Retail Therapy

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon BY Mark McGurl. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 336 pages. $29.
The cover of Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon

Fiction in the Age of Amazon is the symbolic provision of more—above all, of more various and interesting “life experience” than can be had by any mortal being, let alone one constrained by the demands of work and family. It is a commodification of this experience, shaped to the reader’s limitations and recurring therapeutic needs.

A physical book is in this sense 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. It is imagined as something that waits on our convenience and conduces to our existential comfort, which in the real world, the working world, it fundamentally does not do. Like all forms of therapy or self-care, the fictional supplement is taken in repeated doses, each of them a tiny upward tick in our accumulation of human experience, each of them a temporary reset of our mood. And, too, like many nutritional supplements, their actual value to the health of the reader might well be viewed with some skepticism. At the limit, they may be the vehicles of what Lauren Berlant has influentially called cruel optimism, pointing us toward shiny objects whose pursuit is slowly killing us. But that is not the official story. The official story, so different from the panicked and admonitory one retailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when novel reading seemed a scourge, is that reading fiction is good for you. It is part of a repertoire of habits of experiential optimization and self-care.

This ambiguity—fiction as virtue and vice—sheds light on a larger truth about all the components of Amazon’s administration of literary life just enumerated: as state of the art as they may be, they are to some degree self-contradictory, or at least conflicted. For instance, if what fiction most essentially is for us is a volume of commodified time, one of the most notorious facts of contemporary literary life is that there is so little time for it. This is especially so inasmuch as reading a novel is a relatively long-term commitment compared with other forms of cultural consumption. It is an expense of leisure not everyone has or feels they have. In other words, 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.

Similarly, if the writer in the Age of Amazon is a kind of service provider, and the reader a valued customer, a customer who is as they say “always right,” that reversal of traditional authority in the writer-reader relation taken to its extreme would defeat the purpose of reading fiction. This is a key difference between a literary work and a free-form fantasy. Our interest in fiction is in part an interest in encountering different degrees of (albeit, properly formatted) otherness, the better to assimilate it to ourselves in the spirit of personal augmentation. It is the otherness of fictional characters and their experiences, most obviously, but also the otherness of the author’s gradually revealed intentions. To varying degrees, and notwithstanding the self-centeredness of literary self-care, our interest in the novel is an interest in encountering the author’s autonomy, which is the real difference—and addition—they bring to our existence, in however mediated a fashion. Only in some instances does it make sense to think of this as an increase in one’s portfolio of cultural capital. Reading in the Age of Amazon is a matter not of pride or power but need, the need for “more” in a basic, sometimes desperate sense.

The happier side of these contradictions is that they bespeak the gap between Amazon’s aspirations to colonize the literary imagination and the reality of the present situation, where pockets of autonomous consciousness—and action—abound. Without denying the aggressive advance of consumer capitalism into places heretofore protected from it, to think that love and friendship and human creativity are “capitalist” in any fundamental sense gives that system too much credit, and why would we do that? Weighed down though they may be with rancid ideological encrustations, these blessings are the resources we will use to build something better, or not, and works of fiction reflect them even now.

Not only that, but novels are generally written in conditions—alone at a computer, unbothered by the boss, with responsibility for the whole thing from first to last—not of alienated industrial production but of craft. The tolerance (in the engineering sense) this installs in the fit between the work and the working world surely matters. It matters even if the would-be self-supporting, self-published writer is signing up, whether they know it or not, for a life of considerable repetitive toil. One of the joys of my sometimes painful commitment to reading more than my share of “bad” fiction over the past few years has been witnessing its unruly perversities, sometimes in the very act of doubling down on generic conventions. I have also encountered a few instances of what I don’t hesitate to call brilliant if sometimes quite niche literary visions.

Accurately or not, novel writing retains its image as the quintessence of unalienated labor living on in the present, an antidote to the dominance in our world of labor of the other kind. That’s no doubt why so many people hope to find time to do it, and so very many, a dizzying number, succeed. And some of the things they come up with—my god. Among the many who write fiction as though vaguely remembering a TV show are some who really surprise you with the vividness and individuality of their imagined worlds. If, in their effort to scan the literary field from Amazon’s point of view, the pages that follow try to see things as if this margin of autonomous creativity weren’t so, and as though the whole world were already Amazon, they also watch for signs of the enduring limits of the corporation’s power as the super-author of our time. There are many to detect. What, if anything, will spring forth from them, and what difference it will make, is a separate matter.

Mark McGurl is the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University. His last book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. He previously worked for the New York Times and New York Review of Books.

Excerpt from Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl, published by Verso Books on October 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Mark McGurl.