Mark McGurl: “Amazon Has Transformed the Way We Read Books, and How They’re Written”

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Sam Sacks headlined “Amazon has transformed the way we read books—and, according to Mark McGurl, how they’re written.”:

Early in his study “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, ” Stanford professor and literary critic Mark McGurl points out that the wealthiest novelist of all time is not J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or any other habitual mega-bestseller, but MacKenzie Scott, the author of two modestly well-received works of literary fiction and, incidentally, the billionaire ex-wife of Jeff Bezos. The statement, in Mr. McGurl’s usual fashion, is as provocative as it is casually asserted. On one hand, it has the virtue of being technically true, lending credence to Mr. McGurl’s argument that Amazon is overturning the way we understand books, changing them at a molecular level from works of art into monetizable products. On the other hand, the claim is based on an accidental correlation: Ms. Scott is rich, but not from her writing….

This tension is everywhere in “Everything and Less,” which relies on the flash and surprise and ingenuity of its arguments to distract you from the sleight-of-hand taking place in the background. Mr. McGurl’s impressive ambitions—his willingness to synthesize huge and diverse periods of literary history—is hardly in doubt. I consider his 2009 book “The Program Era” a cornerstone study of postwar American fiction….Mr. McGurl proposes that it was not an individual but the institution of the creative-writing workshop that most influenced American fiction in the second-half of the 20th century.

One can quibble with the claims within “The Program Era,” but its overarching premise is impossible to wave away. After all, university writing programs really did have (and continue to have) concretely articulated mission statements and house styles that students could abide by or rebel against. The connection between MFA pedagogy and published texts is plainly traceable. But this isn’t the case in what Mr. McGurl dubs the Age of Amazon, where the influence on writers takes place on a largely unconscious level. “Has the consumerist ethos embodied in Amazon’s commercial practices been internalized in the novel’s form?” He answers yes….

Crucial to the experiment is a redefinition of what we think of as the canon. Most literary studies focus their insights on the writers they consider the best, or the most significant artistically. But Amazon, being primarily a retail platform, doesn’t care about the content of books, only about how they sell and to whom. So under its hegemony the books suddenly elevated in stature belong to the traditionally “down-market sub-basement” commercial genres. In other words, like a private eye or tabloid journalist, Mr. McGurl spends his time digging through trash.

“In the Age of Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction. Dividing contemporary literature into a vast array of searchable genre categories, each with its own best-seller list, Amazon is the host of a genre system conceived as an engine of infinitely infoliating permutations of objects of narrative desire.” The most popular of those categories are post-apocalyptic fantasy sagas and romance novels….

But so what? Live and let live, and all that. The question is whether these increased opportunities in “authorpreneurship” affect the people principally motivated to express themselves artistically. Here the arguments grow more vague: Under Amazon, Mr. McGurl says, the prestige category of literary fiction is merely another genre, judged by the same standards of stars and sales rankings. Mass production, meanwhile, cheapens the field as a whole, making refinement of craft and subtlety of thought boutique luxuries trending toward obsolescence….

The absence of both wide-angle historical context and close textual reading makes “Everything and Less” a very curious kind of literary study, one startling enough to demand attention but too thin to successfully hold it. In many ways it most resembles that paradigmatic Amazonian genre, the apocalyptic fantasy, imaginatively suggesting an alternative present in which customer desire is the single criterion determining literary creation. Mr. McGurl, for all his adventurousness, reifies this dystopian vision by adopting the language of commodification. There is hardly a mention in this book of aesthetics, or morality, or uncertainty, or truth—only of production and consumption, demand and fulfillment. But we are captives to an age only insofar as we submit to its terms.

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