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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

Everything and Less

Mark McGurl

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To purchase Everything and Less

Title: Everything and Less
Author: Mark McGurl
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 276 pages
Availability: Everything and Less - US
Everything and Less - UK
Everything and Less - Canada
directly from: Verso
  • The Novel in the Age of Amazon

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting ideas, quite well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic . 10/2021 Kyle Chayka
The New Yorker . 1/11/2021 Parul Sehgal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/11/2021 Leah Price
Wall St. Journal . 5/11/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. (...) McGurl is on firm ground when he is analyzing the mass-market literature created and discovered on KDP, the genre-fiction e-books that are eating into the traditional market for Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy. But his account of Amazon’s effects on literary fiction is less convincing. (...) Everything and Less presents one way to engage with Amazon’s cultural output: Dive into the system and embrace what you find there as the vanguard of culture, no matter if most of it is dull." - Kyle Chayka, The New Republic

  • "McGurl's aim, to be sure, is provocation more than persuasion. He does not argue; he insinuates, teases, tousles, wrinkles. He makes himself cozy in the conditional mode, from which he can spin out thought experiments and later state them as fact. His quiver is full of qualifiers (.....) Even his thesis about the primacy of Amazon in transforming literary culture is casually walked back (.....) Everything and Less tells one story while seeming to enact another. For all the ways McGurl anatomizes the novel as a commodity in the age of Amazon, one is left observing something else entirely -- all the ways in which the novel cannot be commodified." - Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker

  • "Everything and Less enlists literary sources to explain the place of culture in a neoliberal economy. Placing Amazon's story alongside those within the books it distributes, McGurl reduces fictional plots to allegories of the tech behemoth. (...) Lurching from roguish biographical anecdotes about Amazon's gossip-ready founder to coolly pedagogical expositions of Marxist theory, McGurl squelches any hopes that books can save us -- from ephemerality, from passivity, from commercialism. (...) However scattershot his evidence, you may still recognize yourself in these disheartening pages." - Leah Price, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Subtitled The Novel in the Age of Amazon, Everything and Less makes the argument that:

(T)he rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail.
       As McGurl notes, Amazon began as a bookseller, and so there has always been a connection between the literary and the company. Of course, the books Amazon started out selling were merchandise -- unit-items whose exact nature was irrelevant. Amazon-as-bookseller was easily transformed into Amazon-purveyor-of-everything because any merchandise could be substituted for books.
       The key for McGurl is that Amazon has also moved beyond the basic retail blueprint for this particular product, in also taking on the role of publisher -- and that in an entirely novel way, vastly expanding the concept of 'publisher'. While house-brands of many different products have become common, at Amazon and many other retailers, books have rarely previously been among them. (It's not an entirely new idea, of course: Barnes & Noble has long published cheap editions of classic/out-of-copyright titles, and there are numerous booksellers that have established publishing-arms, notably, for example, City Lights.) Amazon has taken the traditional-publisher route, establishing sixteen separate imprints, each specializing in a different area, from Christian to sciene fiction -- and with Amazon Crossing, for example, currently the leading (in terms of the number of titles ...) publisher of fiction in translation in the United States. However, the far more significant innovation, and the one McGurl focuses on, is Amazon's KDP ('Kindle Direct Publishing') program, allowing anyone to publish practically anything at no cost.
       Amazon is, by far, the US market leader in book-selling, both of traditionally-published books as well as now the huge market of what amounts to self-published books; as such, McGurl argues, it has reshaped contemporary writing -- of what the novel is, even. KDP allows for an unfiltered flow of any- and everything, without gatekeepers. There has always been some bypassing of editors and traditional publishers -- people have always self-published -- but the new technologies of print-on-demand and, especially, online-/e-reading have made it accessible to essentially anyone, at practically no cost, the barriers to entry having basically been shattered. This has led to an explosive growth in the amount of what is 'published'. (As McGurl notes, it also leaves us with a fascinating "underlist, the vast number of books essentially never read by anyone".)
       The new technologies, and Amazon's use of them, has led to new levels of commodification of the book. McGurl notes: "Product becomes process in what is essentially the liquefaction of the literary object". Not all of this is fundamentally new: serial publication in newspaper and magazines, or the churning out especially of genre works in cheap paperbacks are very similar to the: "regularly updated feed" of product that contemporary readers have come to expect -- though of course everything is now at an unprecedented scale.
       McGurl digs quite deep into the world of essentially self-published work. Notable, in particular, is the incentive to make more out of any given work: the stand-alone comes to feel like a wasted opportunity, and is adapted and continued. Among his examples is Hugh Howey's story, 'Wool', which McGurl finds: "perfect, a resonant retelling of Plato's allegory of the cave that stands comfortably beside any of the canonical political parables of twentieth-century fiction". Instead of leaving it at that, however, Howey built a whole literary juggernaut on it, a huge 'Silo Saga' (with the TV adaptation now to follow ...), and now:
Put simply, what had figured as a bitter negation of utopian sentiment -- but also an ironically utopian representation of non-capitalist existence as necessity, since there is no room in the silo for capitalist expansion -- evolves by customer demand into something like the opposite, an epic of corporate populism, of open-ended "freedom."
       This re-using and building on content is also not entirely new -- or limited to books -- but the Amazon-model does more than just incentivize it. The potential to continue a story, or offer variations on it (such as Fifty Shades of Grey's Christian telling the story from his perspective, in Grey) becomes fundamental to it.
       McGurl certainly makes a case for the Amazon-world we now undeniably live in influencing at least great swathes of the literary world, and his examples from especially the KDP-world are revealing and interesting.
       McGurl does devote a paragraph to: "the massively successful Chinese venture called Webnovel", but that's only an English-language site dwarfed by online reading/publishing sites aimed at Chinese audiences, notably Chinese Literature. A closer examination of the influence of these on Chinese literature and reading would certainly have been a useful point of comparison. There seems no question that this form of publishing and reading has had significant local effects, with many of the best-earning Chinese authors, for example, largely reach their audience through these platforms -- though these are not tied together with the largest Chinese online retailers, i.e. differ somewhat from the Amazon-model. (See, for example, Michel Hockx's book on Internet Literature in China.)
       Everything and Less is a good starting point for a re-consideration of literary production and reading in our times. Online and e-reading have made for a fundamental underlying shift -- and McGurl is right that Amazon's central, and particular, role, from its Kindle and the KDP-program to its thousands of best seller lists and other variations on literary commodification, plays a huge part in contemporary literary production and consumption, with far-reaching effects.
       There's a lot one can debate here, but McGurl offers an intriguing and entertaining consideration of the subject, well worth a look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2021

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Everything and Less: Reviews: Mark McGurl: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mark McGurl teaches at Stanford.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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