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.”

Continue reading “The Novel in the Age of Amazon and the Commercialization of Culture”

67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon (JP, EF, 11/4)

RtB Book Industry month kicks off with a simple question: What do you make of Amazon? Is it the new Sears Roebuck? A terrifying monopoly threat? Satisfaction (a paperback in your mailbox, a Kindle edition on your tablet) just a click away? John and Elizabeth speak with Stanford English prof Mark McGurl, whose previous books include the pathbreaking The Program Era.

Mark faces that question squarely in his terrific new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon: if you want to know even more about it, check out the NY Times review by RTB’s own book-history maven, star of RTB 46, Leah Price. Mark ponders when service became an idiom for the relationship between writer and reader and how strong a claim he is willing to make about Amazon’s impact on the modern novel (pretty strong!). Finally, he tackles the key question: is the genre of “Adult Diaper Baby Love” (a breakout hit in Kindle sales; google it at your peril!) the perfect metaphor for Amazon’s effort to soothe, pacify and succor its infantilized consumer-base?

Mentioned in the episode:

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

Public libraries going trashy or classy: John wrote an article about this topic, praising a compelling database, “What Middletown Read

Recallable Books

Walter Tevis, Mockingbird (1980)

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1853)

Anthony Trollope, The Warden (1855)

Listen and Read

68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon Recall This Book

Book Industry Month continues with a memory-lane voyage back to a beloved early RtB episode. This conversation with Martin Puchner about the very origins of writing struck us as perfect companion to Mark McGurl's wonderful insights (in RtB 67, published earlier this month) about the publishing industry's in 2021, or as Mark tells it, the era of "adult diaper baby love." Aside from being a fabulous conversation about Martin's wonderful history of book production through the ages (The Written World) this episode brings back happy memories of Elizabeth and John piling their guests into a cozy sound booth at Brandeis, the kind of place that's utterly taboo in Pandemic America.So travel with us back to 2019 for a close encounter with the epic of Gilgamesh. The three friends discuss the different stages of world writing–from the time of the scribes to the time of great teachers like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus Christ, who had a very complicated relationship to writing. In Recallable Books, Martin recommends the fan fiction website Wattpad; Elizabeth recommends "No Reservations: Narnia," in which Anthony Bourdain goes through the wardrobe. John feints at recommending Dennis Tenen's book on the writing within coding before recommending the Brautigan Library. Come for the discussion of writing, stay for the impressions of Gollum! Discussed in this episode: The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History and Civilization, Martin Puchner Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, David Ferry Wattpad "No Reservations: Narnia," Edonohana Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation, David Tenen The Brautigan Library Episode transcript available here: Episode 6 Puchner 3.28.19 Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
  1. 68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon
  2. 67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon
  3. 66 On Multi-Species Community: A Critical Conversation with Patricia Alvarez Astacio (Gina T, John P)
  4. 65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)
  5. 64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth

Transcript available here

(or Visit the Recall this Book Transcript page)

Upcoming: Mark’s discussion of the history of books and book publishing inspired next week’s blog post: tune in next Thursday to find out more! It also sent us back to the archives for a golden RTB oldie starring Martin Puchner. That will appear, freshly rewrapped for the occasion, just before Thanksgiving.