The greatest story ever sold: Mark McGurl argues that Jeff Bezos’s online behemoth has reshaped the novel in its own image

Literature has always had a fraught relationship with capitalism. The heyday of 19th century literary realism produced works by writers like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola, whose novels pilloried the Industrial Age systems that caused social misery among the working classes and underclasses of England and France, respectively. In the U.S., writers like Upton Sinclair imported Zola’s pro-union, anti-capitalist ethos and embedded it in novels like The Jungle (1905). Modernism married societal breakdown and chaos to language, producing corrosive works like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fiction in the 19th and early 20th centuries was also characterized by the somewhat rigorous separation of high and low – so-called penny dreadfuls were mass produced for an audience addicted to sensationalism, while recondite authors like George Eliot and Henry James catered to a more putatively refined crowd.

Postmodernism has been somewhat effective in collapsing the distinction between high and low, between genre and literary fiction, though it has been less successful – in the West, at least – at fending off the capitalist imperative in the production of literature. Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and ongoing consolidation driving an increasingly blockbuster-oriented sector has done little to promote experimental or innovative writing that might push the novel into new and interesting areas in the 21st century.

In large part, we can blame the internet and, more specifically, the online giant that is Amazon. Launched in 1994 with the stated ambition to be Earth’s largest bookstore, the brainchild of Jeff Bezos has become one of the dominant cultural players in the world, simultaneously elevating its founder to the status of the richest (or second-richest, depending on the year) man on the planet. Whereas traditional publishers considered themselves reluctant capitalists more closely aligned to the notion of producing artifacts of cultural, historical, or artistic relevance, Amazon is a different beast altogether. As Stanford University professor Mark McGurl writes in his new book, “For Amazon, markets exist to be dominated if not literally monopolized, and the market as such has no borders.” (Whether McGurl intended the buried pun here, it is perhaps useful to note that the big-box U.S. chain Borders folded in 2011, in large part due to Amazon’s incursion into the bookselling market. McGurl’s last clause is at once both figurative and literal.)

That Amazon has ballooned into a retailer that could boast, by 2020, net sales of $386.06 billion USD is at least partly ironic, given that Bezos’s notorious 1997 letter to Amazon shareholders outlined his scheme to ignore profits in the short term in favour of a resolute focus on growth. Books, the product Bezos chose to launch his nascent website because of their portability and broad appeal to different sectors of the public, became loss leaders in a scorched earth policy aimed at complete market dominance. By the time Bezos vacated the CEO chair to Andy Jassy in July 2021, the company had been so successful at building a loyal customer base that it was able to effortlessly shift from deep discounts and foregone profits to an aggressive program of wealth building without anyone batting an eye.

Obviously, the global domination of a company with books as its bedrock would have a knock-on effect on the production of literature itself. In Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, McGurl argues that the company – and in particular, the Kindle e-reader – has been the single most important factor influencing the novel’s development in the new millennium. In his introduction, McGurl goes so far as to argue that the “torch of cultural experimentation once confidently carried by modernism and the avant-garde” has been passed to the online behemoth that is Amazon, along with its sixteen publishing imprints and its Kindle Direct Publishing platform. “Has … anything,” McGurl asks, “as consequential as the Kindle happened inside a novel since 2007?”

In one regard, this is simply a variation on the mantra of all those doomsayers prophesying the death of the novel (who have been around, in one form or another, practically since the birth of the novel). But it’s hard not to countenance the idea that Amazon has acted definitively to change the novel, or at least its trajectory in the popular consciousness. Its influence is not so much in its online dominance as the largest and most profitable internet bookstore; the impact of the platform can more readily be seen through its KDP offerings, which allow the disintermediation of publishing and have resulted in an ongoing tsunami of product being unleashed on an unsuspecting reading public. Most of this product gets completely ignored, folded into what McGurl refers to as a vast “underlist” of zombie literature. “The great unread in this context is made up not so much of works once read and now forgotten, but of works that have never been read by anyone except (but even here there is room for doubt) their authors and perhaps a few friends.”

The vast majority of this output is genre fiction – fanfic, zombie novels, and, as McGurl amply illustrates, the one genre that rules them all: romance. From megasellers like Fifty Shades of Grey (which began life online as Twilight fan fiction) to less known and more esoteric fare such as Her Cocky Doctors: A MFM Menage Romance, Huge X4: A Double Twin Stepbrother MMFMM Menage Romance, or the self-explanatory Loving the White Billionaire, romance and erotica provide an enormous reservoir of content for the platform, along with a cadre of eager readers willing to snap up many, if not anywhere close to most, of these titles one after another. (McGurl also nods in the direction of Chuck TIngle’s delightful queer performance art in novels like Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls and Slammed in the Butt by the Prehistoric Megalodon Shark amid Accusations of Jumping over Him.)

Literary fiction and genre romance have always shared an affinity – the perennial popularity of Jane Austen is sufficient evidence of this – and McGurl rightly points out that the marriage plot has provided fodder for literary novelists from Anthony Trollope to Henry James to Jeffrey Eugenides, who literally titled his 2011 novel The Marriage Plot. But the prevalence of Mills & Boon in the U.K. and Harlequin in North America inculcated an audience for less highbrow literary romance; the KDP platform has further blurred genre distinctions and allowed anyone with an internet connection access to the means of production. The result has been an unprecedented proliferation of content appealing to every conceivable niche interest or fetish.

McGurl’s key insight in Everything and Less is that Amazon has acted as a levelling influence, reducing all literature to genre literature. In the universe of unfettered access and choice, literary novels are simply one genre among many. And the literary reader who prizes careful attention to style and language above the (arguably easier) pleasures of a sensational plot or fidelity to recognizable generic conventions is engaged in the same kind of endeavour, reading novel after novel in pursuit of satisfaction. In this sense, McGurl suggests – albeit more tendentiously – that all literature is also children’s literature, to the extent that our repetitive consumption of volume after volume of similar types of stories seeks to replicate the childhood practice of returning to a favourite book or movie again and again and again.

If this appears to reduce the act of reading to a kind of mechanized, repetitive process, this is perhaps an appropriate conception of the novel’s place in an increasingly digitized, service-oriented wired/wireless world. If Amazon’s army of self-published authors have become de facto service providers rather than aloof creators like James Joyce, the “absent modernist god” who “recedes from his work to pare his fingernails, letting the reader make of it what she will,” this was perhaps the inevitable endpoint of an increasingly commodified environment in which books are instruments of self-care, not excavations of contemporary life apt to disturb or unsettle. And what McGurl identifies as Amazon’s devotion to retail therapy in the provision of literary product to the masses is also the logical conclusion of capitalism’s imperatives: no reader can ever be satisfied by a given book, because without an ongoing search for the next immersive fictional experience, the capitalist demand – to buy more – would cease to function.

McGurl’s book is analytical rather than prescriptive; he illustrates the various ways in which he sees Amazon altering the literary landscape without making too many judgments as to whether the company’s influence on novels or the culture of reading is desirable. When he does deign to make value determinations, he is generally in favour of the democratization of literary taste and output and the reduction of literary fiction to one genre among many. There are legitimate arguments to be made about the imbalance between signal and noise in an online environment where anyone can upload anything for public consumption, just as a legitimate case could be made that rather than demoting literary fiction, it would be preferable to elevate the more ambitious genre offerings to a status of greater critical or academic attention. There would still seem to be more beneficial critical potential, after all, in reading A Portrait of a Lady than in the adult baby diaper erotica of Come to Mommy.

The greatest story ever sold: Mark McGurl argues that Jeff Bezos’s online behemoth has reshaped the novel in its own image
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