the protagonist of your own book and at which points you felt the urge to judge or redeem them.
MM: The idea of people getting what they need from literature pleases me, even if what they need is not what I might need. Even granting the corruptions of good taste I was witnessing, I couldn’t help but notice the utopian impulses emanating from certain works, and I wanted to stay true to that. To this extent, the protagonist of the book is the popular desire for a more meaningful life—for more in a comprehensive sense. That the search for more, and delivery of more, is sponsored by a for-profit corporation is a complicating factor. Maybe the corporation itself is the protagonist of this story. I was not finally able to resolve this tension in the book.
HG: You write in the introduction, “What’s happening on the ground of literary commerce in our time as the result of Amazon’s efforts is undeniably fascinating, a work of genius in its own right.” That feels provocative, and I’m curious what you mean by “genius” in this context.
MM: Jeff Bezos doesn’t need me to fluff him any further than the world has already done. My description of his accomplishment as a work of genius is only meant as a call to my fellow literary scholars, and to other people who care about the fate of literature, to take Amazon very seriously—as seriously in some ways as they do great literary works. Jeff Bezos wants to write us all into his story of epic achievement. So far, that story has been compelling enough that we have mostly obliged. Before we can begin to think through ways of protecting literary value from pure marketization, we need to know the opposition at its true strength.
Hannah Goldis a writer living in Brooklyn.