Is Amazon killing literature?

Plus, the Rogers scandal, Bort Juggs, Atwood's politics, and more

Welcome to the 125th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:


The average academic book sells fewer than 100 copies and never registers in the mainstream media. An “outstanding” academic book in its field “is considered doing well if it manages to sell 200 copies in its first year,” and maybe picks up a review in the New York Review of Books or the TLS. Which makes me wonder about Mark McGurl.

If you’ve been reading the book pages, or what passes for them these days, it’s been hard to miss McGurl, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University, and his latest effort, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon.

In the last few weeks, Everything and Less has been reviewed everywhere: The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the New Republic, Esquire, Monocle, the Nation. It was considered a “best book of Fall” by Esquire and a most anticipated book of 2021 at Lit Hub.

Generally speaking, authors don’t get that much attention unless they’re members of the Obama family, or literary superstars on the level of Jonathan Franzen, or Philip Roth’s fuck-up of a biographer. Yet here’s an English professor with one of the most discussed books of the season. How?

It helps that McGurl hasn’t been published by an academic press. He’s been released by Verso, a respectable independent house, child of the New Left Review. It also helps that he writes reasonably well, and he’s got an intriguing cover. But there are literally thousands of books answering those terms that never break into the big book pages.

Let’s look closer, then, at the thesis of Everything and Less. McGurl believes something has happened to fiction “in the age of platform capitalism.” He wants to show that the content of books is affected by how they’re distributed.

This is something of a long-term project for McGurl, whose earlier book The Novel Art charted the ways in which modern novelists (Dos Passos, Faulkner) self-consciously rebelled against the novel-as-commercial-entertainment ethos of the nineteenth century (Dickens and Thackeray). Disinclined to fill the capitalist maw, the modernists saw themselves as producing aesthetically sophisticated works of art. However anti-commercial their shift, McGurl explains it in capitalist terms: the modernists were engaged in an early form of product differentiation, abandoning the masses and taking their product upscale to a better, more exclusive (if less lucrative) market.

McGurl next published The Program Era, which aimed to demonstrate how the rise of creative writing programs in late-twentieth-century America remade the novel once again. Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, and Joyce Carol Oates write as they do because of what they learned, and the literary values they adopted, in creative writing workshops. Another institution—not capitalism but the workshop—was shaping the novel’s art.

Everything and Less is McGurl’s attempt to chart how Amazon, our largest online retailer, which also happens to be our most prolific publisher of new fiction (albeit mostly of the self-published variety), is again transforming what we read. Or, as he states it, how “the consumerist ethos embodied in Amazon’s commercial practices [has] been internalized in the novel’s form.”

He describes how traditional genre fiction—romance, speculative, detective—is the big mover on Amazon’s platform. The content of books in these genres, he argues, is changing to meet the expectations of the platform. Authors are pumping out new novels every several months to answer reader demand for short, fast-paced serializations.

But has Amazon really changed the literary novel, apart from maybe hastening its slow retreat from the pedestal it occupied in the middle of the last century? The reviews are mixed. From the WSJ:

Under Amazon, Mr. McGurl says, the prestige category of literary fiction is merely another genre, judged by the same standards of stars and sales rankings. Mass production, meanwhile, cheapens the field as a whole, making refinement of craft and subtlety of thought boutique luxuries trending toward obsolescence.

Yet if this decline is in progress it should be detectable in the books themselves, and what is maddening about “Everything and Less” is how little literary analysis it actually contains.

I’m not quite finished the book but I can report that it is rather mesmerizing to follow a well-read and well-trained literary critic as he leaps enthusiastically into the filthy eddies of genre fiction that comprise most of Amazon’s stream. His chapter on fetish lit and Adult Baby Diaper Lover erotica is already famous, and it lives up to expectations.

But back to the original question. What accounts for the unusual attention afforded Everything and Less?

Yes, McGurl has a commercial publisher, and the prose is lively, and he is giving serious attention to vast swatches of the literary marketplace that tend to be ignored, all of which sets him apart from the garden-variety academic tome, but the primary reason his book is receiving vast coverage is the fear and suspicion of Amazon in the taste-making literary community.

Amazon has bypassed the independent bookstore, replaced the literary critic with star ratings and the promotional review site Goodreads, and thoroughly democratized book distribution—all at mindboggling scale in a tight window of time. The Amazon platform has no use for gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers are perturbed. They want us to know that a lot of what they contribute to the literary ecosystem is being washed away. They want to be missed. Hence their fascination with Everything and Less, which finds everything going to heck in their absence. (Make no mistake, the success of this book is top-down, not bottom-up. It isn’t selling particularly well: number 166,000 on the evil platform, last I looked).

I don’t disagree with the gatekeepers that a lot has been lost and that our culture is poorer for it—it’s one of the reasons I’m reading the book. But it’s going to take me some time to make up my mind about McGurl’s thesis. More to come…

The latest on Bort Juggs

Last week we discussed the rediscovery of the lost nineteenth-century novelist Bort Juggs, author of Undulating Goblins and Leather Steamboats. As you can see above, the prices for rare Juggs editions are going nuts.

Also this week, a few more clues to his existence were unearthed in Herman Melville’s Wikipedia entry:

Also, Christine, one of our regular readers, writes to say: “Wow. That is very cool. I've never heard of BJ, but my daughter says she just watched a Simpsons rerun with BORT cameo-ed on a license plate.”


Busy lady

Most publicists I speak to agree that Twitter isn’t especially useful for marketing books, at least not compared to Facebook or Instagram. But there is a lively book-related conversation on Twitter, as the Bort Jugg’s story illustrates. Another good follow on the site is Caustic Cover Critic (@Unwise_Trousers), who recently demonstrated the ubiquity of cover recycling by posting the above images with a caption I’ve used as a headline.

The original photo was for Vogue by Horst P. Horst, according to Caustic.


This is off-topic, perhaps, but I’ve been reading in the news that the US is considering a diplomatic boycott of China’s Olympics. I feel for those diplomats who will be unable to swan around Beijing for a couple of weeks on the public dime. Maybe if the boycott goes ahead we should host an alternative Diplomatic Games here in Canada. Among the events: dissembling; circumlocuting; stalemating; sycophancy (with a range of weight classes); make-working; back-channeling (short and long-distance); off-the-recording; high-dudgeoning; blame dodging; flight-and-hotel upgrading; expense-account padding; and early-retiring. Somewhere in there, you’ve also got a decathlon. (Credit to Bill Day of the Orange County Register for a great cartoon, above).


Only Authorized to Smear

I’ve been following the Rogers saga. Everyone’s been following the Rogers’ saga. How can you not: one of Canada’s wealthiest families blows itself up because annual revenues of $11 billion and a gross profit margin of 40% just aren’t enough?

Some day I may have something to say about the bigger issues but right now I want to complain about one aspect of the coverage that’s been bothering me throughout. I apologize in advance for picking on the Globe & Mail because its coverage of the story has been exemplary, and it’s not doing anything that the rest of the news industry isn’t doing (led by the New York Times). But in virtually every story it has published I’ve read a statement like this after a statement from an anonymous source: “The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.”

Right.

I mean, it’s probably true that only the head of the Rogers comms department is officially authorized to speak to media on the record, but a lot of the Globe’s sources are board members or executives part of whose job it is to represent the company publicly. Or they’re public relations professionals or some other variety of retainer hired (or deputized) by parties to the dispute to leak documents, get their side of the story out, and smear their opponents. They’re all in one way or another 'authorized to speak publicly about the matter.' They’re just shy about taking responsibility for their actions, and the Globe, wanting the story, is covering their cowardly asses.

The recent trend in journalism toward explaining why anonymous sources choose to remain anonymous is supposed to assure readers that the sources have good reasons for hiding their identities. It’s notionally about transparency. And it’s also supposed to curtail the use of anonymous sources, which some view as a stamp of unreliable reporting.

The trend has failed. There have been just as many anonymous sources used in the Rogers story as in any juicy story reported twenty or thirty years ago. Anonymous sources remain crucial contributors to the journalistic discourse. The only difference is that they now travel with misleading explanations for their anonymity. Instead of improving transparency, news outlets have compounded and institutionalized the lack of it. Time for the charade to stop.


Tricky Peggy

Ira Wells, who this year wrote Sutherland House’s outstanding biography of Norman Jewison (which makes a great Christmas gift), published a terrific piece on Margaret Atwood’s complicated and controversial politics in the Toronto Star this week. Well worth your time:

Atwood, then, may be less of a feminist icon than a feminist paradox: a tireless advocate for women, who nevertheless sharpened her own thinking in opposition to feminist doctrine; a political writer convinced that political dogma (of any sort) is inimical to writing itself. Today, Atwood occupies the genuinely weird position of being the country’s most popular writer who holds some of our least popular opinions. Those opinions — that democracy depends upon due process; that a poem is not a manifesto; that free speech includes the right to say the unsayable; and that any attempt to enforce utopian thinking will end in dystopia — are perfectly consistent with the ideas behind her most celebrated books, which are also chock full of women behaving badly.


The Balsillie shortlist

Finally, in case you missed it, The Writers’ Trust this week announced the finalists for the inaugural $60,000 Balsillie Prize for Public Policy.

It’s a respectable if uninspiring list:

  • Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World, by Dan Breznitz (Oxford University Press)

  • On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake, by Gregor Craigie (Goose Lane Editions)

  • Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada’s Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic, by André Picard (Random House Canada)

  • “Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power, by Jody Wilson-Raybould (HarperCollins)

The winner will be announced online on Nov. 24.


Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.

Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff

Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK. THANKS FOR READING. PLEASE SIGN UP OR CONVINCE SOMEONE ELSE TO SIGN UP, OR SHARE, OR LEAVE A COMMENT:

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