The Novel in the Age of Amazon and the Commercialization of Culture

by Jing Huang

Does a free-market foster or undermine our creativity? How does the market impact cultural creations? Recall this Book’s recent episode made me think of these questions. In the episode, Mark McGurl, the Albert L. Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University (Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon) discussed how Amazon’s commitment to customer service influences the book industry and the production of literature. McGurl studies Amazon as a social-historical phenomenon that epitomizes the logic of the service economy. McGurl introduces Amazon’s history of bookselling, Jeffrey Bezos’ affinity with books, the company’s literary culture, and its approach to literature, which turns fiction into a form of customer service. McGurl uses a multi-scalar framework that delineates how phenomena are constituted in different institutional environments at various levels of analysis. This allows him to show how Amazon’s success, along with its influence on publishing and literary history, is embedded in a broader background related to the rise of the service economy in the past several decades. McGurl names such background “the age of Amazon.”

One theme that emerged in the podcast that I, as a cultural sociology student, found particularly intriguing, was the moral imperatives related to the commodification of culture. I include the book under the category of cultural artifacts that carry the essence of human intellectual endeavors. In extending the conversation beyond the book industry, I pay less attention to medium and content specificity and culture’s relationship to class. Nonetheless, a generalized discussion about cultural productions may help capture similarities, contrasts, and contradictions in the moral messages implied in perspectives regarding the broader relationships between the market and culture and on the market’s effects on human creativity.

I will discuss three related perspectives: first, culture as unsaleable; second, culture as more saleable; third, selling the culture for the sake of preservation. “Culture as unsaleable” takes an anti-market tone, while the latter two are more pro-market in their moral outlooks. I illustrate how, while some American scholars criticize the market’s effects on culture, which is considered as “unsellable”, culture has a surplus-value that makes it more sellable. Moreover, in China, some professionals are trying to sell culture for the sake of preservation, stressing the market’s liberating power in incentivizing creativity. Regardless of their different attitudes toward the market, the three perspectives all consider certain cultural forms and artifacts as the embodiment of refined human intelligence detached from interest- or power-seeking intentions. The over-involvement of the market or the state can threaten culture’s autonomy and authenticity.

Culture as unsaleable
“Culture as unsaleable” perspective is based on the perceived distinctiveness of certain cultural artifacts. McGurl made the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, stating that literary fiction is becoming genre fiction in the age of Amazon. Literature used to occupy a higher intellectual position than other fictions, and consequently can be special and “less saleable” compared to genre fictions that are more popular among the masses.

Another analytical distinction that appeared in the podcast that, to some degree, parallels the distinction between literary and genre fiction is the argument that books themselves are a special unsaleable commodity. Laura J. Miller, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Brandeis , unpacks this notion in her book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Bookselling in America became rationalized and standardized in the 20th century as chain stores monopolized the market. Miller illustrates how independent booksellers and book professionals resist the commercialism of the book trade and the managerial logic of the chains. Instead, they believe that books are imbued with a humanistic moral purpose beyond the market logic of profitmaking. This makes books distinct from other commodities, even “sacred”. Those book professionals assert that the free-market competition, along with the mass marketing it brought about, undermined the distinctiveness of the book.

We can also find this kind of stance, which emphasizes the market’s negative effects on culture, in the writings of Frankfurt school scholars, such as Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno states that the increasingly professionalized and standardized culture industries in the early 20th century America imposed the market logic on the unsaleable art and culture, making them streamlined products deprived of individual creativity. I wonder what Adorno and the book professionals in Miller’s book would say about Amazon’s approaches to publishing in the era of the post-industrial service economy, almost a century after culture became mass-marketed. What are the differences and similarities between the Fordist and the Amazonian approaches to cultural productions? Did the market’s effects change across the two eras? Was the change in degree or quality?

“At the Strand,” by Jenny Kroik. The New Yorker Cover, Nov 13, 2017.

Culture as More Saleable & Selling the Culture for the Sake of Preservation
On the other hand, there might be a sweet partnership between culture and the market: culture makes certain commodities more saleable. As mentioned in the podcast, cultural sites such as bookstores and museums can fetishize and attach a “surplus-value” to certain gift shop souvenirs, such as canvas totes and specialty chocolates, making them appear fancier, attracting a specific class of people who appreciate culture’s value. Such value is sometimes produced by the cultural industry and protected by legal structures such as intellectual property (IP) rights. Whereas out of the culture industry, businesses can engage in culturally laden designing, branding, and marketing strategies to put auras on their products and services.

While culture’s surplus-value is successfully extracted in developed countries with established cultural industries, mature markets, and legal frameworks, in my hometown China, under its post-socialist context, some cultural elites are trying to attach market value to certain non-mainstream cultural activities in order to preserve them. Such as theatre, traditional, and folk arts, which rely on a limited amount of state funding, a handful of patrons, and the passion and voluntary efforts of the artists. While China has undergone a process of privatization after the economic reform, it is argued that the cultural realm remains “under-commercialized.” Therefore, some individuals advocate fostering self-sustainable industries (e.g., like Broadway for theatre arts) to feed the struggling artists; commercializing and massifying culture is thus portrayed as a moralistic endeavor that will preserve and promote certain cultural forms that may otherwise die out. Moreover, there is a popular discourse suggesting that the government’s overstepping into the cultural realm and censorship are the very reason that hinders cultural commercialization and undermines individual creativity. A freer market, then, would have a nurturing effect on culture.

Folk artists draw paintings at Weita Village of Gaoqiao Township in Ansai District, Yan’an City, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Liu Xiao, Oct. 20, 2018. Xinhuanet.

In different contexts, the commercialization of culture can be seen as a constraining structure that undermines individual agency, or otherwise, as an enabling power that evokes creativity and preserves humanity. Despite their distinct arguments, the anti- and pro-marketers discussed above all have a justified moral cause, which is based on the distinctiveness of the culture. It is through the inherent virtue and indifference to profit and power, certain cultural artifacts become different, sacred, and unsalable, or more saleable. For better or worse, such distinctiveness might matter less in the empire of Amazon where cultural and literal creations truly become “indifferent” products and services that are equally saleable, among many others, only cater to different market segments.

Mentioned in the blog

Mark McGurl, “Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon”

Mark McGurl, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon

Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption

Adorno, Theodor, Prisms

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