How Amazon Changed Fiction As We Know It

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Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

During my interview with literary historian Mark McGurl, I glanced out the window to see an Amazon truck rumbling down my block. It was a fitting metaphor for our conversation about Everything and Less, McGurl’s provocative new literary history about how Amazon has reorganized the universe of fiction. “Amazon has insinuated itself into every dimension of the collective experience of literature in the United States,” McGurl writes. “Increasingly, it is the new platform of contemporary literary life.”

With its staggering American market share of 50% of printed books and upwards of 75% of ebooks, Amazon has changed literary life as we know it. But the Everything Store hasn’t just changed how we buy books: according to McGurl, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University, it’s transformed what we buy, what we read, and how we write. In Everything and Less, McGurl draws a line from Amazon’s distribution model to the contemporary dissolution of genre boundaries, arguing that Amazon’s algorithm has effectively turned all fiction into genre fiction. In lucid and well-argued prose, McGurl goes spelunking through the many genres shaped by Amazon’s consumerist logic, from the familiar realms of science fiction to the surprising outer reaches of billionaire romance and Adult Baby Diaper Erotica.

Perceptive and often deeply funny, Everything and Less raises compelling questions about the past, present, and future of fiction. McGurl spoke with me by Zoom to discuss the Age of Amazon and all it entails: the dissolution of genre boundaries, the changing role of the author, and the reasons why all hope isn’t lost.

Esquire: Where did this book begin for you?

Mark McGurl: One day, I realized that I had become an inveterate Amazon customer. Then, as a literary historian, I got to thinking through some basic facts about the company. Amazon started as a bookstore, which itself is fascinating. 25 years ago, Amazon did not exist; now, it’s a dominant force in book publishing. That seemed to call for some analysis of what the rise of this company means. Not in any simple sense, like, “Amazon now dictates how literature is supposed to be.” It's never that simple, but Amazon does illuminate the world in which reading happens. Literature now coexists with lots of other things in the world that it didn't in the past; Amazon is a bright lamp illuminating that fact.

ESQ: How would you describe the characteristics of the novel in the Age of Amazon? What’s the house style of an Amazonian novel?

MM: There's tremendous variety in fiction, so the task is not to simplify that variety. It's a circus out there. From Amazon's perspective, all fiction is genre fiction. In the early 20th century, literature was systematically divided between so-called genre fiction—entertaining fiction, escapist fiction, science fiction, romance, Westerns, thrillers, etcetera—and literary fiction. What Amazon does is look at the literary field and say, “It’s all genre now.” Genre is the overriding rule of literature in our time.

ESQ: When you say that Amazon looks at all fiction as genre fiction, do you mean that Amazon algorithmically sees it that way?

MM: Yes. One of the amazing things about Amazon is how many genre categories the platform has. It's literally thousands. There are bestseller lists of a more conventional kind, but when you look toward the bottom of any book listing on Amazon, you'll see it ranked at a certain number in hugely varied categories, from divorced women's fiction to Swedish fiction. Amazon has created endless ways of dividing the novel to produce a generic form. This is continuous, of course, with marketing. The broader market phenomena we're talking about are product differentiation and market segmentation. All big markets understand that certain products will appeal to certain audiences. In literature, genre is the marketing of that world of distinctions.

ESQ: Early in the book, you write about a story called “Wool,” by Hugh Howey, which started at 58 pages before sprawling into a 1,500-page opus, following reader demand. You use it as an example of how publishing to an eager readership can shape the continued life of a work of fiction. Looking at this, I'm reminded of someone like Dickens publishing serialized fiction. When an author self-publishing on Amazon is paid by the amount of pages read, how is that so different from the tradition of authors getting paid by the word?

MM: It's very much continuous with that. Arguably, the strange hiatus was in the early 20th century through the mid-20th century, with the coming of literary modernism and a widespread assumption that literature should be something apart from the market. But in the longer run of the history of publishing, writing for the market has been the norm since the 18th century. The story of Amazon is in some ways deeply continuous with that, even though the mechanisms are fairly different. We're not talking about serial publication where you're waiting a month for the next installment, but you are thrown back into this sense of serial production. In some ways, it really is the roaring back of the Dickensian moment in literary history. If you want to make it as a self-published writer, writing one book will not do it. Even a great book won't do it. The whole game is to gain some audience with a really good book, then continue to serve that audience. That’s what happened with Hugh Howey. He wrote a great short story, which really took off. Then, to serve that audience, he had to keep writing more installments. Before long, he had this massive epic, which has now been optioned for the screen. Certainly the Dickens spirit is back, and Amazon is its sponsor.

ESQ: That seems like the full life cycle of writing, these days. From self-published to runaway success to optioned for the screen.

MM: Cable is something we really have to think about. Only a very small number of novels can be made into cable series, but nonetheless, it really has become a thing. HBO hovers out there as a possible final destination for your work, which will explode its popularity. We live in a world where visual culture is the dominant culture, whether it's cable television or the internet. Literature just has to relate to that however it can. Granted, I think writers are largely happy about this. As a novelist, you could very much aspire to see or participate in a well-made rendition of your story.

ESQ: Speaking of being an author today, you use this new term: “author-entrepreneur.” You write, “In the Age of Amazon, the job of writing fiction converges with the job of marketing it.” Can you explain the ways the role of the writer has expanded, and the ways in which it has absorbed the labor traditionally done by other people?

MM: In previous decades, the writer was supposed to write his or her book, then the publishing house would take care of the rest. You could remain innocent of how the sausage was made, except when you were asked to do readings. Self-published writers don't have that luxury at all. Folks who make a living as self-published writers know so much more about marketing books than prestige writers. Apart from creating the book, there’s so much ancillary work they have to do. They have to know pricing strategies, email list cultivation, and cover design. It's all very exhausting, which is why the most cutting edge of the phenomenon is for self-publishing to operate like a farm system. A writer develops an audience, an editor at a major publishing house will notice, and then they'll convince the writer to go legit. What that writer gets is relief from all the ancillary work. That's the argument that's made to these folks: “You're spending all these hours cultivating your email list. Do you really want to be doing that, as opposed to creating fiction?” The level of knowledge that a self-published writer has to have is orders of magnitude different from a more traditional writer.

Photo credit: Mario Tama - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mario Tama - Getty Images

ESQ: For self-published writers, Amazon has removed traditional barriers to publication. If you're self-published, you don't need an agent or a publisher. What does that mean for the literary world? Is this freeing us from gatekeeping, or is the filtering provided by agents and publishers important?

MM: At some point in the middle of writing this book, I realized I wasn't going to solve that conundrum. I’m populist enough and democratic enough that I can’t help but appreciate the idea of anyone being able to give this a try. On the other hand, there's just no denying that the quality control issue is a real one. There's so much crap out there. Does the bad stuff impede your access to the good stuff? Do you trust recommendation algorithms and reviews to lead you to things that are actually good? I eventually stopped trying to resolve this dilemma. Quality matters, and the fact that lots of bad books are being published isn’t something I want to celebrate, even as I’m happy for people who can try their hand at writing. The way we think about self-publishing now is like a zombie apocalypse, with so many books coming at us in a zombie hoard—including many zombie novels! It's hard for me to want to eliminate all the zombies. I think there's just too much creative energy there, even as there's certainly a limit to how much time we can or should give to works that aren’t great.

ESQ: Does this huge outpouring of books mean there are more bad books in the world, or are there simply more books in total, so there are more good and more bad?

MM: There are more bad books in the world and more good books in the world. There are just more books in the world, and some of the good ones come from unrecognized talent that now has another avenue to prove itself. Certainly lowering the gates invites tons of people who don't have a realistic sense of their talent, but whether and to what degree we should be concerned about that is a complex question. But so what? Let those people have a shot. I'm still going to be reading what I like to read. I'm curious as to what all of that literary productivity means. What and whether the truth of our moment isn't out there, with the lower quality books, rather than with the usual suspects in the literary fiction space.

ESQ: Many writers have longed to see the barriers between literary fiction and genre fiction come down for quite some time. Do you give Amazon any credit for, as you describe it, “the retreat of boundary policing”?

MM: Giving credit would be complicated. Amazon points us to marketing imperatives, which virtually guaranteed that the boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction would become more porous. If you look at Colson Whitehead, one of the most celebrated writers of our time, he’s written detective fiction, zombie fiction, and now, a heist novel. No one would mistake him as a writer of mere genre fiction; nonetheless, clearly some sort of rapprochement has happened with genre forms in his work. Or take Sally Rooney: she doesn't deny that her novels are romance novels of a certain kind. They always have romances at their core, so they're absorbing some of that energy while not being mistakable for Fifty Shades of Gray. I don't know if I would credit Amazon with blurring those boundaries. Certainly it's a phenomenon of literature in our time that Amazon is the beacon of literature submitted to the test of market strength. The way you connect with readers is to hint at the pleasures of these genre forms.

ESQ: Speaking of romance novels, you write, “However tall or short the boundaries between genre fiction and literary fiction may be, it would appear that the genre turn has bypassed the romance novel.” Romance is a phenomenon with huge popularity and huge commercial reach. Why aren't the boundaries blurring here in the way that they have for so many other genres?

MM: There have always been highbrow literary academics who love detective novels or science fiction. That’s reflected in the criticism you can find on those genres. But romance? Not so much. When romance became a category of genre fiction in the early 20th century, it did so with the rise of Mills & Boon, an industrial strength romance publisher in England, and then the rise of Harlequin in the United States. It was consigned to the outer limits of literary respectability, and people never found their way back to romance as having any redeeming literary value. For more typically boyish genres, they'd make some concessions, but not romance. I hope its day in the sun is coming. It would be a full circle back to Jane Austen. After all, there’s no seeming contradiction between Austen’s works and romance novels that end in marriage. That’s all there in Austen, but nobody has trouble noticing that she's a genius. We won’t credit Sally Rooney yet with being the second coming of Jane Austen, but we see some of that spirit coming back.

Photo credit: JENS-ULRICH KOCH - Getty Images
Photo credit: JENS-ULRICH KOCH - Getty Images

ESQ: You make the argument that literary fiction is its own genre—that all fiction is genre fiction in the Age of Amazon. What’s generic or formulaic about literary fiction? What are its conventions?

MM: On one hand, what we call literary fiction is generally going to be a work of realist fiction. This isn’t always the case; there are exceptions of magical realist works, which have a certain literary quality. Take Jonathan Franzen as the dominant example of what we’d call literary fiction in this moment. His great skill as a writer is observation of the way people act in ordinary circumstances. I think that's still the dominant note in what we call literary fiction, even though there are exceptions to that rule. That said, I do think that literary fiction is a less determined genre than genre fiction. Genre fiction comes partially furnished. A crime novel is going to have a murder. A romance novel is going to have a couple. These things are not negotiable, or it wouldn't be a member of that genre. When you call something literary fiction, you've said less about it than you have when you call something a crime novel. That it’s relatively undetermined is its paradox. Literary fiction is the genre that tries to not be generic, even as it can't help but be, in all sorts of ways. It’s just that the ways aren’t as obvious as, say, a geopolitical thriller. But from Amazon’s perspective, the thought is, “You want to buy a novel with a certain amount of prestige, involving ordinary people doing ordinary things? That'll be literary fiction, and that serves a certain market, just as the other genres serve other markets.”

ESQ: You also make some interesting points about the therapeutic potential of books in the Age of Amazon. What role has Amazon played in bringing us to this place where books are often seen as a site of escape, self-care, or self-improvement?

MM: As a literary historian, I can’t help but notice how different the rhetoric surrounding reading is now than it was in the 19th and 18th centuries, where novels were a problem. "Oh my God, these girls are reading novels! They’re being led into immorality!” That sentiment, as far as I can tell, barely exists in our world. Now, reading has a certain implicit virtue attached to it, because it requires a lot more effort than watching video entertainment. To say that literature from Amazon's perspective is therapeutic is just to say that it's one of the infinite commodities Amazon sells that might make you feel better. It might optimize your relationship to the world. Fiction is an optimization technology to endow the world we move through with more meaning.

ESQ: The bulk of your book is about how the novel has been altered by the dynamics of Amazon’s platform. But I do want to explore how the novel has been altered by Amazon's way of doing business. Amazon has pitted itself against publishers and booksellers, aggressively squeezing their profits and even driving some out of business. Just this year, the Big Five publishers filed a lawsuit claiming that Amazon is price fixing e-books. How are Amazon's business practices changing the novel and the literary ecosystem?

MM: It's worth noting that the consolidation of the publishing industry, quite apart from Amazon, is an important feature of recent literary history. Many people have pointed out how the corporatization of mainstream publishing has introduced a set of values to publishing that weren't there in quite the same way in previous decades. The gearing of everything toward the huge bestseller and the shrinking of the mid-list to almost nothing—this has nothing to do with Amazon. That's capitalism as applied to publishing, irrespective of Amazon. Amazon just enters the scene as another very, very strong force with its own power base. It enters into a struggle with the Big Five publishing conglomerates.

By now, there's been time for there to be a complex history to that relation. The disputes surrounding ebook pricing go way back, all because Jeff Bezos wanted to stipulate, for no reason he could articulate, that ebooks should cost $9.99 at most. Publishers said, "We can't sell that book at a profit if you're charging $9.99 for it. You're stealing business from paper books.” There were huge legal disputes surrounding that, which led to Amazon conceding. Publishers are now allowed to charge whatever they want for ebooks. That isn't the end of the story, though, because of all the things Amazon has the power to do. Amazon has the luxury to lose money when it wants to. In some ways, the whole story of Amazon is the story of a company that was licensed to lose money for twenty years while its brick and mortar competitors withered. Then, it woke up a few years ago and realized that it had captured the market. It can now turn the knobs and become a profitable company.

Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images
Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images

ESQ: So many people feel hopeless about Amazon and the dangers it poses. For the consumer, it can feel like a David versus Goliath situation. For those who come to Amazon to buy books, there’s this dissonance between the surplus of novels available to them and the shortage of leisure time for reading. You write, “The overstuffed Kindle e-reader or iPad is at once a world-historically powerful condensation of potential literary experience, and a little tombstone prophesying the rapidly approaching day of our death.” What hope do we as readers have in the age of Amazon? Why is this a unique or interesting time to be alive as a reader?

MM: There are plenty of reasons to be concerned on traditional grounds about the fate of literature in our world. The space that used to be devoted to it is shrinking. The authority that literary culture used to have in the wider culture is diminishing. There's no doubt about that. On the other hand, the scale of the desire to read and produce literature is pretty striking. The counterpoint to this sense of gloom and doom is just how robust the desire for story remains—how present that desire is in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. We know that there are tons of people who never read a book, but there are so many who do. There are hundreds of millions of people for whom reading a book is a basic part of living a satisfying life. It's an absolutely necessary supplement to their daily existence. It's going to that place your mind creates when it converts words into a narrative. That's still huge. I think enjoying the plentitude on offer to you as a reader is the most hopeful thing I could point to.

The authority of literature in the broader world is diminished, no doubt. That matters to somebody like me, an English professor—it has to do with enrollments, the number of English majors, and all that stuff. All of those issues go to a question of the deepest meaning about the authority of literature in our world. But if you turn to literature as something that millions of people use to get by, to make their lives a little bit better, that’s still huge, and very, very vibrant.

ESQ: I suppose we can also be heartened by the democratization of literature. Not too long ago in the scale of human history, the ability to read, write, and publish wasn’t widespread.

MM: There has been a progressive democratization of the literary world. Just looking at the cost of texts, from the world of triple decker hardbacks in the 19th century to the present moment, where eTexts are often essentially free. Literacy rates have been constantly expanding from the 19th century forward. So many more people are involved in the literary world than there were in the past. I find this intriguing, even if it comes with questions of quality and literary value. What will be the fate of the model of literature presented by Henry James or James Joyce? Writers who said, "If you want what I’ve got, reader, you’re going to have to do some work”? I think that sentiment is very much hard to find in the literary world today. I'm ambivalent about its disappearance because I, for one, have had tremendously valuable experiences working hard to get what an author is trying to give me. I think that the Amazon model is very much moving away from asking the reader to do anything. It’s moving toward thinking of their author as a servant of the reader, giving them what they already want.

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