Book Review: “Everything and Less”, by Mark McGurl


The novel in the days of the Amazon
By Mark McGurl

If you’ve been lucky enough to skip the containment read, you’ve probably filled Jeff Bezos’ pocket. Even though books are only a fraction of Amazon’s total business (less than 7% of the company’s $ 386 billion in revenue now comes from the product it started with), Amazon’s share in the book business continues to grow. About half of all paperback and hardcover purchases in the United States are made on Amazon, as are nine out of 10 eBooks.

For those of us wondering about the company that advertised these books to us and trucked them to our doorstep, Amazon will deliver them as well. On my Kindle, I downloaded Brad Stone’s gay business story “Amazon Unbound” (2021). Through Amazon affiliate Audible, I listened to Alec MacGillis’ presentation on Union Breakdown and Tax Evasion, “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America” (2021) .

In “Everything and Less”, Mark McGurl asks a more precise question: what does the rise of Amazon mean for literature? And conversely, what can the literature reveal about the world that Amazon has made? McGurl, an English professor at Stanford, shows that what Americans expect from fiction has changed in the age of vertically integrated e-commerce. Guaranteeing “reliable service” to an increasingly niche readership, the “whole store” has shattered the romantic form. Far from lumping shoppers into an impersonal mass, the company relies on data treasures to match shoppers with genres ranging from sci-fi epics to cozy mysteries such as “Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder” (2000) and “its 24 sequels, each linked to a different pastry,” to the romances that present life, in McGurl’s fierce phrase, “as gendered, generative and generic, and lived under conditions of radical power disparities.” His account of reading fiction as ‘quality time’ builds on feminist ethnographer Janice Radway’s 1984 counterintuitive thesis that reclaiming time between housework and reading novels asserted women’s right to a life No matter how patriarchal the contents of their paperbacks were, Midwestern housewives made the act of sitting down with a revolutionary book.

Unlike Radway, McGurl does not interview novel readers. It also doesn’t exploit customer reviews (like other literature professors like James F. English and Ed Finn have done recently) or pump publishing professionals for industry details ( as sociologist John B. Thompson does in this year’s “Book Wars”). An airy description of Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott as “the richest published novelist of all time by a factor of … whatever, a high number” indicates that for him statistics play a big role. decorative.

Instead, “Everything and Minus” draws on literary sources to explain the place of culture in a neoliberal economy. By placing Amazon’s story alongside those of the books it distributes, McGurl reduces fictional plots to allegories of the tech giant. As insatiable as any zombie, as submissive as any heroine in an “alpha billionaire romance,” McGurl’s hypothetical genre fiction junkie seems diametrically opposed to the skeptical cultured analyst in the classroom.

Switching from playful biographical anecdotes about the gossiping Amazon founder to coldly educational exhibits of Marxist theory, McGurl stifles any hope that books can save us – from the ephemeral, from passivity, from commercialism. His own literary slum did not prevent him from returning to the classics treated in his distinguished earlier work (“The Novel Art”, “The Program Era”). In fact, “Everything and Minus” brings Ishiguro and DeLillo together with the kind of “bad novel that best expresses our historic moment” – such weird bed-mates as entrepreneur Bezos and his ex, high-profile writer Scott . Gleefully mocking the demotion of literary fiction from Amazon to “one genre among many,” “Everything and Less” analyzes the “Loving the White Billionaire” series with the same impassive neutrality it accords to “The Love. Affairs of Nathaniel P ”by Adelle Waldman. Either way, McGurl’s decision to replace close reading with a plot summary allows for ideas ranging from the rise of the trilogy to the “intellectual beta” motif. No matter how scattered his testimonies, you can still recognize yourself in these disheartening pages.

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