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In Search of a Point

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books and culture

In Search of a Point

An academic literary critic gets lost in the Age of Amazon. February 4, 2022
Arts and Culture

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

In our sharply divided culture, books are often received primarily as political gestures, signaling affinity with a particular group or attitude and reviewed accordingly. Under these conditions, reviewers will greet mediocre or incoherent work respectfully, provided it aligns itself with fashion.

Such is the case with Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. Esquire recently published an extended interview with McGurl that praised his “lucid and well-argued prose.” The Los Angeles Review of Books referred to his “intellectual fireworks” and “comic bravura.” This praise can only plausibly apply to McGurl’s reputation and professional status as the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford and author of The Program Era, winner of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. It cannot refer to the text of Everything and Less, a lazy, self-satisfied, and infuriating book, the publication of which is unintentionally revealing of the status games that dominate American literary culture.

Amazon has changed the way books are marketed and sold, capturing enormous market share in the process. It also has growing ambitions as a trade publisher, including, through its Amazon Crossing subsidiary, a large and somewhat quixotic bet that it can grow the market for literature in translation. A book by an award-winning critic like McGurl about the company’s impact ought to be an enticing prospect. One can imagine the following sequence: a short, breezy book proposal, comprised of some familiar critical idioms (“the commodification of experience,” “materialist historiography”) and a promise of hostility toward a massive corporation and its sinister founder; approving editorial murmurs, quickly resulting in a contract from Verso, “the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world”; the Albert Guérard Professor swanning around the Stanford campus, promising his graduate students a witty and devastating takedown of the hated colossus in Seattle; the approaching deadline that forces the author to his writing desk; and finally, the panicked realization that he has nothing of substance to say.

In Chapter One, McGurl argues that Amazon is itself a novel on a superhuman scale, a “protagonist of contemporary literary history.” This claim is either eccentric—especially when followed almost immediately by the concession that “the company has never made strong claims to know what literary value is”—or self-evident. Every large company has a founding myth and ethos, no matter how attenuated; no firm stencils “Just Here to Make Money” above the door. In either case, McGurl asserts or insinuates his thesis more than argues it. He treats Jeff Bezos’s 20-year marriage to a novelist, MacKenzie Scott, as a revelation (“it would seem to matter . . . that the domestic space occupied by Amazon’s famously numbers-obsessed founder CEO was also a scene of serious literary ambition”), but McGurl never gives that well-known fact any resonance or explanatory power. McGurl also makes much of his claim that Bezos left his finance job in the 1990s to start Amazon after reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of life unlived (“we owe the existence of Amazon.com to The Remains of the Day”), but this is false. Bezos did not read Ishiguro’s novel until a year after he started Amazon.

McGurl argues that the Amazon approach to book-selling—“disciplined by ‘market imperatives’ and an amorally fiduciary responsibility to shareholders”—has turned literary fiction into just another genre category. But the retail book trade has always been about giving readers more of what they like, questions of value aside. “A swindle like any other swindle,” George Orwell acidly described it in Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936). If McGurl’s concern is the erasure of hierarchies of value, he should turn his ire toward university humanities departments, which for decades have been arguing, between Buffy the Vampire Slayer conferences, that value claims are simply a ruse for neoliberalism at home and colonialism abroad.

Like a boxer down on points, McGurl resorts to increasingly desperate swings. Every chapter seems to introduce a new theory or method. Chapter Two argues, somewhat in tension with Chapter One, that “the consumerist ethos embodied in Amazon’s commercial practices has been internalized in the novel’s form,” but it presents no supporting evidence for this dubious thesis. Chapter Four argues for “self-published Adult Diaper Baby Erotica as the quintessential Amazonian genre of literature.” Chapter Five asks us to consider Amazon’s rise in the context of “sociological information theory,” which McGurl promptly concedes has “absolutely nothing to say” about the novel as a form. Chapter Six points to a “convergence of the contemporary novel and social media.” Anxious to dodge the charge of elitism, McGurl also treats us to extended readings of zombie novels (“possessed of the inherent seriousness of a darkly Dantean theological vision”) and niche pornography (Jane Murray: My Open Marriage).

After 100 pages or so, I stopped writing variations on “What is he talking about?” in the margins of my copy of Everything and Less. The following example is typical of McGurl’s style:

A physical book is . . . a box of time, and an e-book the virtualization of the same. It is a volume in which time has seemed to stop. Or, rather, it has been put on a kind of imaginary endless loop inasmuch as fictional time moving in sequence from a novel’s beginning to its end stands still until the reader is ready to reactivate its flow. This is also to say that, in the novel, time itself is commodified, made commodious.

Much of the time, McGurl is not even trying for coherence. He’s just riffing. He poses dozens of ponderous rhetorical questions: “What is a reader?”; “What, finally, is fiction, really?”; “What are the uses of literature?” One is reminded of Renata Adler’s rejoinder to the pontifical New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who employed such questions to similarly numbing effect: “I don’t know, sweetie. You’re the one that saw the movie.”

McGurl closes Everything and Less with dark intimations about the future of the novel as “mediated by” Amazon:

[R]ealism points to the limits of the novel’s—and our—political imagination. Defining the wasted worlds of the postapocalyptic novel no less than the fleece-lined cocoons of cozy mystery, these limits are surely the most consequential example of the less at the core of Amazon’s everything.

Every generation of critics has lamented the decline of the novel, and the decline narrative usually takes the shape of the current technological bȇte noire (television, the Internet). Perhaps it was inevitable that the new story would be the novel’s suffocation by digital-age methods of distribution. But the literary marketplace has never offered the writer much in the way of dignity or security, and the best work has always struggled to be heard above the din. Indeed, the novel seems to thrive on resistance—even to require it. It may be that the American novel is in a fallow period, but we can’t know that in the moment. There’s an equally strong case that we need the novel more than ever to defend the inviolable self and to define a common reality. What the novel needs from us in turn is intelligent criticism.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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