In her book Dopamine Nation, which Stanford reviewed in the May issue, psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Anna Lembke, MD ’95, confesses that she struggled with her own addiction. It got so bad that Lembke was showing up at work exhausted and hiding from her family on vacation to engage in her habit. Which was reading erotic romance novels. She couldn’t put her Kindle down, partly because the very short chapters ended with a cliffhanger to keep her hooked.
That’s one of the many ways Amazon has changed literature that English professor Mark McGurl chronicles in his book Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (Verso). It is a smart academic book that puts a cheery veneer on a depressing Marxist critique of the death of literature. Also, it’s filthy.
I have long been accused of being sex-obsessed, but not even I saw the “smiling phallus” in the Amazon logo. McGurl merrily delves into the mire, exploring the very specific fiction genres that have flourished thanks to Amazon’s recommendation algorithms. And he actually reads these novels. Not just the Alpha Billionaire Romances (e.g., Loving the White Billionaire), but also the Adult Baby Diaper Lover novels (e.g., Seduce, Dominate, Diaper) and Surreal Satirical Gay Porn (e.g., Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls). He appreciates them all. Really. Truly. Even if that’s not so clear when he’s comparing Fifty Shades of Grey to Mrs. Dalloway. Sure, McGurl can try to elevate Fifty Shades by tracing its roots to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, but from what I remember from my 18th-Century British Novel course, Pamela sucked so badly that Henry Fielding wrote Shamela to make fun of it.
Whether dropping from the air into the Kindle or other device, or showing up on the doorstep in a flat brown box, these are the works that Amazon’s customers demand in largest numbers and which it is happy to supply.
McGurl argues that literary fiction, the kind that he teaches and explores in his previous book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, is just another specific genre, one obsessed with realism. Its consumers are merely another group searching for quality “me time.” This is a book about the end of the elite, the end of gatekeeping institutions, and how neat that is.
But, McGurl can’t help but say, we literary readers are slightly different consumers. We’re not paying a monthly subscription to the all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited subscription service. We’re not reading self-published authors who pump out epic tetralogy after epic tetralogy on Kindle Direct Publishing. We are Stanford graduates, ensconced in a world far from the literary Age of Amazon, where “nowadays, as a popular novelist, you are not so much crafting a perfect object as, somewhat like a blogger or regular poster, constructing a narrative feed.”
Before he got his PhD in comp lit, McGurl had my job. He was a magazine writer, telling stories about himself for the New York Times Magazine. Unlike McGurl, I stopped my education at a master’s in English. (Fine, it was a co-term.) But I like to fancy that, if I’d gone on to get a PhD, I would have written books like this. Sure, it’s a book that, last I checked, was selling for $1.99 as an e-book and was No. 36 in Amazon’s micro-genre of 21st Century Literary Criticism. No matter how small and insignificant the genre of highbrow literature may become, it’s the one for me.
Joel Stein, ’93, MA ’94, is the author, most recently, of In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better than You and You Are Better than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.