There is so much that is novelistic about Amazon. Having amassed the volumes of power and capital formerly reserved for sovereign nation-states, and having fully realized the diffuse postwar project of subsuming information technologies into commodity markets, the retail giant/cloud-computing host/television and movie studio/book publisher/government contractor/infrastructure-reshaping logistics network seems like it should be the subject, and not merely the distributor, of systems novels.
Among the dizzyingly many claims made in Everything and Less, Mark McGurl’s new study of “fiction in the age of Amazon,” is an argument that the platform has been a profoundly narrative project from the first. “The relation of Amazon to fiction, to story, is more than one of convenience, going to the core of its corporate identity,” McGurl writes: “the company sees itself in terms of an unfolding epic narrative of astounding achievement it can’t find enough ways to narrate.” From its origins as a bookseller to Jeff Bezos’s bizarre and corny decision to hire the writer Neal Stephenson as the first employee of his space-exploration venture, “the entire company appears animated, at times, by the spirit of the epic science fiction, a genre of which Bezos is known to be an ardent fan.”
Starting from the premise that Amazon is the world’s largest incubator of literary life, McGurl advances a theory of contemporary fiction as a product of platform capitalism and an expression of its animating contradictions. Centrally, he identifies Bezos’s famed obsession with his customers as one principle that fiction—at least, fiction published and distributed via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon’s self-publishing apparatus—has come to absorb. Amazon’s flamboyant disregard for labor has largely occurred under the diktat to perform “customer service” as efficiently as possible—with the customer replacing the laborer, or even the factory owner, as the primary figure around whom post-deindustrial commerce revolves. Likewise, argues McGurl, literary production itself has been reconfigured as a service, one shaped heavily by consumer demand. Within the KDP marketplace in particular, the self-published author—now responsible for her own digital sales, marketing, and branding, not to mention the more essential mandate to produce literature that will meet her readers’ standards—becomes something like an entrepreneur, a relation that figures “the author as servant, as server, and service provider; the reader as consumer, yes, but more precisely as customer.”
McGurl’s larger intervention, which is sort of too wild and ambitious to get into the weeds of here, involves reading a staggering amount of self-published KDP fiction and identifying therein inventive encodings of the platform’s own economic and political conditions, e.g. the emergent genre of the self-published “billionaire romance” as an articulation of Bezos’s total transformation of domestic desire and fulfillment. These readings—which cast Amazon-published literature as an expression of a kind of Amazonian political unconscious—are persuasive to varying degrees, but what the book doesn’t really address (aside from a brief treatment of Heike Geissler’s novel Seasonal Associate) is literary fiction that takes Amazon as its explicit subject, rather than as a supply-side constraint that emerges at the plot level only latently. That might be because there aren’t very many novels about Amazon yet, although I’ve been really hoping somebody might write a good one. The industrial era had its Norris and Dreiser and Sinclair, and the American postwar had its great novels about missile defense—surely our present moment of outrageous income inequality and internet novels demands some fiction about the internet’s most monolithic private infrastructure. (There does exist a growing corpus of great nonfiction about the company: this spring’s Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America establishes its author, Alec MacGillis, alongside McGurl as one of Amazon’s finest McCritics.) But if, as McGurl argues, every novelist is already to some extent an entrepreneur, the question arises: who could successfully novelize the worst and biggest entrepreneurial venture in the world?
The arc of our entrepreneur’s life is relatively well known. He came of age in the 1980s, a bracing time for the American economic mood. His business aspirations took shape in the next decade, after a much-mythologized cross-country trip landed him permanently on the west coast. It was there that, buoyed by inchoate literary aspirations and an injection of cash from his upper-middle-class parents, he conceived of his initial business plan: an innovative new platform that would, for years, fail to turn a profit. In any case, he got big fast. The straightforward literature-focused enterprise he founded at that time has since bloomed into a sprawling empire of more or less unrelated initiatives, each more ludicrously ambitious than the last. Between projects, our entrepreneur started a family with an obscure novelist from San Francisco. His zeal for growth, for attaching his name to visionary projects, has remained central to his mythology.
Maybe it was predictable that Amazon would eventually capture the attention of our entrepreneur, Dave Eggers. Eggers shares with Bezos what the editors of this magazine once called a “genius for creating institutions of a less elitist literary culture”—which, if McGurl’s book proves anything, is what Amazon ultimately is, albeit at an order of magnitude that makes the McSweeney’s–McSweeney’s–Believer–826 National ecosystem look like a twee, rigorously serifed dollhouse storefront in a city otherwise zoned for super-skyscrapers. Despite the inconceivable difference in scale between their companies, politics, and private lives (both men are members of the 1 percent, but only one of them is richer than Iceland, Tunisia, Jamaica, and Estonia combined), Eggers and Bezos share, too, what Brad Stone, in his 2021 business history of Amazon, identifies as a preoccupation with “omnipotence.”
Eggers is hardly a systems novelist: his literary sensibilities, like his career, tend toward the monomaniacal. His writing in the past two decades has involved a suspiciously prolific series of smug morality tales fictionalizing or nonfictionalizing real people—a heroic Sudanese refugee, a heroic Yemeni coffee importer later accused of racketeering, Donald Trump—as well as novels about loners in perilous circumstances. He has also written children’s books, left-of-center comedic op-eds, and articles for the New Yorker about human rights and how much he loves wine. But evident throughout his literary output, as in his incoherent and self-congratulatory apparatus of publishing programs, bookselling platforms, and children’s literacy programs, is an ongoing fascination with epic, world-conquering ambition. The characters in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was embarrassed to reread, are “sure that we are on to something epochal . . . sure that we speak for others, that we speak for millions”; in his 2006 foreword to Infinite Jest, Eggers lingers, enviously and, I think, not un-Bezosishly, on Wallace’s all-seeing book as an example of the “human possibility [for] leaps in science and athletics and art and thought.” “Perhaps no other company of our time works so openly under the sign of totality,” writes McGurl of Amazon, and a reader might hazard that few working literary novelists match Eggers’s commitment to that ambition, either.
The Every, Eggers’s new novel about a destructive online megaretailer, contains no sentence as dramatic as the throwaway McGurl line above. Published this fall by McSweeney’s and Vintage, the book is noteworthy less for its writing—which, if I were an Amazon reviewer, I would give two stars—than for its distribution gimmick: the hardcover can’t be purchased on Amazon, and McSweeney’s has heavily publicized its availability at independent bookstores, where the book can be found in a “dizzying, ever-expanding, and entirely randomized array of cover variations.”
The Every’s premise is that an online social media giant/search engine—the titular institution of Eggers’s widely loathed 2013 dystopian parable The Circle—has merged with “an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle.” The resulting conglomerate, The Every, is a sinister kind of hybrid Amazon-Facebook-Google-Apple concern, a true “everything store” through which the vast majority of humanity’s commercial, social, and civic business is routed, increasingly mandatorily. The novel’s protagonist, a plucky, tech-skeptical ex–park ranger (!) named Delaney, sets out to get a job at The Every, with the intention of eventually destroying from within “the most reckless and dangerous corporate entity ever conjured.” (The company is described frequently in such terms, both by Delaney and in the novel’s third-person narration.) Delaney, who gets in the door by branding herself as an aspiring thought-leader, is the novel’s mouthpiece of liberal reason, and much of the book’s heavy-handed commentary on Amazon unfolds via the contradictions between what Delaney says out loud at work—preposterous and reactionary things about free markets, mostly—and her free indirect discourse. It’s through the latter that we learn that she disapproves viciously of the company’s relentless investment in surveillance; she sees it as a monopoly, inspired by a radical antitrust scholar she studied with in college; and she holds it responsible for the bankruptcy of her parents’ mom-and-pop store, which folded after The Every acquired a grocery franchise called FolkFoods.
That last might seem a little on the nose, but, OK, so far this all sounds compelling enough: a kind of Antitrust-style corporate thriller, one of two genres that, per McGurl, have flourished in the Amazon self-publishing marketplace. (The other is the romance: an appropriately intimate generic structure, McGurl argues, for a company that has, more than any other contemporary corporation, met its customers in their homes.) Unfortunately, Eggers’s novel can’t quite live up to the genre conventions it self-consciously assigns itself—which it’s constantly doing, as in “Delaney planned to examine the machine, test for weaknesses, and blow the place up. She would Snowden it, Manning it. She would feel it out and Felt it.” Once inside The Every, Delaney’s role looks less like Deep Throat than like a salt for dumb projects. Unlike seemingly everyone else who works at the company (whom Eggers seems to relish insulting; he lingers on long, aimless descriptions of The Every rank-and-file’s impoverished vocabularies, bad breath, alcoholism, and generally repellent personalities), Delaney is full of original ideas—initiatives so strategically bad and invasive that, she hopes, The Every’s user base will eventually leave the platform in disgust. She spends most of the novel floating around the campus’s dystopian and half-assedly named R&D labs (“Algo Mas”), cafeterias (“Noshville”), and employee housing pods (“EveryoneIn Hausing,” which doesn’t even make sense) and feeding terrible nonsense to her colleagues.
Like many forms of accelerationism, her plan doesn’t work out. Delaney’s ideas—an app that quantifies the strength of users’ friendships; another that measures sexual satisfaction; a compulsory program that records, via smart speakers, all conversations within a user’s home and monitors them for indications of domestic abuse—are beloved by her idiotic coworkers and, once implemented, by the company’s entire, similarly idiotic user base, which is to say nearly everyone on earth. “She had a perverse gift,” writes Eggers, “for conjuring ideas that sounded terrible to her but tickled the rest of humanity.”
Apps that evaluate social life, platforms that encourage citizens to tattle on each other: if these don’t quite sound like the purview of a behemoth superstore-slash-logistics network, even a wildly privacy-violating and invasive one, that’s because they’re not really. It’s clear from his distribution strategy that Eggers is working through a set of very specific anxieties about Amazon—reasonable anxieties, to be sure, for someone whose craft depends on the company’s massive reach even as his own publishing ventures are threatened by it. But his shots at the platform, which is really one of the largest and easiest targets for critique in the history of capitalism, rarely seem precisely calibrated. What they are is sanctimonious and long. Whole chapters are dedicated to distended satires of corporate culture, with The Every workplace characterized as fussy and paralyzingly woke. Employees are chastised for bringing non-biodegradable materials onto the company’s campus; they live in terror of accidentally saying sexist stuff, because their smartphones are always listening for hints of workplace harassment; workers trip over themselves to shame and cancel their insufficiently politically correct colleagues. There is no workplace on earth that maintains such perfect and stifling politics, but of course Amazon, especially, is not it: it goes without saying that the company is the very opposite of civically or environmentally responsible; far from banning non-biodegradables, Amazon’s most densely employed workplaces famously involve a lot of plastic bottles filled with workers’ urine. Still, the baggy descriptions of The Every’s militant and brainwashed staff, and of the moral panics they’re gripped by, go on forever.
Occasionally, clumsily, the novel’s aperture widens. It’s the necessary work of dystopian fiction to establish the terms of its world’s damage, but Eggers, despite naming his narrator after one of sci-fi’s great world-builders, seems to find the task especially laborious. In haphazard declarations, the narrative zooms way out, offering heated, low-resolution accounts of “humanity” as though observing it by delivery drone: “What these companies had done was nothing less than radical speciation. In a few short decades they’d transformed proud and free animals—humans—and made them into endlessly acquiescent dots on screens.” Or: “The Every, with the wholesale complicity of humanity, wanted a different world, a watched world without risk or surprise or nuance or solitude.” This is, it must be said, an extravagantly strange and anti-novelistic approach to narrative omniscience. Did Eggers mean to write an op-ed, instead of a novel? Often these passages function to handwave away the existence of the sorts of civic infrastructures that might still, in the real world, pose some inconvenience to a terrifying monopoly: “There was no local news, there were no journalists—all of that wiped out by social media, the advertising apocalypse and, more than anything else, the war on subjectivity,” we learn at one point. A more artful storyteller might have paused here to narrate exactly what “the war on subjectivity” entailed, but this sentence flashes by as an aside in a longer scene. An entire “advertising apocalypse” passed over in one parenthetical phrase! It’s a mode that reaches for the gestural breeziness of parable, but reads instead like Substack.
Does The Every’s badness reflect anything about Amazon beyond what McGurl, in a reading of a KDP novel about an Amazon-like megaretailer, memorably calls “critique by sheer ludicrousness”? Eggers takes Amazon most seriously in his consideration of monopoly power, which forms the basis of Delaney’s initial critiques of the company. Early on in the book we learn that, as part of her quest to infiltrate The Every and cast herself as a palatable employee, Delaney has written a widely read paper about “the folly of antitrust actions” against the company:
She coined the term Benevolent Market Mastery for the seamless symbiosis between company and customer, a consumer’s perfect state of being, where all desires were served efficiently and at the lowest price. Fighting such a thing was against the will of the people, and if regulators were at odds with what the people wanted, what was the point? She posited that if a company knows all and knows best, shouldn’t they be allowed to improve our lives, unimpeded?
This is almost interesting—more novels should invent macroeconomic concepts—but Delaney’s homespun theory functions, I think, as a kind of skeleton key for the novel’s flawed and ultimately self-negating understanding of Amazon. “Benevolent market mastery” sounds like a Friedmanian euphemism for what Lina Khan has more persuasively termed “Amazon’s antitrust paradox,” in which—in an inversion of monopolies’ classical potential to inflate prices by controlling supply—Amazon has instead kept its prices artificially low, maintaining a focus on consumer welfare even while behaving anticompetitively in virtually every other possible way. As Khan and other critics have argued, the savvy new Amazon-led model for economic monopoly is the strategic result of its shareholders’ decision to temporarily sacrifice a profit motive in favor of rapid growth, aided by four decades of right-wing deregulatory policymaking.
In Eggers’s allegorical telling, though, the rise of a global retail monopoly is a story not of policy or economics but of ethics, of acquiescing free will. It’s the customer, rather than the shareholder or the CEO, who is the ultimate actor in The Every’s antitrust paradox, aiding the company’s market takeover by the sheer “will of the people.” (“The Final Days of Free Will” is the book’s thudding subtitle.) And if users are not just willing but insatiably eager to hand over their data and decision-making, The Every becomes simply an aggregate expression of the populace’s dumbest desires, a frothing historical force that Delaney, our anticorporate hero, is powerless to stop. As her professor laments in one of the book’s final scenes:
I didn’t quite see the complicity coming. The motivations of the companies, yes, to consolidate and measure and profit from the data, I saw that. But the everyday human side, no. Our overwhelming preference to cede all decisions to machines, to replace nuance with numbers . . . It surpassed all my nightmares.
We don’t have to read especially closely to understand that this amounts to a bottom-up critique of a dramatically top-down transformation of the rules of capital, or that it sounds like Eggers is hanging a familiar moral panic on a basically dishonest subject. It’s evident that he takes issue less with Amazon as such than with the 200 million or so complicit and unthinking people who use the platform and work for it—and with a vague, incoherent constellation of litigious and snowflakey behaviors that user-driven social media platforms (among which Amazon, for all its industrial plenitude, does not technically number) may or may not be accelerating. What’s remarkable, instead, is that by pointing its smug finger at us, the complacent reader-consumer, the novel begins to sound a lot like . . . Amazon itself! Here, encoded within the novel’s warped internal political economy, emerges a final convergence between Eggers and Bezos: a literalized obsession with the customer as both narrative phenomenon and market force, a figure who could put a stop to Amazon’s dominance if only they could resist the great deals.
That’s the choice that The Every’s Amazon-avoiding distribution campaign asks us to make. Before subjecting herself to a scattershot polemic about the awfulness of Amazon and also cancel culture, the Eggers customer can absolve herself by buying the book the old-school way, in a randomized colorway from an indie. One way to read the novel, in the end, is as a hugely effortful advertisement for independent booksellers in general and for McSweeney’s in particular. (Like many McSweeney’s productions, it’s peppered with sub-metafictional reminders of its own status as a book, or more accurately as a product to be purchased: Delaney, at one point, learns about how The Every has disrupted literature by collecting data about readers’ preferences; the algorithms, she’s told, have concluded that “no book should be over 500 pages, and if it is over 500, we found that the absolute limit to anyone’s tolerance is 577.” Guess how long The Every is?) In both Eggers’s plot and in his marketing strategy, individual book-buying practices are imagined as the ultimate instrument for defeating the world-historical antagonist that Amazon is—which maybe could have been the case, if Amazon had slowed its rapacious mission creep sometime around the year Might Magazine shuttered.
A good contemporary systems novel about Amazon will come along eventually. It will understand that Amazon is nothing more and nothing less than a monopoly, employing new strategies for old aims. It will be distinguished not by scoldy culture-war critiques or ponderous dystopian tropes, but by a commitment to describing Amazon’s staggering—heartbreaking, even—innovations and scale. The Every is not that novel.
The real Amazon, of course, exists someplace between the evil but defeatable bookseller imagined by Dave Eggers, independent publishing entrepreneur, and the world-destroying monolith conjured by Dave Eggers, contemporary American novelist. How should a responsible customer respond to this conjuncture? By not buying books—or anything else—from Amazon, sure. A responsible book publisher could, for its part, bravely refuse to sell its products on the platform. But as Eggers knows, perhaps in spite of himself, neither party is incentivized to, and neither does. Even Vintage, a mere six weeks after The Every’s hardcover publication, made audiobook, Kindle, and paperback editions of the book available on Amazon. You can buy it on there for cheap now, if for some reason you want to.