“Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon” (Mark McGurl) Summary

McGurl’s article focuses on the question, “What does it mean to think of the rise of Amazon.com as an event in contemporary literary history?” (447). Though Amazon began as an online bookstore, I wouldn’t have thought of it as a literary event because of how the site has since expanded to include everything else. Its focus is no longer limited to books, but is rather, as McGurl highlights, on customer service and satisfaction. However, it is appropriate to examine Amazon’s impact on the literary market since its book business accounts for “roughly half of all US book purchases,” dominating especially “the market in popular genre fiction” (448). Essential to McGurl’s discussion is Kindle Direct Publishing, which is an e-book self-publishing service and which has immensely impacted what kind of fiction is being published now. McGurl also claims that university creative writing programs are related to Amazon in their effect on contemporary fiction, since both the MFA programs and KDP share a “professed allegiance to general creativity, to the artistic will of the people” (451). To emphasize the relationship between Amazon and literary history, McGurl likens his reading of Amazon’s commitment to customer service to a reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a novel also about service. KDP, he says, transforms the author into a kind of customer, but also puts her/him in the position of merchant, removing the middleman of a publishing house. Writers are able to reach their target audiences more quickly, who are willing to be pleased “again and again” (460) as long as the author produces work according to their expectations. McGurl implies that this is one explanation for the huge increase in genre fiction, which might otherwise not be published. Just because it is published quickly, though, doesn’t mean this genre fiction is good quality. Rather than being concerned with artistic merit, writers, just like Amazon, cater to the “quasi deity” (457) of the customer. In the final section of the article, McGurl makes a distinction between real time, which has to do with the speed of information transmission, and quality time, which centers on relationships. Amazon’s goal is to reduce the amount of real time required for delivery, while time spent reading fiction can be considered quality time. McGurl relates the two, claiming that “fiction is nothing if not the virtualization of quality time” (465, original emphasis). Amazon, he says, desires to exist in a future that is always happening now, that endures—a similar criterion for enduring literary value (469).

The most interesting part of McGurl’s article to me was his discussion of the rise of genre fiction. He talks about customers’ impact on the writing produced through KDP, and I wonder if readers are similarly impacted. As writers cater to their readers’ demands, I wonder if all readers’ expectations will ultimately transform and if literary texts that are not superficially satisfying will cease to be satisfying at all. If electronic self-publishing has changed the way writers produce, will it similarly affect how and what readers expect to read? While I don’t like genre fiction myself, does it have other merits that McGurl doesn’t pick up on?

Related to popular fiction, I wonder what McGurl would say about J.K. Rowling, who, similar to the example of Hugh Howey’s expanding Silo Saga, has continued to produce writing related to the Harry Potter universe. Her work has transformed from a series of books to a business incorporating multiple kinds of media. Unlike Howey, though, her work has been published traditionally. Does writers’ desire to please their audience come from something beyond Amazon and KDP? Was the phenomenon of KDP inevitable because of customer demands? Is it possible to separate reader demand from how texts become popular? Is the never-ending story simply a result of capitalism, or is the origin more nuanced?