Sense and Saleability

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon BY Mark McGurl. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 336 pages. $30.

The cover of Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon

DWINDLING ENLISTMENT AMONG STUDENTS and deteriorating market share among consumers; confusion as to immediate method and cloudiness as to ultimate mission. . . . Professors of literature have good reason to feel insecure about the status of literature and literary scholarship. And, like many an insecure person, the discipline of literary studies has grown increasingly interested in and respectful of popular taste as its own popularity has declined. Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

The populist turn in literary studies shouldn’t be confused with the Thirty Years’ War over the canon. Launched in the ’70s, that war concluded with just about all parties acknowledging that plenty of women, queer, nonwhite, and/or geographically “peripheral” writers deserve maximum scholarly attention and curricular promotion. After all, the belligerents in the Thirty Years’ War had merely championed different claimants to the title of Major Author or Important Text; rarely did they dispute that such things existed, or that their field should consist of studying them. The populist turn, by contrast, has put into question whether a comparatively very small group of authors—no matter how diverse—should really hog the scholarly limelight, especially when their productions constitute such an unrepresentative sample of all the imaginative or fictional texts that people read and write. Such academic populism is reflected, on the one hand, in course offerings and scholarship that concentrate on popular or genre fiction at the expense of so-called literary fiction. And it’s reflected, on the other hand, by the quantitative analysis of literature associated with Franco Moretti. Moretti and his colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab, founded in 2010, encouraged a form of “distant reading” that could aggregate the reading notes of countless grad students, dispatched to track down more or less forgotten novels, to reveal an essentially demographic picture of “the slaughterhouse of literature” (Moretti’s phrase) into which almost everything that’s published disappears once and for all not long after being printed. Such a method could recover, for example, the prevailing traits of a whole vanished population of detective novels, out of which only the books of Conan Doyle and a few others survived to be read down to today.

Altogether, this enlargement of the domain of literary scholarship—to include both genre fiction by popular writers and the vast, obscure output of the “great unread,” as the scholar Margaret Cohen calls them—promises or threatens to change the shape of the field. Think, maybe, of a mineshaft (a narrow set of texts, favoring deep exploration) being replaced by a parking lot (a broad set of texts, favoring more superficial inspection). The tendency shouldn’t be overstated. The main activity of academic literary studies remains the “slow-paced reading [of] and rumination on works of genius (or at least of very high quality) for which the discipline has historically been the occasion,” as Mark McGurl puts it, a bit evasively, in his new book. (Surely if there’s a substance even harder to define than “genius,” it’s “very high quality”?) But in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, McGurl, a professor at Stanford as Moretti was, is concerned not only to analyze the “corporate populism” of, Inc., but also to articulate a literary populism of his own. Rather than dwell on any supposed great books, McGurl will contemplate how the Everything Store has altered literary commerce as “a work of genius in its own right.”

Unlike the ancient Odyssey or the modernist Ulysses, the epic work that is Amazon delivers immediate gratification to all customers. “The market personified,” Amazon sells whatever books it can, regardless of kind or quality, to any willing buyers, with free same-day delivery or next-day shipping for Prime members in many localities; other booksellers might like to do the same, but none can rival Amazon’s logistical reach. And Amazon is similarly accommodating as a publisher, putting out in electronic form the book of any author who so wishes (for a cut of 30 percent of proceeds) through its Kindle Direct Publishing program—for McGurl “perhaps [Amazon’s] most dramatic intervention into literary history,” as a “free-to-use platform by whose means untold numbers of aspiring authors have found their way into circulation, some of them finding real success.” Needless to say, perhaps, he means commerical, not artistic success.

The interest of Everything and Less as a work of literary criticism comes from McGurl’s efforts to emulate, as far as a single reader can, Amazon’s omnivorous taste in books. For Amazon, literature looks like nothing but an immense collection of commodities, very few of them falling into the generic category of “literary fiction” (let alone serious poetry or theater), and McGurl will employ the same optic: “Genre being a version, within the literary field, of the phenomena of market segmentation and product differentiation,” in the Age of Amazon, aka the universal marketplace, literary fiction has become “simply a genre in its own right” among many others.

Book pile, 2018. Ryan Adams/
Book pile, 2018. Ryan Adams/

Consumer-readers by definition buy the kind of books they expect they’ll like, and, in theorizing the novel as a form, McGurl adopts the same hedonic principle as Amazon and its customers. This means “the novel will appear in [the] pages” of Everything and Less as “a tool for adjusting our emotional states toward the desired end of happiness, whatever that might look like to a given reader, however complex or simple a state it might be.” It’s in this sense that McGurl defines reading as a form of “retail therapy”: readers buy books they hope will make them happy. Much of the response of McGurl’s own readers to his book will depend on whether they see this definition as insightful or emptily tautological (as in: people want what they want).

McGurl concedes that some readers, for reasons of professional necessity, may prefer “artistic complexity of the kind congenial to the classroom” to simpler pleasures, but argues that this doesn’t confer any special status on highbrow stuff from the standpoint of readerly happiness—or even academic interpretation. While “works of literary fiction are more reliable providers of discussable interpretive problems than works of genre fiction,” the significance of the latter “often snaps into focus . . . at the level of the genre as a whole.” In other words, instead of asking what expectations a singular “literary” work breeds, and what particular satisfactions it yields, we can just as well ask these same questions about entire genres of novel. Old attachments to individuality and originality properly set aside, even the most conventional bricks of genre fiction will reward study as much as any sui generis modernist fossil.

Accordingly, McGurl dwells on literary fiction in only one of his five chapters. Other chapters have more time for contemporary genres such as literary role-playing game narratives, or LitRPG, most of them published by way of Kindle Direct Publishing and resembling video games; romance novels catering to various sexual fetishes, whether the vanilla s/m of Fifty Shades of Grey or more outré stuff, such as Adult Baby Diaper Lover (ABDL) erotica; world-building fantasy epics; and the zombie novel. In the indistinguishable undead actants (“characters” would be the wrong word) who populate so many barely distinguishable zombie novels, McGurl spies a sort of allegory of contemporary literary production. Both across genres and within them, the Amazonian apotheosis of the marketplace has effected what he describes as the commoditization (as distinct from the long-standing commodification) of literature: “the reduction of intellectual property to a less and less profitable—because increasingly interchangeable and widely available—class of generic goods.” From the point of view of readerly pleasure, any given zombie (read: rote) instance of any given zombie (read: inertial) genre will tend to serve more or less as well as another.

The common condition underlying McGurl’s simultaneous leveling out and proliferation of genres is, on his account, simply the Age of Amazon. Literature-as-culture has converged today with literature-as-commerce. In such a period, market roles merge with literary roles. So, “for Amazon, authors”—regardless of genre—“should consider themselves a kind of entrepreneur and service provider,” in this sense “the opposite of the aloof or absent modernist god who, in James Joyce’s telling, recedes from his work to pare his fingernails.” The composition of a book once complete, shilling the thing goes on. As for readers, “Amazon sees them as a customer with needs, above all a need for reliable sources of comfort.” The upshot of these transformations—author into “authorpreneur” (a coinage turned up by McGurl’s research), and reader into consumer—is to refashion book-reading as a form of “retail therapy,” in which various demographic slivers of the world’s (or the US’s) total readership simply seek out the comfort food of whichever genre more or less corresponds to their place in society. Unless it is instead—McGurl is hazy on this point—that the Age of Amazon has simply revealed that the consumption of literature was ever thus: an essentially therapeutic or self-soothing activity.

For McGurl, the therapeutic nature of reading covers highbrow commitments as much as any other genre preference, “the pursuit of finer things” amounting to “a habit like any other.” To designate supposedly serious or prestigious texts as therapeutic is “not necessarily an insult,” he adds. Aristotle, after all, exalted catharsis as the effect of tragic drama: in other words, emotional release. In the same passage, McGurl also vindicates the therapeutic effect of reading for shoring up one’s sense of well-being, and reinforcing one’s ideological commitments. All of which is fair enough: even fans or habitués of the thematically darkest and intellectually most difficult reading material will have to concede that the refusal of consolation can be consoling in its own way, bitterness having become an acquired taste. (The aptest example in my own life as a reader must be the implacably pessimistic aphorisms of E. M. Cioran, which I’ve always found entertaining and diverting, especially at my most miserable.)

The trouble with McGurl’s notion of the therapeutic, however, is that it derives, as he says, from the experience—nearly universal to wealthy countries—of retail therapy rather than from the psychodynamic therapy launched by Freud around the same time of literary modernism. To be sure, therapy of this clinical rather than commercial variety shares with shopping a consolatory, soothing, reassuring quality. But therapy of the psychodynamic kind (or genre, if you prefer) also has an opposite and contradictory aspect: one of challenge, self-criticism, perturbation. This double-edged therapy serves up portions of comfort only alongside portions of provocation, and permits our accommodation to certain conditions of life only on pain of our struggle against others. It may be true that all novels promise their readers some degree of therapy in McGurl’s retail sense; but far fewer offer therapy in the sense that brings troubled people to the couch, needing to change their lives. The difference in question doesn’t exactly correspond to genre, since the great bulk of literary fiction falls far short of therapy, in the more stringent and desperate meaning of the term, while some sci-fi, crime novels, and works of horror do attain to that condition. Far more embarrassingly—at a time when literary intellectuals would prefer to discuss readership demographics and textual politics while maintaining a judicious silence about aesthetic value—the difference at hand corresponds more closely to something we may as well blush and call the achievement or non-achievement of a work of art.

None of this is to suggest that novels are best considered as sessions of “therapy”—but to say that if they are to be interpreted in this light, McGurl has adopted a needlessly one-sided and consumerist notion of therapy.

McGURL IS ABOVE ALL a literary sociologist, and a brilliant one at that: it seems unlikely that any recent or forthcoming book can rival Everything and Less as a survey, at once brashly comprehensive and nimbly speculative, of the contemporary literary world. In this way, it makes for a worthy sequel and complement to McGurl’s fundamental earlier book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009), which traced the postwar triumph of the MFA program as a central institution of American letters, both shielding writers and teachers, temporarily or permanently, from marketplace demands of saleability, and inculcating distinctive criteria of good (or bad) writing. In Everything and Less, the scene has shifted from an archipelago of leafy campuses to the sea of commerce, where sales can be precisely and publicly tracked and artistic value is simply whatever anybody says it is, if the subject comes up at all.

Books—of sociology or anything else—are not to be faulted for belonging to their elected genre. If, in Everything and Less, McGurl follows Amazon’s lead by regarding literature as a level site occupied by genres of equal stature, rather than a steeply graduated terrain formed by uneven deposits of art, this is merely in keeping with sociology’s inaugural fact-value distinction. Presumably the task of literary sociology is to register things as they are, in their demographic preponderance, instead of selecting a few putatively superior phenomenom for admiration. Not to mention the risk that trying to single out exemplary works of art might in the end mean nothing much more than confessing one’s biases of class, race, gender, generation, and so on.

But the ghost of artistic value can’t quite be exorcised from the sociological machine. The liabilities of McGurl’s populist approach to literary studies are at least twofold. First, it is questionable whether a basically demographic analysis of the literary field—who reads what genre of book, and in what numbers—yields the richest readings of that field, even in a strictly sociological sense. An opposite approach is suggested, most emblematically, by the practicing sociologist Theodor W. Adorno, who in his literary criticism insisted that more sociological insight, let alone aesthetic value, was to be discovered in a small selection of individual works of strange, misshapen, and frequently forbidding modernist art than could be found in statistical surveys of cultural production. Such “monads,” as he called his favored works of art, reproduced the social totality in fractured, prismatic form, which made the texts and musical scores comprising his own (excessively narrow) canon more important than any tabulation of best-sellers not only from the standpoint of aesthetics but also sociology. In Adorno’s intimidatingly complex aesthetics, few terms are as important as the most naive: “truth-content.” Some works possess a lot more of it than others.

This is to question McGurl’s populist approach on its own sociological grounds. A second query to McGurl’s program would be to doubt whether his and others scholars’ way of romancing the popular tends to arrest or, instead, to accelerate the decline of literary studies on campus and, more importantly, as a portable device of insight long after graduation. Abashed at the social unrepresentativeness of its old canon of mostly white men; self-conscious about the difficulty for undergraduates of both the imaginative works and works of theory that professors once typically assigned; and, finally, insecure about its place in a world claiming to have no time to read in spite of ample leisure for podcasts and TV—academic literary studies appears, in this context, to have made a renewed bid for relevance by broadening-out and leveling-down its field to more closely resemble the Amazonian marketplace. No matter how this shift is to be regarded intellectually, so far it looks like a strategic mistake. Why should students turn to literature departments to encounter the sort of books and TV shows they already consume? You don’t need to be a rocket scientist—a rock climber will do—to see that the attraction of specialized knowledge lies in the promise of new capacities, not the ratification of old habits. The apex of English Lit, as a field that both enlisted undergrads and influenced the readerly itineraries of nonstudents, must have occurred around 1970, when the number of English majors in the land had quadrupled since the late ’40s. Probably the central text of this period, after Hamlet, was Paradise Lost, a long and elaborate blank-verse epic, full of recondite allusions and fiendish syntax, which Milton had hoped might “fit audience find, though few.” Curiously, this was the route to wide appeal in the postwar.

Of course the social conditions underlying the heyday of the English major can’t be repeated. All the same, aging former lit majors will recall Wordsworth’s admonition that every great writer “must create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” The same goes for literary scholarship, which does better to create new appetites than to cater to existing diets. To be sure, the formation and education of taste is a harder and more fraught exercise than the mere reflection of popular desires. The thing is, it may also, paradoxically, stand a better chance of popularity.

Benjamin Kunkel is the author of the novel Indecision (Random House, 2005) and the essay collection Utopia or Bust (Verso, 2014).