Fiction as Service

Mark McGurl, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon

Verso, 336pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781839763854

reviewed by Christopher Webb

The last decade or so has seen an increasing number of literary critics turn their attention to one of the most obvious yet interpretatively confounding forces to have shaped the novel in recent times: the internet. While the novel itself appears to have had no problem facing up to it (we might think of the recent work of Lauren Oyler or Patricia Lockwood), literary criticism on the other hand seems to have adopted a more troubled posture, often finding itself cautious or sceptical about the changes the internet has wrought. How has the novel come to terms with the internet? How is the internet transforming the novel? And can a novel really capture the spirit of it?

If some critics have had a hard time answering these questions, then perhaps it’s because of a refusal to accept we might not ever be able to account properly for the ubiquitous yet totally nebulous presence of this strange, new communicational infrastructure and the literary historical changes it has brought about. The internet — like a handful of other Big Concepts (e.g. modernity, postmodernity, capitalism, globalisation, etc.) — is too broad an entity to comply with any literary diagnosis wishing to use it as a lens. While impossible to disregard for all the many ways it has changed social relations, our behaviour, patterns of thought and everyday habits, it might be the case we need something else to understand how the internet — and digital culture more broadly — is shaping, or is being harnessed to shape, the contours of contemporary fiction.

In his latest study Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, Mark McGurl sets out to discover this something, which, he hopes, can function as a ‘vehicle of meaningful focalisation [. . .] to lend analytical coherence’ to his broad-sweeping enquiry into the existence of the contemporary novel in the digital age. Any analysis of the novel in online times, he insists, ‘needs a better protagonist, or perhaps antagonist, than “the internet” or even “the digital” can supply on its own.’ And this, of course, is exactly where Amazon, the biggest online retailer store in the world and most literary of all tech corporations, comes to the rescue.

It’s well-documented that, following a particularly affective reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Jeff Bezos quit his lucrative job at an investment management firm to set up Amazon, an online book retailer (branding itself ‘Earth’s Biggest Bookstore’), which eventually set its sights on worldwide corporate domination (and with it a more appropriate moniker: ‘The Everything Store’). What isn’t so well documented — or possibly forgotten amidst the steady avalanche of negative PR — is Amazon’s rather strange, ‘uniquely intense and ongoing self-association with literature and the book’. Throughout Everything and Less, McGurl demonstrates compellingly that Amazon is ‘nothing if not a “literary” company’, ‘a vast engine for the production and circulation of stories’, which has in recent times undertaken a series of initiatives that seem to suggest a ‘deeper existential commitment to the idea of literature, to getting inside literature, to being literary’.

Foremost amongst these initiatives and by far the most innovative and consequential, has been the creation of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service (KDP). Working in tandem with CreateSpace, a print-on-demand platform that Amazon acquired in 2005, KDP was designed ‘to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of American literary production, ushering in a new age of self-authorized popular creativity and low-cost literary entertainment’. If you visit the Kindle Store, you’ll see that millions of texts have since been self-published using KDP and that hundreds of those have sold hundreds of thousands of copies (albeit at cover prices as low as $0.99).

After buying up CreateSpace, Amazon continued to expand rapidly: in January 2008, the company acquired for $300 million and then, only a few months later, the social network Goodreads for a reported $150 million. These major acquisitions combined to create the core of what is now a bustling digital literary economy that continues to swell in both content and users, many of whom, like those on various social media channels, do an excellent, and often unpaid, job of contributing to the platform’s maintenance and growth (not only by purchasing and surrendering personal data but by leaving comments, ratings and reviews).

It’s difficult to overstate just how profoundly these developments changed the literary landscape for so many writers who either were located outside the traditional mainstream publishing economy or understood themselves to be. Countless would-be novelists found themselves jacking into this buoyant, centralised marketplace that connected them to an audience of insatiable Kindle readers, who could download their fiction almost instantly — and often for astonishing prices (if not value). Following the introduction of KDP, anyone could become a (self-)published author with a potentially global reach, even those authors pedalling virtually unmarketable, fringe genre fiction, such as Adult Baby/ Diaper Lover (ABDL) erotica, perhaps the most outré of subgenres McGurl analyses in Everything and Less. Or, really, any of the other ten thousand-odd generic domains Amazon has identified on the KDP platform, none of which appear to transgress the Law of the Everything Store, which seems to state: ‘whatever you need from the literary text, some generic version of it will be available for you there — and if not, do it yourself!’ McGurl’s injunction here is laden with irony, of course, but it indicates just how fine the line is between author and consumer in the literary historical period he christens the ‘Age of Amazon’ (with his tongue firmly inside his cheek). And so, the logic goes: if you need something, then buy it. If it can’t be bought, then sell it (via Amazon); you’ll be doing your fellow consumer a favour.

All this, we might argue, at least represents an ultimately democratising shake-up within the notoriously hidebound world of publishing. But does it? We would first of all have to exclude the fact that, since the launch of KDP, Amazon has worked hard to cultivate an image of itself as a traditional publisher (Amazon Publishing) with 16 different imprints to its name, which implies it’s happy enough to maintain the structure it had set out to disrupt so long as Amazon constitutes a large part of that structure. And then we might have to forget about the company’s worrying bid to incentivise writers to sell their fiction on the cheap (and in doing so radically reduce the value of the independent author’s labour), while at the same time banning them from selling their fiction on other platforms. It becomes clear very quickly, I think, that to accept Amazon as a somehow democratising force in publishing (as many do), rather than, say, a ruthlessly aggressive competitor with more capital than Hachette, Penguin Random House and possibly every other existing publisher combined, is to accept a new and intensely corporate understanding of how literature and the literary world ought to work.

To reveal the extent to which Amazon attempts to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail, McGurl directs our attention to the set of mandates the company issues to its authors in the form of its ‘Guide to Kindle Content Quality’. These ‘rules’ do not bear explicitly upon the forms of narration, structure, tone, characterisation, or diction the writer chooses to include in her work (all things Amazon has very little of substance to say) but rather on the kinds of social relations—‘social relations as customer relations’ — she should accept as the basis of her aesthetic endeavour. Amazon — with its own obsession with service improvement and customer satisfaction — makes it clear how it expects its KDP users to comport themselves: the author is strongly encouraged to become ‘a kind of entrepreneur and service provider’, who is particularly adept at offering the ‘timely serial provision of new narrative products’. As McGurl notes, this is reminiscent of an earlier moment in the print culture of the novel ‘when serialization was the norm and was regularly taken as a challenge to the integrity of the novel as a work of art.'

The guide makes for fascinating reading material and even if it isn’t consulted by most KDP authors (as McGurl hints), it still reveals a great deal about how Amazon comprehends — and to some extent re-describes — the traditional writer-reader contract as an agreement between service provider and customer. As McGurl points out, the popular novelist nowadays doesn’t feel pressure to craft the perfect literary object but, rather like, ‘a blogger or regular poster’, feels compelled to construct ‘a narrative feed’, which nourishes the increasingly dependent reader who, he claims, ‘is not so much reading a novel as taking a hit of a narrative drug of a kind that works for them but will soon wear off.’ It’s no surprise, then, that such a high proportion of KDP authors compose trilogies (or, often, even longer series) and that so many ‘box sets’ of books and e-books (usually consisting of romance, erotica, thrillers or sci-fi narratives) dominate the Kindle Store charts.

The point here — and I think it’s the most profound in McGurl’s very entertaining book — is that Amazon is refashioning the novel as an object; the company seeks to update the novel’s status as a mere commodity to a reliable bearer of a service. Novels (like films and games) contain a specific existential utility; they function as therapeutic instruments that service and manage the problem of opportunity cost in our lives. What would my life have been like had x happened? What might it be like to live there or to have done that? The novel massages our readerly desire by allowing us to think about these scenarios, of those lives we never lived — and probably never will live. And, as the bestseller charts and the algorithms on Amazon’s platform can testify, we quite like being massaged in the same way, in the same place, time after time, with only a little variation here and there. This helps explain why, on the Amazon platform at least, all fiction is genre fiction (including the putatively ‘ungeneric’ category of literary fiction) and why ‘genre is inescapably central to everything that Amazon does to and for literature’. Genre fiction, of course, offers tested models of market success since it ‘implies the existence of an audience ready to be pleased again and again within the terms of an implicit contract’. Amazon, McGurl writes, is essentially the ‘host of a genre system conceived as an engine of infinitely infoliating permutations of objects of narrative desire.’ Here, we become consumers ‘selecting among a browsable infinity of enjoyments, a vast range of objects and services, tastes and textures and images — and narratives — that meet our immediate demand.’ We need narratives and Amazon supplies them. These novels are there to therapeutically service us, help us attenuate the often-depressing limitations of embodied life within a broader system of consumerism that both facilitates and generates our habits of consumption.

While reading Everything and Less, I kept thinking what a bad reader I was by Amazon’s standards: I wasn’t an insatiable Kindle reader and I’d rarely buy a novel, read it, then instantly purchase the sequel in the way the author — and Amazon — no doubt wanted. In other words, I became increasingly satisfied I was a good reader. Until, that is, I reflected on an all-too-frequent habit I’d developed over the last year, of purchasing books I’d been recommended to save for a future in which I imagined enjoying them. Quite often I’d bought these online, on Amazon. And most of them I still haven’t read. Then I realised something I hadn’t wanted to admit for probably quite some time: from Amazon’s perspective, this habit didn’t make me a bad reader, nor a particularly good reader. It made me the perfect reader.

Christopher Webb is a writer and researcher based in London. His monograph, Useless Activity: Work, Leisure and Post-War Avant-Garde Fiction, will be published by Liverpool University Press in spring 2022. He is currently writing a critical biography of J.G. Ballard for Reaktion Books.