Everything and Less, the third of McGurl’s trilogy, accounts for the very contemporary history of the US novel in the 21st century, and embraces, with endearing if possibly embarrassing gusto, genre fiction ... McGurl is our Virgil through this Dantean Hell. Look here at this mock-up of a Brooklyn loft, where literary fiction, once McGurl’s whole world, has become but one genre (and has merited one chapter) among many ... If this focus on fetish genres feels too niche, don’t worry. McGurl—having internalized Bourdieu, and still drawing on Luhmann, teamed up now with Marx—pulls back the camera to pan across the widest possible landscape ... All along McGurl has been our naïf, our fool, the dialectical antithesis to his performance as the savvy critic with his dazzling performances of sophistication ... He draws on his eclectic encyclopedism to multiply his criteria, which are neither canonically modernist nor blithely those of the market. We might call it a Sedgwickian aesthetics by nonce taxonomy: his precise terms of evaluation emerge uniquely to each text. We might also wonder the degree to which his taste represents less the reader he purports not to hold himself above and more, despite pretensions to the contrary, the elite literary critic he has become. His is ultimately something of a cheerily anarchic optimism, a final faithfulness in the idea that the sheer excess of the human animal and its pleasures refuse to be bounded by either disciplinary (literary) or capitalist (Amazonian) enclosure, and so his survey, across his trilogy, and his appreciation for the outrageous breadth of US fiction, leaves him—and, if he succeeds, us—against all odds: hopeful.
McGurl unearths inviting weirdness, surreal experimentation, kinky political utopias, and even sweetness ... McGurl’s claims themselves have an inviting weirdness—if not always coherence. I found myself writing sternly in the margins: 'Not every orgy is a ‘collective.' ' ... I wondered, too, at his notion of the 'success' of K.D.P. writers ... Never before have so many people made so little from their writing. Nor do we hear about writers who feel ambivalent about using Amazon as a platform to begin with, or who feel cheated or exploited. 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 ... Inconsistencies and small mistakes begin to gather underfoot ... Even McGurl’s opening argument hinges on an error...revealing McGurl’s eagerness to establish Amazon as a 'literary endeavor' in its own right ... 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. The novel is an intransigently private form, and this may be the real story of the book: McGurl’s surprise and delight as he ventured to the so-called margins of literary life and found more than he expected.
McGurl doesn’t interview novel readers. Nor does he data-mine customer reviews (as other literature professors like James F. English and Ed Finn have recently done) or pump publishing professionals for industry details ... Placing Amazon’s story alongside those within the books it distributes, McGurl reduces fictional plots to allegories of the tech behemoth. As insatiable as any zombie, as submissive as any heroine in an 'alpha billionaire romance,' McGurl’s hypothetical genre-fiction junkie looks diametrically opposed to the skeptical analyst cultivated in college classrooms ... 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 ... McGurl’s decision to replace close reading with plot summary enables insights ranging from the rise of the trilogy to the motif of the 'beta intellectual.' However scattershot his evidence, you may still recognize yourself in these disheartening pages.
His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store ... McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP 'product' he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP’s influence, as well ... Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about.
McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan ... The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right ... 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 doesn’t present any evidence that Amazon’s algorithm incentivizes novelists like Knausgaard or Ben Lerner to write in a certain style, or that it even accounts for their popularity, relative to other, lesser-known contemporary novelists. And, meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that successful authors still owe their reputations in large part to the traditional apparatus of literary publishing: their acceptance by established editors at traditional imprints, followed by appreciative reviews in newspapers and magazines, followed by profiles in lifestyle sections, followed by a respectable stream of sales ... consumers might find in McGurl’s book a warning to stay as far away as possible and seek out better forms of discovery than Amazon’s website, like visiting an indie bookstore, asking a friend, or reading a magazine—looking for anything but what rises to the top of the feed.
Everything and Less...relies on the flash and surprise and ingenuity of its arguments to distract you from the sleight-of-hand taking place in the background. Mr. McGurl’s impressive ambitions—his willingness to synthesize huge and diverse periods of literary history—is hardly in doubt ... Mr. McGurl has a funny chapter on the explosion of fetish lit ... The question is whether these increased opportunities in 'authorpreneurship' affect the people principally motivated to express themselves artistically. Here the arguments grow more vague ... what is maddening about Everything and Less is how little literary analysis it actually contains. Mr. McGurl has the obnoxious habit of simply reiterating his claims without demonstrating them ... The absence of both wide-angle historical context and close textual reading makes Everything and Less a very curious kind of literary study, one startling enough to demand attention but too thin to successfully hold it. In many ways it most resembles that paradigmatic Amazonian genre, the apocalyptic fantasy, imaginatively suggesting an alternative present in which customer desire is the single criterion determining literary creation. Mr. McGurl, for all his adventurousness, reifies this dystopian vision by adopting the language of commodification. There is hardly a mention in this book of aesthetics, or morality, or uncertainty, or truth—only of production and consumption, demand and fulfillment. But we are captives to an age only insofar as we submit to its terms.
By turns provocative and tedious ... While McGurl’s dense academic study often relies on sprawling, jargon-filled sentences, he nevertheless raises significant questions about the state of publishing. For those in the industry, this is worth a look.