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Has Amazon Changed Fiction?

Mark McGurl’s new book defines a frightening new era of literature, honed to Jeff Bezos’s algorithm.

In 1993, a young Jeff Bezos was contemplating a career change. He wanted to leave his executive job at the high-speed–trading investment firm D.E. Shaw & Co., and while he was mulling his next move, he happened to pick up a copy of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about an aging butler who looks back on his life, surveying a landscape of missed opportunity and remorse. The novel’s rueful atmosphere inspired Bezos, or so the story goes, to come up with a “regret minimization framework” for his own decisions. In that spirit, he founded an online bookstore in 1994, books being an ­ideal commodity for an experiment in what is now called e-commerce. His then wife, MacKenzie Scott, was an aspiring author, who had worked as a research assistant for Toni Morrison and would publish her first novel in 2005. In this telling, the world-spanning behemoth corporation that is Amazon is the result first and foremost of literature.

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon
by Mark McGurl
Verso, 336 pp., $29.95

Mark McGurl’s new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, makes the argument not only that books are at the company’s root, but that Amazon itself is a form of literature, an epic narrative of domination that subsumes all of its users as bit characters. It is a force that shapes the creation of all published culture, “offering itself as the new platform of literary life,” McGurl writes. The ways in which the company does this are now so omnipresent as to be subconscious, a fact of culture not worth mentioning, like water to fish. By 2019, Amazon’s digital storefront controlled as much as 72 percent of adult new book sales online and half of all new book sales. Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular e-reader in the world, and, by one estimate, its Kindle Direct Publishing contains over six million e-books. Amazon owns both Audible, the largest audiobook service in the United States, and Goodreads, the pernicious book-review social network that has a reputation for negativity. If that weren’t enough, it also operates 16 of its own imprints for physical books, including a literary-styled imprint, Little A.

Like it or not, we live in the Amazon Era of literature, according to McGurl, just as writers of the late eighteenth century worked in the Age of Johnson; those of the early twentieth century found themselves in the Pound Era; and postwar writers entered the Program Era, which McGurl defined in his previous book as the age of MFA-honed fiction. As well as an economic force, Amazon is an aesthetic one. Literature that is not adapted to its structures, which control the principal ways that books reach readers, will have a difficult time surviving. McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan. Unfortunately, that style reads a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.

McGurl, a professor of literature at Stanford, focuses less on the innovations of particular works of art than on historical shifts that occurred while art was being made. His 2009 study, The Program Era, took a disinterested approach to fiction, analyzing late–twentieth-century authors as the products of the MFA writing programs they passed through. Among the authors this system produced were Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Tama Janowitz. For all their differences in style and approach, McGurl found “the dominant aesthetic orientation of the writing program has been toward literary realism.” Working in cloistered university departments, with teaching as one of the few ways to earn a living, Program Era authors tended to focus on self-expression, the pursuit of a unique personal voice over large-scale political commentary. The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right.

In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.” Discovery happens primarily through feeds of information: We find new authors or journalists to follow from Twitter retweets; new television shows to watch on the Netflix homepage; and new things to buy—whether novels or blenders—through Amazon, where we might be tempted by its suggestions of other related or highly reviewed products. Each platform presents its own kind of filter for what we are most likely to discover, an organizing principle that determines what gets recommended next. Twitter rewards self-contained brevity and incendiary provocation, just as Instagram prioritizes bright colors and stark contrasts, the hallmarks of the digital minimalist aesthetic, and TikTok promotes songs with danceable snippets.

Platforms for literature subject it to the same homogenizing effects. One of McGurl’s most important test cases is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which serves as a marketplace of literature the way eBay is a market for stuff. Anyone can self-publish on KDP; it bypasses the publishing world’s usual hierarchy of gatekeepers: agents, editors, and imprint publishers. But the ultimate gatekeeper for KDP is Amazon itself, which rewards specific kinds of books and authors, promoting them through its recommendation feeds. Amazon Literature is serial, with authors publishing new material at high volume every few months instead of every few years. It’s repetitive, with the same tropes, plots, and resolutions happening over and over again, satisfying a readership always ready to consume more through a frictionless tablet device. It usually falls into broad genre categories. The epic, à la Game of Thrones, with its civilization-scale narratives, and the romance, like Fifty Shades, with its intimate scope and mandated happy endings, are major Amazon genres.

Speaking of romance, Amazon Literature is often explicitly erotic. Archetypes include bisexual military threesomes, cowboy romances, cocky doctors, and adult-baby fantasies. McGurl links the overabundance of romance to the corporation’s “posture of servile domination”—its promise of catering to its users’ every whim in order to keep them on the platform. Amazon figures literature as a service, just another good the company can offer to sell the buyer a slightly higher quality of life. The idea of the poignant work of art that will change a reader’s life or challenge their beliefs seems absent. The canon, McGurl writes, is “a thing Amazon has no particular relation to at all except as a list of books that students tend to purchase.”

“According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes. That includes what we think of as literary fiction, which has to pass through the same filters as everything else on Amazon in order to reach its (dwindling) demographic of readers. He relabels a certain category of highbrow contemporary American fiction as its own mini genre: the “beta intellectual romance.” Whereas the “alpha billionaire romance” genre (think Fifty Shades of Grey) tends to feature brusque, dominating men, the beta intellectual romance serves up a version of masculinity shaped by the basics of feminism and awareness of male privilege. The protagonists are sensitive to a fault and often a little fucked up—dealing with mental illness, for example. Yet that doesn’t make them much better in their relationships with women: “They do not want to whip them, just to waste their time.”

McGurl’s beta males include the lovers in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Tao Lin’s Taipei, and Ben Lerner’s 10:04. The protagonists lie about their pasts, rely heavily on drugs, ghost their girlfriends, and struggle in their careers, yet in the end they retain their romantic appeal. (The second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, in which the author recounts his writer’s block and frustration with contemporary gender norms even as he accepts his role as househusband for his second wife, could easily be added.) The label fits in each case, demonstrating how generic literary novels can be, even if they aren’t necessarily considered a genre.

Has autofiction become a popular genre in literary fiction because of Amazon? McGurl sees a link. “One cannot help but notice the strange kinship of minimalist autofiction with the contemporary mass-market romance novel,” McGurl writes. Everything and Less suggests that the intimate self-reflection and lifestyle signifiers of autofiction—the way the works themselves refer to the authors’ high book advances, trips abroad to participate in panels, and detailed home renovations—are contiguous with the customer browsing Amazon for the perfect light fixtures or desk chair. (Like romances, autofictional projects like Knausgaard’s and Rachel Cusk’s are also serial.) Novels in the Amazon Era are flattened to forms of banal self-expression and self-help, objects that are made or bought in order to feel something. “The urge to post selfies and the urge to publish a novel are on a continuum as modes of self-exposure and attention-getting,” McGurl proposes. Posting selfies with your novel—even better.

Amazon, with its public rankings, star ratings, and review counts, makes it impossible to think of literature as existing outside of a marketplace of money and attention. (Every new book seems to float temporarily to the top bestseller slot of one or another of Amazon’s niche genres, which the author proudly posts on Twitter.) Books are judged by the number of pages turned in Kindle apps rather than by professional critical consensus. Of course, the bestseller list always dealt in numerical calculations, and culture under capitalism does indeed always exist in a market. What makes the Amazon Era truly different?

Amazon’s influence on style is, for one thing, more haphazard than the influence of MFA programs on the literary novel. The Program Era analyzed institutions that promoted distinctive political values and aesthetic ideas more or less intentionally, as artists influenced other artists in pedagogical communities. In Everything and Less, Amazon aesthetics are not a deliberate program, but a secondary effect of commerce, the result of much larger processes of efficiency and profit maximization.

It’s also not clear how dominant Amazon aesthetics really are. McGurl is on firm ground when he is analyzing the mass-market literature created and discovered on KDP, the genre-fiction e-books that are eating into the traditional market for Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy. But his account of Amazon’s effects on literary fiction is less convincing. Everything and Less doesn’t present any evidence that Amazon’s algorithm incentivizes novelists like Knausgaard or Ben Lerner to write in a certain style, or that it even accounts for their popularity, relative to other, lesser-known contemporary novelists. And, meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that successful authors still owe their reputations in large part to the traditional apparatus of literary publishing: their acceptance by established editors at traditional imprints, followed by appreciative reviews in newspapers and magazines, followed by profiles in lifestyle sections, followed by a respectable stream of sales.

The overall market for literary fiction is shrinking, but that is not primarily because Amazon’s algorithm is diverting the readers for these works toward multipart erotic e-books instead. It is, rather, Amazon’s way of doing business with the publishing industry that endangers literary fiction. Amazon has squeezed publishers’ profits, making it harder for them to take risks on titles that aren’t likely to bring home large returns, and at the same time Amazon’s relentless drive to offer low prices has put many small bookstores—vital outlets for literary titles—out of business. (In this dynamic, Amazon is continuing a trend started by big chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders in the 1990s.) McGurl pays less attention to these dynamics, which have more to do with business than with aesthetics.

Among Amazon’s wider cultural offerings, its prestige television arm likely poses a greater threat to literary fiction than KDP does. The rise in subtle, deep storytelling on television and its accessibility on streaming have meant that it’s as easy to dive into a miniseries as open a book. And any buzzy novel, or even essay collection, now seems to be sold as a television show almost immediately, as if the former were just a sketch for the inevitable latter. Amazon is working on adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six, and Naomi Alderman’s The Power—not to mention an upcoming remake of The Lord of the Rings.

Everything and Less presents one way to engage with Amazon’s cultural output: Dive into the system and embrace what you find there as the vanguard of culture, no matter if most of it is dull. Such is the task of the scholar or the critic, to take this form of culture as seriously as possible and determine its significance. But consumers might find in McGurl’s book a warning to stay as far away as possible and seek out better forms of discovery than Amazon’s website, like visiting an indie bookstore, asking a friend, or reading a magazine—looking for anything but what rises to the top of the feed.