Everything and Less by Mark McGurl

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Fiction writing has a long history. The novel has been the main stay of many a library, book exchange and store. Many films have been based on the stories fiction writers have weaved. Humanity has grown to love these and other stories because they have been a vehicle through which traditions, truths and ideas have been passed on. We have all enjoyed a good novel or watched an excellent film. Often we go back to them again and again because they mean a lot to us or our enjoyment has increased every time we have reread or watched something a number of times.

While Mark McGurl acknowledges the place of the novel in our lives, he questions how it will continue to fare as the online giant Amazon continues to grow its influence and dominance through selling just about anything including books. Beginning as a bookstore before branching out into other items such as food, household goods and electrical appliances not to mention its musical streaming services and television offerings, Amazon has entered most areas of human life. While it retains its commitment to selling books, its annual sales run into the millions when top physical bookstores think they are doing well when they move thousands of books over a twelve-month period.

The aim of any budding fiction writer is to have their book published and available to the reading public. Traditionally this has meant hoping that their hard work has paid off by having their manuscript accepted by a publisher who can see both merit and financial success in what they have received. Not every would-be author has ever been published. As a result, their work has never read by the reading public.

As McGurl shows, Amazon has changed that framework. It still exists and a lot of authors move their works through traditional publishing houses. However, Amazon through its various arms and entities has developed a situation where authors can virtually self-publish using one of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. The author then becomes the publisher and, as a result, can publish anything they want. This, says McGurl, has increased the genres of fiction beyond those that were seen as the mainstays in bookshops such as suspense, mystery, crime, and romance.

McGurl also sees a change in the way in which authors interact with the reading public. Though its algorithms, Amazons has changed book buying from a pastime to a service industry. Authors are pressured to keep supplying material because the readers, who are now regarded as consumers, need to be serviced. This can be seen as lessening the stature that fiction writing and writing in general has enjoyed over the centuries because authors need to keep writing without necessarily doing the research that often goes into developing an idea that becomes the ultimate story with its interesting characters and settings.

In some ways what McGurl refers to is not new. The “Penny Dreadful” market has traditionally been the place for what are regarded as very low brow novels and stories. Amazon has though accentuated it through the use of algorithms and other means to both influence the buying public and give accessibility to novels that may not necessarily have been widely read if at all.

Everything and Less is a timely book. It highlights the dangers of instant gratification and accessibility that Amazon offers. McGurl’s careful research and style is often a complete contrast to the information he brings to the table. His clarion call to us is simple. While Amazon can offer everything, we have to be aware that we may not get more but less. This includes less quality fiction that has been sacrificed in order that more fiction genres can be accessed by consumers whose discernment may not be as finely tuned as it was in past years.

Mark McGurl is the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University. His last book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.

Everything and Less

by Mark McGurl

(2022)

Verso

ISBN: 978 18397 6385 4

$39.99; 314pp

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