OCTOBER 20, 2021
MARK MCGURL — maybe the most exhaustive scholar to track US fiction’s myriad paths from Henry James to Chuck Tingle — confessed in a personal essay that he found the real world confusing. He was 23, newly out of college, a bewildered babe in the Big Apple. His confusion, which percolated through the essay, was about money and women, or, per the title of the column for which he was writing, “About Men.” It was 1990. He spun a fable of two exes: one worked with the homeless, the other on Wall Street. He’d lately met with each and both left him feeling selfish, uncultured, childish, longing for the safer confines of the classroom. His subtitle was “The Case for Grad School.”
I’m not publicizing his juvenilia for fun, or not just. The essay shows him playing with ideas that would shape his career. In a few paragraphs, he presents the sweep of class, the anxiety of sociological distinction, and the meaning of work. Whether he really found the real world confusing is beside the point; he was testing a genre, trying tactics. With a slight counterfactual shift, the essay could have led him into a career writing the autofiction he tenderly lacerates in his new book: novels that feature, as he observes, sensitive “beta intellectuals” who, though “well equipped to interrogate the meaning of ‘love,’” can be “as problematic in their way as the abusive alpha, and not only for their disappointing feebleness.” These men “seize the historical privilege of romantic indecision and wield it as a kind of soft power” over against the “attractive ladies whose opinions they ambiguously respect.” McGurl’s merciless conclusion? “They do not want to whip them, just to waste their time.”
But in our timeline, McGurl became a literary critic whose youthful essay deployed what would become his signature move: playing the naïf. In “About Men,” he depicted himself as another schlub at an (unnamed) magazine. In truth, he had graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and joined the staff of the New York Times Magazine, which published the piece. He would soon take his own advice and go to grad school, matriculating into Johns Hopkins, where he would complete his PhD under Walter Benn Michaels in a swift six years and be hired ABD at UCLA. He would publish his dissertation as a book in 2001, publish his extraordinary second book, The Program Era, in 2009, and move up the California coast to Stanford. His third book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, was released on October 19, 2021. Together they make a trilogy, a sort of picaresque with Mark McGurl as our Don Quixote, a man who has read a lot, and, in the end, very earnestly.
According to McGurl, the novel too once played the naïf. He takes this claim from Henry James, who made it to advocate for his role in elevating the genre in the Anglo-American world above the judgment that “a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.” Before him, Dickens and Thackeray churned out commercial entertainments, however tasty. After James — or so the argument of McGurl’s first book, The Novel Art, runs — novelists including Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett, Anita Loos, and Edith Wharton treated the novel like art. They made it aesthetically sophisticated, which, from McGurl’s vantage, looks a lot like “product differentiation,” the adaptation of a commodity to fill a market niche prepared, in this case, by the pretensions of class. (We already see anticipations of Amazon.) He compares readers of art novels to the “status-conscious” consumers who abandoned “the mass-produced regularity of the black Ford Model T” in favor of “the multicolored hierarchies of automotive distinction”: read Manhattan Transfer in your Cadillac V-63.
Members of the new middle or professional-managerial class were primed to find pleasure in the intellectual work the art-novel demanded — pleasure, especially, in distinguishing themselves from their peers by their “intellectual virtue.” Established structures change slowly. I toted my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow around high school in the late 1990s, for which my friends told me, essentially, to fuck off. McGurl could have been talking about me at 17 when he writes in The Novel Art that
[t]he vicious snobbery one frequently encounters in and around modernism is, if one cares to look closely, a complex phenomenon manifesting both an injured sense of aristocratic entitlement and, at times, a strenuous attempt to resist, so as to mediate, the naked force of capital on behalf of other values.
The sword is double-edged: one cuts for distinction, the other against (or so it hopes) capitalism.
McGurl had, in short, mastered his Pierre Bourdieu, transporting the French sociologist’s analysis of Flaubert and Zola into US modernism: aesthetic practices could be explained as quests for status. McGurl announced his own aesthetics by disavowing any, claiming “an indifferent, analytical” pose that he, after Alfred Gell, called “Methodological Philistinism.” Advertised as such, the move betrays his sense of lowering his standards, confirmed by his clear appreciation of many of the difficult novels under consideration, and brought home by his attempts to claim modernist values for his own book, declaring it a “cubist construction” that “invites an intellectual pleasure that one might fairly call ‘aesthetic.’”
The problem of taste persisted for McGurl. If one aims to be sociological, what role ought one’s aesthetic judgment play? Is it possible — and, if so, is it useful — to be disinterested? He attempted to resolve the problem by adopting the perspective of a Holy Fool wandering through the systems he identifies. The Novel Art is a dissertation-turned-book with all the limits that implies. Each chapter takes up an author to prove the book’s thesis. The Program Era is bigger, more capacious. It molted the form of the conventional academic book, reaching back in spirit to Hugh Kenner’s exuberantly written The Pound Era, which delivered its readers to the immersive junction of biography and close reading, poetics and institutions, staging the human stakes of formal choices. (Kenner was the advisor of McGurl’s advisor, Michaels.) But, while Kenner only treated a handful of purported geniuses from whom the art that mattered emanated, McGurl strove to “make sense of a field that has grown so large and internally complex that few scholars even attempt anymore to gather its splinters together”: the US novel after 1945.
How could a scholar approach such a manifestly overwhelming task? McGurl’s answer was to find the right theorist: in this case, midcentury German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann. The argument is simple. The rise of the creative writing program after World War II transformed US literary production. It made writers into professors, which altered the meaning of their work, and it ensconced the values of modernism, as inaugurated by Henry James, in institutions. These values are captured and banalized by clichés: show don’t tell; find your voice; write what you know. By supplementing Bourdieu with Luhmann, McGurl comes equipped with the ability to traverse, with dizzying facility, the logic of part and whole, which pays off in magisterial readings of Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, N. Scott Momaday, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, and Bharati Mukherjee, to name just a few. His Luhmannian readings operate according to a dialectic such that, for example, the master tropes of the program (show — find — write) manifest at opposite ends of the operations of scale in the ur-minimalist Ernest Hemingway and the ur-maximalist William Faulkner, each of whom has produced countless heirs; a third type, the miniaturist, emerges through their synthesis, as exemplified by Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, Mukherjee, and the Pynchon (otherwise a maximalist) of The Crying of Lot 49. Productive dialectical tension cleaves the institution itself, given its definitional creativity and its necessary concession to the programmatic.
The Program Era has been generative. It has already spawned, in its short life, a subfield dedicated to the importance of the creative writing program for understanding contemporary literature in the US and beyond, and stands beside James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige as a landmark of the new institutionalism in literary studies. It even breached the walls of the academy and made a small splash among the literati — doubtless in part because of McGurl’s revised approach to aesthetics. At the time, the debate was whether creative writing programs were good or bad, with votes for bad definitively winning; program was outweighing creative, said naysayers, reproducing dull, robotic fiction. McGurl intervened with counterintuitive, unabashed, full-throated enthusiasm — less, he claimed, for any individual work than for the holistic vitality of the system itself: “Although this requires us to adopt an unfamiliar, because non-individualistic, mode of aesthetic appreciation, it is at the end of the day that wholeness which is to be admired here.” He goes so far as to enfold the writing of fiction into the processes of biology and evolution, “to reclaim the artwork as an instance, however remarkable, of the general creativity of humanity, which is creative not only because it must reproduce itself, but because it must try to adapt itself to an ever-changing environment.” This wild universalism only becomes more pronounced in Everything and Less, as does what we might call McGurl’s eclectic encyclopedism, the impulse that leads him to this conclusion via a 1959 book edited and introduced by the obscure psychologist Harold H. Anderson.
A large lacuna lurks. For all McGurl’s purported systematicity and egalitarian aesthetics, for all his sociological concern, a swath of the literary field has been neglected. 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.
“There is a case to be made for self-published Adult Baby Diaper Lover (ABDL) erotica as the quintessential Amazonian genre of literature.” McGurl drops this bomb exactly halfway through Everything and Less. He’s not unpersuasive.
Amazon has transformed literature in the last several decades, as disruptive as creative writing was before it. But how? “Service,” says McGurl, a keyword that he invests with much theorizing. He tells a familiar story: starting in the 1960s, deindustrialization shipped manufacturing jobs abroad and expanded less mobile service work in the United States. Management theorists capitalized on this trend by promoting the inculcation of “culture” at work as a way, according to McGurl, to pay employees in an immaterial sense of purpose rather than in actual wages, which stagnated.
Enter Amazon — apotheosis. It instills in its labor force an obedience to the highest power, customer service. Amazon began as an online bookstore in the early days of the browsable internet long before it became, as McGurl likes to remind us, the Everything Store. It launched the Kindle e-reader in 2007, catapulting ebooks into popular use. And it now has more than a dozen publishing imprints of its own. So it matters a whole lot that, as McGurl argues, “from Amazon’s perspective,” books are “not so much an object or even text as the bearer of a service.” Its most consequential act toward that end has been the creation of Kindle Direct Publishing, a self-publishing platform that has made it easier for anyone to make their writing serviceable for the interested consumer. The author has become “a kind of entrepreneur and service provider” rather than, in another inversion of Kenner (via Joyce), an “aloof or absent modernist god.” Numbers tell the story. In 2000, some 10,000 new works of fiction were published in the US. In 2020, that tally climbed, it appears, into the hundreds of thousands. For a Bourdieusian, or a Luhmannian, or a Marxist, or anyone who thinks — and plenty don’t — that the meanings of individual texts depend on the full field against which they exist, the Age of Amazon operates at an intimidating scale.
Most of this fiction goes unread, an abject surplus to which McGurl devotes his last chapter. But that leaves plenty that is avidly read, in a buzzing dynamic ecology where the logic of product differentiation — which McGurl has been tracking since Henry James — has entered berserker mode. 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. Follow him to the lavish bedrooms of alpha billionaire romance, where we find such titles as Dirty Billionaire, Beautiful Bastard, and Loving the White Billionaire. Next he takes us to Hugh Howey’s epic and outrageously popular Silo Saga, staged after the apocalypse around the ruins of Atlanta. McGurl guides us through the sprawling violence of our favorite role-playing game, unfurling as a novel of the LitRPG genre. Most astonishing of all, McGurl spent his days and nights, these past years, walking these infernal circles, reading and reading and reading these books — and often enjoying them.
Which returns us to ABDL erotica such as Come to Mommy and Seduce, Dominate, Diaper. These novels infantilize the protagonist, turning grown men into babies suckling at their lovers’ teats just like — McGurl’s point — Amazon turns its customers into babies, whom it nurtures with its all-consuming care, its promise to provide everything right to your domicile, including whatever fiction most soothes your psyche. And so, McGurl is surely the first to observe, “with its shifting of the ‘dom’ role from the alpha male to the mother, the ultimate service provider, ABDL erotica is a helpful reminder that Amazon’s customer obsession is ultimately an investment in its own market power.”
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. When he surveys the vastness of what Amazon hath wrought, he finds that the novel alone is no longer adequate to describe fiction. Consulting classic theorists of the novel’s rise such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, and Ian Watt, McGurl conjures its erstwhile parents, epic and romance. This trio — novel, epic, romance — is the schema against which every text proves a dialectical performance in McGurl’s Age of Amazon, playing something of the role that minimalism, maximalism, and miniaturism did in The Program Era.
The epic is “big,” “bold,” and “world-forming.” Its classical form is Virgil’s Aeneid. It tends toward the trilogy: Divine Comedy, Lord of the Rings. It longs for “those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths,” which is to say it strives to build a vision of “cultural integration,” of wholeness. In our time, this means the epic “is the vehicle of capitalist totality” and no less than the genre — in maybe McGurl’s least compelling argument in this new book, in part because of the frequency of his insistence, enamored with its cleverness — of Amazon itself. McGurl everywhere sees Amazon spinning its world-building tale, with Jeff Bezos as its hero, to the point that Amazon is, at its core, “a vast engine for the production and circulation of stories,” a tendentious conclusion primed by his profession as a literary critic.
Romance, by contrast, like love or at least infatuation, shrinks the world and its psychodrama to a population of two … or in some of McGurl’s kinkier fare, three or four or five. It sutures the individual to capitalist totality by making a microcosm of the couple, and shrinking capitalism down to human size. McGurl’s exemplary case is Fifty Shades of Grey: “Ana Steele submits herself to the controlling impulses of Christian Grey but gets to live the billionaire lifestyle for her pains.” Recognizing the outsize role of romance in the contemporary literary field, McGurl spends lots of time on its permutations.
The novel is the mediating term between epic and romance. It allows individuals to locate themselves “between these two scales of socialization, extensive and intensive, advancing into epic or romance territory as necessary for oneself to feel sufficiently aggrandized or comforted.” Its quintessence is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, shuttling as it does between global finance and dysfunctional relationships. The novel, more and more in the social media–suffused Age of Amazon, modulates the “psychic economy of readers” in a real world that’s not a little confusing, where the biggest companies vie for our eyeballs and we are confronted constantly by “an overheated economy of information.” Its work is therapeutic.
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. Beside all the intellectual fireworks of his taxonomies and dialectical displays, beside the comic bravura, he wanders the Age of Amazon’s circles of hell not infrequently pausing in awe at the sublimity, or maybe, to use Sianne Ngai’s term, the stuplimity of it all.
As a naïf, he asks basic questions. How do we human animals cope with our ever-accelerating and one-way trajectory toward death? With fiction, he answers. “For whole cultures as well as for individuals, stories are of prime importance […]. They are what guide our purposeful and pleasurable movement through time.” If we want to understand what fiction is up to, we must recognize that its most important job is grounded in ritual. “Every act of reading,” he tells us, is “a return to something primal, the gently bowed page of a book figuring as a kind of breast.” It is fiction’s responsibility to make sense, to order the world: “[T]he novel coddles, even when trying to disturb or offend, inasmuch as it reassures the reader that life is meaningful.” McGurl’s slogan is “all literature is children’s literature.”
His grown-up version is to define reading as “everyday self-care.” Growing older means making peace with the foreclosure of possibilities. In the neoliberal lingo of our inescapable milieux, aging is the persistent accumulation of opportunity costs: becoming a person freighted with everything one might have done along with what one did. One of the things that makes fiction fiction is its facility with counterfactuals. Another is its tendency to play with the passage of time, to scramble, as the narratologists have it, story and discourse. Its definitional detachment from reality affords us our own slippage away from the exigencies of our private, limited, and finite timelines. (Hugh Kenner again haunts: reading, he wrote, allows one to “savor the romance of time”; “[a]rt is the opportunity for time travel.”) McGurl scatters formulations for his vision of across his text: fiction “is a therapeutic instrument for managing the problem of opportunity cost”; fiction is the “therapeutic processing of information”; “the function of the novel is to attenuate the depressing limitations of embodied life.”
What I mean is: Everything and Less is a book about middle age.
As in The Novel Art, McGurl announces his aesthetic position, though now with more tact. Toward the end, he states that he does not want “to discount or hold [him]self above” the “countless readers and writers who, in and around Amazon, are finding their literary needs met.” And unlike in The Novel Art, which betrays his avowal, here McGurl as fool is in earnest. But who is McGurl to play the fool, which, in this case, means playing the part of the average reader?
He does not want to hold himself above other readers, but what does he know about them? For McGurl, the reader is conceptual rather than physical. We encounter very few actual readers in his book: Jeffrey Bezos, Terri G. Instead, he defines the reader as “a customer with needs, above all a need for reliable sources of comfort.” How much is lost by this definition? We might wonder what McGurl could have learned had he followed the example of Janice Radway — a scholar he cites with admiration — who extensively studied readers of romance novels for her classic monograph Reading the Romance. To do so would have made all the more sense given that he had access to the largest trove of reader responses in human history in Goodreads, which, and not by chance, is owned by Amazon.
The role of the reader that McGurl sets out to play, then, has been determined not by other human readers, but by McGurl’s conceptual account of what a reader is for Amazon: a maximizer of utility in the classic sense; a fragile Freudian ego, comforted by the mother. In practice, this means that he projects his experience, as fool, onto the reader by sleight of hand. What he poses as discoveries about the world are just as often revelations about himself. Whose existentialism is this? Whose preoccupations with utility?
He gives us, then, by his vulnerability or shamelessness, an unusually direct answer to a question that has bedeviled literary studies since its inception and that has recently burst into public debate: what is good? Ought English professors embrace and aim to instill in our students the rewards of the modernist aesthetics that we inherited from James, or ought we nurture egalitarianism in taste? The fact that Amazon, rather than the little magazine or the university, has become the primary patron of contemporary fiction forces McGurl to stage directly the confrontation between the aesthetic judgment of the market and that of modernism. “Amazon is the market personified. As a literary institution, it is the obverse of the writing program, facilitating commerce in the raw.”
We might be forgiven for assuming that Amazon, in its subjugation of all other values to exchange value, is obviously bad for literature. But then, we’re reading Mark McGurl. He is not oblivious to the risks. Amazon, he observes, reduces “diversity to something akin to product differentiation,” though McGurl himself fails to acknowledge or do justice to the extraordinary racial inequality that structures the literary field, despite the fact that the same neglect inspired the most important criticism of The Program Era. And, “Amazon’s commitment to service transforms literary experience into customer experience.” This sounds terrible. Nevertheless, “what’s happening on the ground of literary commerce in our time as the result of Amazon’s efforts is undeniably fascinating.” And so, we find McGurl delighting in Penelope Ward and Vi Keeland’s road trip erotica, Cocky Bastard, assessing it as “far superior to Fifty Shades of Grey, let alone the idiotic Cocky Roomie, with a real sense of humor as well as a sidekick role filled by a blind baby goat.” We witness him making judgments like, “how could anyone read a story as sweet as The House of Enchanted Feminization” — a self-published polyamorous romance about “a house that turns boys into girls” — “and not be charmed by its sheer will to happiness?”
Which is to say, the reader we come to know best in Everything and Less is Mark McGurl. How does he navigate the Scylla of modernism and the Charybdis of the market? It’s doubtful Theodor Adorno would turn to the role played by a blind baby goat as ground for praise. At the same time, McGurl’s appreciation of Cocky Bastard over Fifty Shades shows that his egalitarianism does not require that he let popularity determine taste. 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.