The first thing that needs to be noted about the collected works of MacKenzie Bezos, novelist, currently consisting of two titles, is how impressive they are. Will either survive the great winnowing that gives us our standard literary histories? Surely not. Precious few novels do. Neither even managed, in its initial moment of publication, to achieve the more transitory status of buzzy must-read. But this was not for want of an obvious success in achieving the aims of works of their kind—that kind being literary fiction, so called to distinguish it from more generic varieties. In Bezos’s hands it is a fiction of close observation, deliberate pacing, credible plotting, believable characters and meticulous craft. The Testing of Luther Albright (2005) and Traps (2013) are perfectly good novels if one has a taste for it.
The second thing that needs to be noted about them is that, after her divorce from Jeff Bezos, founder and controlling shareholder of Amazon, their author is the richest woman in the world, or close enough, worth in excess (as I write these words) of $60 billion, mostly from her holdings of Amazon stock. She is no doubt the wealthiest published novelist of all time by a factor of … whatever, a high number. Compared to her, J. K. Rowling is still poor.
It’s the garishness of the latter fact that makes the high quality of her fiction so hard to credit, so hard to know what to do with except ignore it in favor of the spectacle of titanic financial power and the gossipy blather it carries in train. How can the gifts she has given the world as an artist begin to compare with those she has been issuing as hard cash? Of late it has been reported that Bezos, now going by the name MacKenzie Scott, has been dispensing astonishingly large sums of money very fast, giving it to worthy causes, although not as fast as she has been making it as a holder of stock in her ex’s company. Driven by the increasing centrality of online shopping to contemporary life, its price has been climbing. There are many fine writers of literary fiction, maybe too many—too many to pay close attention to, anyway—but only one world’s richest lady.
But the weird disjunction between the subtleties of literary fiction and the garishness of contemporary capitalism and popular culture might be the point. The rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail. On the one hand, Amazon is nothing if not a “literary” company, a vast engine for the production and circulation of stories. It started as a bookstore and has remained committed ever since to facilitating our access to fiction in various ways. On the other hand, the epic inflection it gives to storytelling could hardly be more distinct from the subtle dignities and delights of literary fiction of the sort written by MacKenzie Bezos.
It was she who, according to legend, took the wheel as the couple drove across the country from New York to Seattle to start something new, leaving her husband free to tap away at spreadsheets on his laptop screen in the passenger seat. If this presents an image of Jeff as the author of Amazon in an almost literal sense, it surely mattered—mattered a lot—that his idea for an online bookstore was fleshed out while living with an actual author of books or aspiring one. “Writing is really all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said upon the occasion of the publication of her first novel in 2005. By this time Amazon was already the great new force in book publishing, although it had yet to introduce the Kindle e-reader, the device that made a market for e-books. Neither had it hit upon perhaps its most dramatic intervention into literary history, Kindle Direct Publishing, the free-to-use platform by whose means untold numbers of aspiring authors have found their way into circulation, some of them finding real success. It had not yet purchased the book-centric social media site Goodreads, or Audible.com, or founded any of the sixteen more or less traditional publishing imprints it now runs out of Seattle.
That self-published writers have succeeded mostly by producing the aforementioned forthrightly generic varieties of fiction, and not literary fiction, is part of this story. Romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, science fiction—these are the genres at the heart of Amazon’s advance upon contemporary literary life. They come at readers promising not fresh observations of the intricacies of real human relationships—although they sometimes do that, by the way—but compellingly improbable if in most ways highly familiar plots.
In one recent self-published success, a man awakens to find he has been downloaded into a video game. Rallying himself surprisingly quickly, he lives his version of The Lord of the Rings, but now with a tabulation of various game statistics appearing in his mind’s eye. In another, a young woman is gifted with the power of prophecy, making her a target of the darkly authoritarian Guild. Run, girl, run! In still another, a woman has a job as a “secret shopper,” testing the level of customer service at various retail stores, stumbling into a love affair with the impossibly handsome billionaire who owns them all. Then there are the zombies. There are as many moderately successful self-published zombie novels as there are zombies in any given zombie novel—hundreds of them. Whether dropping from the air into the Kindle or other device, or showing up on the doorstep in a flat brown box, these are the works that Amazon’s customers demand in largest numbers and which it is happy to supply.
The Testing of Luther Albright is nothing like them, though no doubt it, too, has been delivered to doorsteps by Amazon on occasion. What I find fascinating is how the traces of genre fiction are visible in the novel all the same, if only under the mark of negation. Told in the first person, it recounts the strained but loving relationship of a repressed WASP father to his wife and son. He is a successful civil engineer in Sacramento, a designer of dams, and has built the family home with his own hands. Leaning perhaps too heavily into the analogy between the structural soundness of buildings and of family relationships, the novel has an ominously procedural, even forensic quality, reflecting the quality of mind of the man who narrates it. Luther is not a negligent father or husband, just a painfully self-conscious and overly careful one, so much so that he might be creating the cracks in the foundation of his life it was his whole purpose to avoid.
But no dam breaks and nothing ever crashes to the ground.
Indeed, it can seem that the novel is structured by a systematic refusal of potential melodrama, the kind of thing that would naturally have been at the center of a thriller. He buys his son a nice new car and watches nervously as he drives it a bit carelessly, but no horrific accident ever occurs. His strikingly pretty wife gets a job at a crisis helpline and begins to stay out late. She is acting a bit strange. Is she having an affair? Actually, no, she is just working hard talking people off the ledge. There has been an earthquake near Sacramento. Will the dam he designed break, drowning thousands? No, it holds, despite the best efforts of a local reporter to scare people into thinking it won’t. Best of all: Luther has hidden the gun he inherited from his alcoholic father in a secret compartment in the basement. He worries about it being there. It throbs in his mind like a telltale heart. Chekhov’s law tells us it is required eventually to go off, but it never does.
This is not just literary fiction, but militantly literary fiction, however politely so. It insists on the dramatic tension built into ordinary middle-class life. It is a declaration of autonomy from the ginned-up fakery of genre fiction even as it watches the latter out of the corner of its eye. The same is true of Traps. Told in the present tense, alternating the stories of four quite different women in Southern California and Nevada over the course of a few days, it contrives their convergence at a crucial juncture in each of their lives. It has something of the structure of the modern thriller à la Dan Brown but without the global conspiracies and evil monks and rigorously indifferent prose. Instead it features a subtle background motif of our relation to dogs, those creatures we care for but who can also occasionally be dangerous. It attends to details—“a bulletin board behind her fringed with notes and flyers and a few canceled checks, and on the counter next to the register sit a bowl of peppermint candies, a March of Dimes donation can, and a rack of People magazines, the one with mothers and children on the cover”—with no significance other than as an intensification of what Roland Barthes called the reality effect of realist fiction.
Unless it be those copies of People magazine: one of the four protagonists of Traps, the easiest to connect to the situation of her author, is a skittish movie star and mother who sees her family life become fodder for paparazzi. Another, we learn, is part of the private security team that protects her as one surely protects MacKenzie herself in real life. Against the luridness of Hollywood gossip, the novel is on the side of the sanctity of private histories and intimacies. It finds interest and even some excitement in the difficult work of maternal care, which can turn the traps of life and love into opportunities for growth and renewal. Like Luther Albright, it is a testament to the decisive importance of family. “Family life” being some of the favored territory of literary fiction, much less prevalent as a theme in romance, mystery, fantasy, or science fiction. Appropriately, the novel is dedicated to the author’s parents, and its acknowledgments speak touchingly of the personal importance of her four children and then husband, Jeff.
A man who, meanwhile, is known to have a taste for popular fiction, especially for works of epic science fiction, although he has a documented interest in literary fiction, too. Perhaps he was encouraged in that direction by MacKenzie, who studied creative writing with Toni Morrison at Princeton. He attended the same university but studied computer science. As the author (he would prefer the term “inventor”) of Amazon, he has created something akin to a work of epic science fiction sprung to life. The sprawling logistical networks, state-of-the-art warehouses, superpowered information technologies and interfaces—all of it, to which we might add his personal investment in space travel through his privately held company Blue Origin, an investment said to be running at the rate of about a billion dollars a year. For Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway, Amazon’s “core competence” is really “storytelling,” not the other stuff. In The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, he explains: “Through storytelling, outlining a huge vision, Amazon has reshaped the relation between company and shareholder.” Has it done the same for the relation between writer and reader?
In the early years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos was very much a showman—a goofily ingratiating alternative to Steve Jobs with a notoriously honking laugh. Amazon was something that had to be sold hard to shareholders and customers alike. These days, with nothing left to prove to anyone, his public persona has cooled, his gaze sharpened, the laugh traded in for a quietly bemused smile. As could have been predicted by one of his ex’s novels, with their suspicion of predatory media, he briefly found himself at the center of a “dick pic” blackmail scandal involving his new TV-anchor-cum-helicopter-pilot girlfriend, but handled it with admirably preemptive efficiency before it could really get off the ground. Even so, the distance Jeff has traveled from domestic life with a camera-shy, preppy novelist wife could hardly have been made clearer. From now on, the founder of what once billed itself as Earth’s Biggest Bookstore would himself be living large, larger than life.
In truth, it’s not quite fair to associate all of this with popular genre fiction, only one sort of which runs toward the epic—the big, the bold, the world-forming. Neither is literary fiction always obsessed with the intimate and small, having its own avatars of epic in writers like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Karen Tei Yamashita, and the like. If works like MacKenzie Bezos’s are sometimes held in contempt for their avoidance of politics in favor of domesticity, the epic versions of literary fiction are harder to criticize on those grounds. The dynamic opposition of “more” to “less” and vice versa has been fundamental to the aesthetic development of contemporary fiction in all its forms, high and low. One might speak, for instance, of how the romance novel, that most generic of genres, is all about the forging of the small world of a marriage as a space apart from the alienations of modern life. This is as opposed to the epic sprawl of Game of Thrones, where marriages are wholly public, wholly political, and deadly; or for that matter a science fiction epic like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008), whose concerns are so cosmic as to leave that level of human relations behind altogether.
More and less. If the keynote of Amazon is certainly the first, the second is never far behind as a rejoinder to it in an aesthetic economy shadowing the real one. A real one where, in a sense, every meaningful decision is a matter of having or acquiring or selling or spending more or less of something, including, of course, money. Whether in the form of literary fiction or genre fiction—the first, in the Age of Amazon, being in essence a subset of the second, simply a genre in its own right—the novel will appear in these pages as what I would call an existential scaling device. It is a tool for adjusting our emotional states toward the desired end of happiness, whatever that might look like to a given reader, however complex or simple a state it might be. Fulfilling that task depends upon the rules of genre, upon the implied contract it draws up between author and reader for the reliable delivery of stories of a familiar kind. Genre being a version, within the literary field, of the phenomena of market segmentation and product differentiation. Before that, dating back to antiquity, it was a way of piecing through the different things that stories can do for us and instructing writers to construct them accordingly.
Gravitating as a matter of course toward literary fiction, to the genre that likes to think of itself as nongeneric, scholars of contemporary literature have generally been neglectful of this all-important organizing feature of literary life, and no wonder. When it comes down to it, works of literary fiction are more reliable providers of discussable interpretive problems than works of genre fiction, whose interest often snaps into focus only at the level of the genre as a whole. Coming alive in the classroom, works of literary fiction advertise their interpretability in many ways, not least by refusing to fully subordinate the unit of the sentence, with its potentially artful intricacies, to the purposes of plot. Neither do they forgo thematic subtleties, things you could miss on a quick read. That, paradoxically, is their generic appeal.
To be sure, individual works of genre fiction have been known to generate volumes of learned commentary. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are works of apparently inexhaustible literary interest, however historically belated their recognition as masterpieces by scholars and other arbiters of aesthetic rank. Furthermore, if it were ever really the case, the days are long past when one could safely assume that any given new work of genre fiction must be artistically unsophisticated. Genre categories have by now found themselves internally differentiated into more or less “literary” instances appealing to relatively distinct if no doubt overlapping audiences. Ironically, this is true even of the category of literary fiction, whose more routinely sentimental examples are no more likely to find themselves the objects of scholarly attention than their more luridly generic brethren. They might even find themselves categorized as something else altogether, as “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” or other offshoot of romance.
But artistic complexity of the kind congenial to the classroom is not necessarily what readers of genre fiction require. Just as important, frequently enough, is the work’s reliability as a competent new execution of a certain generic narrative program. That is where it falls in line with the ways and means of Amazon as a paragon of reliable service, and why genre fiction is the heart of the matter of literature in the Age of Amazon. Only as it were accidentally, because it is something a number of readers still prefer, does the company serve up the dignified delights of literary fiction.
Positioning literature lower on the hierarchy of human needs than we might like, putting books on the virtual shelf alongside other staples one might order from the Everything Store, Amazon is not so much anti- as omni-literary, making an epic narrative out of the speedy satisfaction of popular want. What literature loses in that transaction—too much, no doubt, for scholars to accept without a fight—it partly gets back as an endorsement of its everyday necessity. For whole cultures as well as for individuals, stories are of prime importance, and not just on special occasions. They are what guide our purposeful and pleasurable movement through time. Certainly, they have been necessary to Amazon, whose rise as a titan of contemporary commerce would have been unthinkable without the inspiration provided by works of fiction and the market opportunity presented by books.
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. He previously worked for the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.
Excerpt from Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl, published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Mark McGurl.
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