Amazon Is Reshaping Contemporary Literature
From the hypercommercialization of Kindle Singles to the fraught question of classifying book genres, Amazon has put its stamp on the literary field in ways large and small — but always in the interests of profit, says Mark McGurl, author of Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon.
- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Amazon is the third-largest company on Earth by revenue. Its influence is ubiquitous and growing. While many businesses downsized during the pandemic, Amazon went on an unprecedented hiring spree. In the first ten months of 2020 alone, the company more than doubled its US employee base. Through exploiting workers and plundering public resources, Amazon has amassed the power to shape not just consumer markets, but culture, too.
That’s what interests Mark McGurl, the Albert L. Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University. His latest book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, studies Amazon’s effect on a literary world in decline.
McGurl joined Alex Press on a recent episode of Jacobin’s Primer, a podcast about all things Amazon. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Books make up a small amount of Amazon’s total business — less than 7 percent of its revenue comes from books — but they’re foundational to the company.
Amazon started as a bookseller, and it has achieved dominance in that industry. About half of all paperback and hardback purchases in the United States are made on Amazon, as well as just about every ebook purchase, via Amazon’s Kindle, which has about six million ebooks. Amazon also owns Audible and Goodreads.
In your book, you write about how fiction is particularly central to Amazon’s view of itself. Amazon has created narrative and world-building tales about itself, with Jeff Bezos as protagonist. One of the founding tales of the company — that Bezos started it in his garage — is a well-planned-out myth. Bezos was already a rich Wall Street investment banker who then bought a house with a garage so he could enact the classic scrappy-founder myth of the tech industry, starting a business in his garage.
At a cellular level, what’s the relationship between fiction and Amazon?
The primary fact is that the company began as a bookstore. For a long time, that attachment to books had been treated as merely incidental. Books just happened to have certain qualities that made them ideal for an internet business in the early days of e-commerce. They’re relatively durable; they’re all roughly the same shape; there are so many millions of them that the largest physical bookstore could never have even a tiny fraction; and they were already trackable through ISBN numbers. This was the explanation for why Amazon originally chose to deal in books.
I wouldn’t dispute that account whatsoever, but I want to add to it. One of Amazon’s first employees, MacKenzie Scott (Bezos’s ex-wife), was an aspiring novelist and ultimately achieved success. Bezos himself is an inveterate reader and consumer of science fiction. He’s obsessed with Star Trek.
Bezos is somebody who, from a young age, was steeped in the American epic — a spacefaring, commerce-building narrative. That doesn’t disappear, even when you’re constructing an enterprise where the bottom line is at issue. There’s always going to be a story you tell.
So I started thinking of Amazon as a science fiction epic sprung to life, with all of the incredible enthusiasm for technological innovation on the part of Bezos and the company. Amazon as a self-reflexive, fictionalizing enterprise. We become bit players in that narrative.
In your book, you explore what Amazon’s rise means for literature — not just the book publishing industry but also the substance of what’s in fiction. What is the house style of novels in the age of Amazon?
It would be hard to say that there’s one house style. It’s more about an increased sensitivity to what readers want — an imperative to serve the reader and think of them as a customer. On some level, that seems obvious. But for much of literary history, the idea that writers are servants to their readers was anathema.
Nowadays, authors are under a lot of pressure to serve a market. In a way, that’s blindingly obvious. In another way, that’s always been the case. There’s an aspect of Amazon that is an intensification of certain themes in the history of print capitalism.
So I wouldn’t say that there’s a house style outside of what Amazon self-publishes. But that’s an important caveat. One of Amazon’s more extraordinary innovations is so-called Kindle Direct Publishing, through which hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of works have been self-published in the last several years.
All who have achieved success in that system are writers of formulaic genre fiction. That’s certainly the keynote of literature in our time, although it doesn’t necessarily add up to a house style. But there’s a remarkable pressure on any writer who wants to ask their reader to work for what they have to offer, as opposed to simply giving it to them.
You say that literature is now thought of as providing a service. If that’s the case, what did people used to think literature was meant to do? What did they want out of it?
I don’t think we’re looking at something fundamentally new. People have always looked to novels for an existential supplement. They want an addition to their lives. The lives we read about in novels are, almost by definition, compressed. They are lives that have been made into epitomes that we can absorb in a few days or a week.
Clearly, there are millions of us who need that sort of supplement. And we always have. But the rise of a service-model economy has brought a skepticism about the high-modernist, experimental literary project in which the writer asks their readers to work. I know there are writers out there who still do that, but I sense little patience in the world for that model.
I wouldn’t say that this is Amazon’s doing. This book is more about using Amazon to illuminate the current moment of literary history than stipulating causal chains.
In some ways, Amazon is extraordinarily passive about what literature should look like. It’s almost as though they don’t care. The only salient factor is whether someone will buy what they’re selling. There’s not much strong judgment by the company. Amazon mostly just offers a platform for writers to provide a service to readers.
Amazon’s passivity has led to a proliferation of genres on their platform. They list thousands of them, which can be useful for marketing: authors can rise to the top of an obscure genre, publicize it, and use that achievement to propel their career.
Some of the literature you discuss in the book is quite niche, such as the works of Chuck Tingle, which include titles like Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls. You also mention the genre of adult baby diaper lover erotica, which you write “may be the quintessential Amazonian genre of literature.” What’s the importance of these niches?
The salience of genre started to hit me near the beginning of my research. Amazon is notable in that it has developed an organizing system that permutates genres. They just keep adding modifiers. That’s why the erotica space is so lacking in traditional literary value.
It’s interesting to see writers seek out niches and kinks that some readers might find appealing. Maybe the community of readers is fairly small. But writers can play the not unimportant role of providing them with what they want.
This points to a broader logic. Genres are being permutated and recombined over time. The developmental logic of literature is starting to resemble an algorithm.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the rise of literary modernism, the academy believed that generic identification was potentially problematic. There was thought to be a deficit of originality if writers could be identified as within a certain genre. And it’s true. What genre is James Joyce’s Ulysses? We call it a novel but, man, is it a weird novel.
Amazon seems deaf to that argument. They just care that the books get sold.
In the book, you write that “romance paints life as gendered, as generative and as generic, and as lived in conditions of radical disparities of power.” Could you explain why romance as a genre was relevant to the thesis?
Romance has been obliterated as a vehicle for conveying interesting messages. The genre has seen better days. Jane Austen was a writer of romance novels. She’s both transcendent and pleasurable to read. Austen is unique for the formal perfection of her work, as well as the majestic third-person perspective she takes on human folly. She mastered a sense of warmth and distance in her writing.
So, romance novels can be masterpieces. Beginning in the twentieth century, though, the genre’s quality absolutely collapsed. But its popularity didn’t. Numerically, romance remained the most popular genre by far.
Many romance readers just read one or two novels per year. But the genre also has a large number of devotees, some of whom read as many as four hundred or five hundred romances per year. This is a form of literary consumption that is quite distinct.
I wanted to consider all of that in the book. Romance is the backdrop against which literary history moves. The same is true of the literary present.
A wrinkle I’ve noticed since finishing the book is the importance of Sally Rooney. She has described her own works as romance novels of a certain kind. And that’s the operative phrase: “of a certain kind.” There are perceptible differences between Rooney’s writing and a Harlequin romance — or Fifty Shades of Grey, God knows. Nonetheless, Rooney believes — and this can be contextualized with her left politics — that romance is appealing because humans are at their most interesting in intimate situations.
All of this is to say that the history of romance is a huge, fascinating story. There have been some great critics who have written about romance. I wanted to add my bit by reminding everyone that romance is the norm. It’s the average novel that people are reading right now.
Rooney writes soap operas for thirty-year-old socialists in cities, so, naturally, I enjoy her writing.
I was reading an interview of hers where she said she was proud to claim an affiliation with the romance genre. She doesn’t want to hold herself above it. That was an interesting moment of lucid self-reflection from a writer who has struggled to manifest her political beliefs in the realm of bourgeois entertainment.
Publishing the Self
I also want to ask about autofiction. You say that autofiction isn’t much different from existing genre fiction. You write that the genre features “beta intellectuals” who, though “well equipped to interrogate the meaning of ‘love,’” can be “as problematic in their way as the abusive alpha, and not only for their disappointing feebleness.” Examples here would include Tao Lin’s Taipei and Ben Lerner’s latest book. The men in these stories “seize the historical privilege of romantic indecision and wield it as a kind of soft power” over the “attractive ladies whose opinions they ambiguously respect.” You add, “They don’t want to whip them, just to waste their time.”
Readers look for works in a given genre, and authors intend to write in a given genre. But there’s another way of thinking about genre: as an analytical tool. You can look at a bunch of different books and try to identify common characteristics or a shared project.
It occurred to me that there’s a growing counterpart to the alpha billionaire type. Alpha billionaire novels are pretty self-explanatory: they focus on a billionaire who is often super aggressive. But there are a lot of books with the opposite guy at their center.
I think it reflects a systemwide meditation on masculinity. The alpha billionaire is all about the old-school, domineering version of a man getting what he wants and you learning to love it. Contrast that with what I call the “beta intellectual romance.” The main characters of those novels are just the opposite. They’re completely indecisive. They have trouble holding down a job. They don’t know if they really like their love interest. It’s a point-by-point refutation of the alpha billionaire.
Let’s return to the economics of Amazon and publishing. Earlier, you referenced self-publishing via Kindle Direct Publishing. Some people argue that Amazon opened a route to self-publishing, allowing writers to bypass the gatekeeping, cliquishness, and credentialism of the publishing world. How do you understand the self-publishing revolution?
In 2013 and 2014, there was a great sense of liberation as self-published writers had their moment. Amazon had given them the requisite tools, which let a handful of writers thumb their noses at mainstream publishing. They now had an avenue to success that wasn’t there previously.
But the brand of self-published writers being spokespeople for Amazon is diminishing. Self-published writers who have tried to make a living on Amazon inevitably notice that the company is a forceful and authoritarian gatekeeper in its own right. Amazon isn’t a world of creative freedom. It imposes a set of burdens, including the terrifying quantity of writing Amazon self-publishers must produce. Those with experience have said that you need to be releasing a new novel every three months to maintain a readership and avoid being forgotten.
Here we see a convergence between content creation of other kinds and novel writing. The latter has been put on a serial basis. It doesn’t have to be this way. But if you want to make it in the literary world, it’s good to be a very fast writer.
Amazon self-publishing got off to a populist start. It was hard not to have at least one or two cheers, if not three. Folks suddenly had a chance to do something that they weren’t able to before because they lacked connection or what have you. I’m all for that. But, at the end of the day, it was always going to be a corporate populism.
There are many problems that come with that. Amazon conditions readers to think that $0.99 is a reasonable amount to pay for a novel. That may be contributing to the reported deflation in author incomes. How can they support themselves when literary experiences are being valued at such a low rate?
Another problem is that traditional publishers may become more hesitant to take risks on experimental literary works. Some would say that this is largely Amazon’s doing, by cutting into their profit margins.
Yes — with the irony that, because it’s an open platform, anyone can publish whatever the hell they want on Kindle Direct Publishing. There’s no barrier to entry for experimental, even audience-hostile, fiction.
Amazon didn’t bring the market to books. Print capitalism has been around for a long time. As Benedict Anderson pointed out, books are reliable indicators for what’s going on in capitalism. For example, the printing press was one of the first machines.
Books have always been deeply embedded in the market. Sure enough, the corporatization of publishing — beginning roughly in the 1980s — is a huge part of the story, too. It’s no doubt the most important part if you’re wondering why the midlist is ailing and even successful midlist writers often need a second job — sometimes they become teachers. We’re at a point now where having several respected novels doesn’t necessarily add up to a living.
You mentioned writers becoming teachers. Your last book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, is about how the MFA program has influenced American literature after World War II. The move to professor-writer and cliché refrains like “show, don’t tell” and “find your voice” are products of that shift.
What’s the relationship between The Program Era and this book? Have we passed from the program era to the Amazon era?
I think of the two books as different optic angles of analysis. The Program Era is about the rise of the university as a patron of literary art and the various ways it does that through creative writing instruction, which has provided a new path to becoming a professional writer. I centered the rise of the school to a particular point of importance in literary history.
In Everything and Less, I rotate that 180 degrees. The school is one institution. But I went for the rawest form of market institution — the corporation — and studied their role in shaping contemporary literature.
There’s a way of thinking about Amazon as a successor to creative writing programs in universities. People enroll in those programs because they desire to become published writers. If that’s what you want, you can already do it. You don’t need to go to school. Amazon gives you a way.
But it’s not that simple. You still have traditional literary culture, which is essentially what’s at issue in creative writing programs. To an extraordinary extent, those programs teach literary fiction. Over in Amazonia, however, it’s all about the market.
The two seem complementary. That’s why I wanted to entertain the notion of Amazon succeeding from traditional literary culture. But, in the book, I quickly back off that strong of a claim. Clearly, they’re coexistent phenomena. Creative writing programs are more familiar to those of us who have read books in school. Meanwhile, Amazon is the Wild West of current print capitalism.