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.