Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Everything and Less by Mark McGurl: 2021 Criticism Finalist

By Diego Báez

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl (Verso)

How has the rise and unrivaled dominance of Amazon changed not only what and how we read, but what and how we write? These questions are central to Mark McGurl’s incisive examination of Amazon’s algorithms and their impact on the contemporary publishing landscape. Called “provocative,” “[p]erceptive and often deeply funny,” and “coolly pedagogical,” Everything and Less depicts Amazon’s unchecked influence as “an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail.”  McGurl analyzes histories of literary production, employs a Marxist frame to appreciate the market dynamics at play in Amazon’s business models, and dives deep into the labyrinthine corners of the Everything Store’s digital shelves to argue that Amazon has irretrievably transformed reading and writing in the U.S. From the easy accessibility and user-friendliness of Kindle Direct Publishing, to the data-driven segmentation of readers into ad-targeted consumers, to the relegation of “literary fiction” to just another genre among of hundreds as disparate as Science Fiction, Alpha Billionaire Romance, and Adult Baby Diaper Lover (ABDL). In one of many amusing rhetorical turns, McGurl draws a parallel between ADBL erotica, in which protagonists are infantilized for pleasure, to the role Amazon has assumed with regard to American readership: to soothe and care for the consumer, regardless of literary quality. Whether Amazon’s flattening of literary production and consumption heralds an unmatched era of egalitarian access to literature, or ultimately functions as a self-serving ouroboros of regurgitative data analytics, is a question McGurl does well to balance in his line of inquiry. By turns amusing and disturbing, McGurl’s analysis has already proven to be contentious among academics, publishing industry professionals, and the reading public alike.

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