Genre Wars, Amazon, and the Market for Heart: Where Do We Go From Here?

In the past year in books, two conversations made a descent into debate—one about genre, and the other about Amazon—without necessarily being cast as two sides of the same story. It is a portrait of ...

In the past year in books, two conversations made a descent into debate—one about genre, and the other about Amazon—without necessarily being cast as two sides of the same story. It is a portrait of the writer c. 2015, who faces new realities, a multiverse of post-apocalypses, and a punishing numbers game. In a sense it is the story behind all our stories, about what the market has borne and will bear.

Imagine a world featuring pubescent protagonists and/or strange creatures in a magical kingdom. Now imagine that I suggest to the author of the book containing this world that it is “genre.” He objects; he doesn’t believe in “genre.” He proclaims those boundaries to be arbitrary. He advocates genrelessness, an undelineated communion between language, narrative, and reader. It seems everybody agrees with him—his point is more compelling than mine. Picture the eyeglasses, the rumpled sweaters of our friends and colleagues who write about their own experiences refracted through the lens of literature in the most precise and compelling language they can summon. I want to point out that he had written a plainly-worded, sexless, sober tale of kids whose messianic complexes prove wholly justified, a fantasy world governed by laws of nature that may have been arrived at by flipping through the pages of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook.1 I refrain. He had made a high-handed aesthetic argument. I had tried to box him in with a buzzword. How overcome with self-respect would I have been if I’d asked: Hadn’t he written the material to be maximally marketable? Though we can all imagine what he would have said. That he was an artist. He had written for money.

If we want a poetic answer for what the novel is, we should ask a critic.2 But let’s cut to the chase. The novel as it is bought and sold is: thriller, women’s fiction, paranormal romance, upmarket, sci-fi, fantasy, YA, and new adult (which is to say, YA). This is the market.3 For less commercially successful “literary” lit,4 these are anxious times. The “wars” over genre were a response to a year where publishing’s breadwinners for the most part wrote it, YA especially. The debate is about value, respectability. So what it’s really about is nothing; “I like what I like,” vs. “I only like what I think is good.” Joshua Rothman, on the New Yorker Page-Turner blog, before advocating a more nuanced classification system5 rooted in the history of the novel, asks, “Why not just let books be books?” I believe the answer, if I may, is that we’re human beings, and we are really, really pissed. When we curl up in bed to enjoy Book Three, the very idea that someone else did not enjoy it fills us with disgust. When we switch on the lamp, find the place-holding ribbon, and give our wineglass an aerating swirl, only to hear the distant din of another vulgar, nation-sweeping spectacle, we taste bile—and hints of fresh-cut grass, blackberry, Cornish oak.

By now the Genre Wars telegraph a lot of moves; among them, defining “page-turning” as an inherent quality of skillful prose (the pages fluttering past, like fun wings).6 In Adelle Waldman’s recent defense of the novel against David Shields’ bogeyman “lyric essay,” she makes good points about perspective and dramatic irony,7 arguing that the indispensability of the novel lies with plot—an oft refought battle in the Genre Wars is over the hoary bifurcation of pleasure: reading for plot or for art. Thing is, claims that any genre is more promising in terms of plot, “page-turning” narrative momentum, or truth are entirely semantic.8 This is the logic of the secret formula, the one true blueprint of story. Whether the traditional literary novel, the YA franchise installment, the reported story crafted in the style of “narrative nonfiction” or the more personal essay—they all have structure. At the same time, we should not allow these Joseph Campbell-epigraph screenwriting manuals, with their primordial heroes and journeys, to tempt us with the compelling falsity that we all mean the same thing by storytelling. Who hasn’t been made sleepy by the purportedly thrilling? Found fantasy monotonous? The sexlessness of YA is paralleled by the lame sexfulness of commuter erotica. Entries in these fashions may bear a lot in common with books but they are in essence reads on the market.

The debate is about value, respectability. So what it’s really about is nothing.

Ruth Graham’s “Against YA” was clickbait pure and simple. The idea that adult YA readers “should be embarrassed” was met predictably by the pro-YA camp’s dug-in sentiment that their reading habits were boldly unconventional. There were more elegant exceptions taken. In The Paris Review, Sarah Burnes wrote, “When I read YA and children’s fiction, I feel knit together with the person I was and who I am, still, becoming.” Nevertheless, one of the most common explanations of the YA phenomenon is some variation on “YA is a marketing term.” It’s an expression of grown-up savvy—can you believe the jargon the suits upstairs are using? The position is vague, eliding, if not absolving, just how often YA is written in the spirit of commerce, taken up because of how likely it is to succeed. It is a “marketing term” for a market. Exploiting the particular, idolatrous way a teenager becomes a fan was YA’s founding mission. The up-all-night enjoyment, the becoming-ness of it all, are happy contingencies. A teen has all their parent’s money without any of the adult discrimination9—an incredible opportunity. Though it might not have edges to grab ahold of, genre is quite real. And a hero quest threads itself through every variation: We are always being told the story of money. The only ways in which the boundaries of genre aren’t arbitrary are those which money enforces.

Essayistic confessions bending into fiction and back might make for a worthy diversion, but the future is one where everything is as perfectly marketable as dystopian YA10 is right now. The assumption of the “Long Tail” of the internet was that marginal concerns would flourish behind a chart-topping head. Despite making all kinds of intuitive sense, the internet has in many cases led to a further concentration of power.11 While genre boundaries may be complexly fluid, genre fiction is winning the market in a rout. Amazon flatters itself as a champion of books, but as a company it is single-issue market share. The curiosity of the nerd12 having this bully for an ally is such that an avowed preference for “storytelling” also serves as a justification for iron-fist capitalism. Could it be that the end is nigh, and that “liking a good story” is playing a part in bringing it about?

The victory of Amazon’s algorithm will be to render itself futile. Everyone will already like what everyone else likes. Liam shuddered at the thought. Ethan and Jayden shuddered—they always did what faction leader Liam did. The shuddering spread like wildfire, to Sophia and Emma and Madison, who all shuddered. All of a sudden there were lights—they’re coming.

At the most recent National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nebula Award winner of a generation long, long ago and genre-transcender extraordinaire, saw the situation with striking moral clarity. “Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.” Perhaps the edited version would have been, simply: We need writers.

In a scene from The Everything Store, Jeff Bezos is overwhelmed with excitement by “Similarities,” Amazon’s first purchase-history matching system. He is over the moon about things being like other things. Bezos has a vision of sameness. And he has a ready quip for bookish journalists: “Amazon isn’t happening to the book business—the future is happening to the book business.” It’s a clever ribbing of technophobes, but notice the slight rhetorical looseness—the equivalence of Amazon and the future itself. David Shaw, co-originator of the “Everything Store”13 concept, summed it up: “The idea was always that someone would be allowed to make a profit as an intermediary.” Inspiring stuff. Bezos has since gussied up Amazon’s raison as a devotion to customer, but this was the unadulterated idea: Amazon was created to make money instead of other companies making money.

Amazon’s business practices—harrying suppliers, predatory pricing14—have been well-chronicled. Its effective embargo on Hachette was over agency pricing. But for many publishing insiders and spectators alike, the issue seemed to be existential.15 Franklin Foer is not optimistic if it turns out that publishers can no longer offer the traditional advance: “This upfront money is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism. Advances make it financially viable for a writer to commit years of work to a project.” But the technical points about advances and agency pricing—time-honored quirks of Big Five publishing—obscure their most crucial role: choosing for any reason other than those driven by the market.16 The strong argument for “curation” knows no bound. We could have humans do it, or have robots push other kinds of writing out of the algorithmic loop.17

The “Everything Store” comes at the expense of anything else. The Amazon model is to rank, to compare, and to boldly same-day ship only those books that sell best. It tries to remove the guesswork from what people want (to buy, but is there a difference?). It leverages data in making that market more efficient and more precise. Enter genre. It was on the shoulders of genre fiction that E-books grabbed market share, while effete hardcover sales slipped and yet more brick and mortar stores closed.18 Amazon accounts for 65 percent of all e-books sold, putting genre in an even better position to run up the score. To provide some upbeat gloss for its stone-cold market logic, Amazon has recruited writers—many newly self-published, primarily genre—with a genuine sense of grievance. Together, they propose a meritocracy of sales. In this new environment, a writer’s role is to meet demand.

Writers’ message to themselves is the same as Amazon’s message to mom and pop retailers and publishers: do or die.

There seems to be no recourse at this point but to recommend an ethical position. Anti-monopsony, anti-homogeny, anti-commercialism: Against Amazon! Thing is, ethics are essentially unpopular. Give us pleasure or give us death. And wouldn’t a boycott of Amazon—where stuff is so, so cheap—on behalf of highfalutin’ literary concerns19 be just as welcome as a pledge drive, someone on the street asking if we have a minute for the environment? Goods on Amazon cost less. Ethics is the racialized hierarchy of polished white rice. It’s a “No Blood for Oil” button worn on a talk show. No makeup. The fastidious avoidance of a convenience such as Amazon is a juice cleanse on a track bike. Ethics are associated with elite proselytizers and not the causes themselves. At the moment, ethics are fairly synonymous with gluten.

The writer herself is not fundamentally so ethical a creature. The bottom dollar has its own kind of authenticity. While we all could agree that no one likes a sellout, in the pricy real estate markets we tend to prefer there is no greater dignity than for a working writer to do anything for money. Ideally—for the benefits, and the minimum of hours spent, in the strictest sense, working—they’d teach what they hardly believe can be taught. Writers’ message to themselves is the same as Amazon’s message to mom and pop retailers and publishers: do or die. Writers want readers. They loathe anonymity. They want no part of this high tower. They know that if they’re fortunate enough to be paid, they could hardly ask that they be paid only for their best work. The plight of the working writer is therefore not as revolutionary as it is compartmental.

There’s a legitimate concern that when the market polarizes completely only the wealthy will be able to write.20 Ours is an aspirational country, and I worry more about the rich-at-heart, who see themselves as having no choice but to try to compete in a context where the only thing to learn is that winning is everything. They’re out there, all over the boards: the very, very many not-so-great, applying, submitting, and contributing hastily-written 100-page novels to a glutted market.

If the aesthetic borders of genre are unclear, if the ethical situation is muddled, is it fair to make a simple distinction: Is what we’re reading written for money? Was it intended to sell to a quadrant of audience, or to connect, following an idiosyncratic idea wherever it led? Of course I’m just moving rhetorical goalposts with the decidability of what comes from the heart. If this was the year that “branded content”21 became a recognizable phrase in English, then this is the year just a glint of moral clarity on the U. K. Le Guin level seems possible. In his long struggle with interviewers (and with sentimentality), David Foster Wallace proposed a clarity of emotional constitution, of “art’s heart’s purpose,” which had “something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that loves instead of the part that just wants to be loved.” How many of our hearts’ purposes are corrupted or stymied by commerce? Does the pleasure of reading arise from writers just that eager to give it? Does this make genre a fair-and-square winner of the market if it comes, unabashedly, from that part of us “that wants to be loved?”22 And does Amazon’s data-mining capacity virtually ensure that we love genre back?

There’s a long answer in Wallace’s “Mister Squishy,” published under the name Elizabeth Klemm in McSweeney’s Issue 5 in 2000.23 This was around the time when Wallace was constantly in books court, facing charges of difficulty for difficulty’s sake.24 A pristine copy of the impenetrable Infinite Jest on a shelf: touchstone of 90s self-indulgence. This aspect has almost evaporated. His incipient appeal as a public intellectual, his crowd-pleasing nonfiction voice, and his death all had something to do with the reversal. The first few pages of “Mister Squishy,” on the other hand, read like a random volume of corporate market research (on a “snack cake,” to be specific. The phrase “high-F” is used instead of “high-fructose,” so you know it’s legit). It’s as if Wallace had moved on from his notorious footnotes and shackled a short story with a longer glossary. As facilitator Terry Schmidt shepherds a targeted focus group (“TFG”) through the protocols of the test-phase, he believes he spots, among the archetypes of masculinity (men who “never once questioned their entitlement to satisfaction”), the painstakingly faked mannerisms of a UAF (“Unintroduced Assistant Facilitator”)—a spy meant to prod the TFG toward the production of usable market data. (The UAF in question says “Question!” before he asks a question.) This story sounds like a blast, right? Too bad I have to spoil it: the UAF is actually conducting a “nested” test of the reliability of market data generated by targeted focus groups in general. Do you see? This focus group—crumbs of fictional “Felonies!” in their differing beards—will decide not only the fate of said snack-cake but, in the end, the utility of marketing itself. “Mister Squishy” is probably my favorite story. It’s 66 pages long and I’ve read it about 18 times. It does not get old—if I ever happen to begin it I’m certain to finish it. At the same time, surely you’d have to bribe an airport mystery buff, or strap down even the most voracious twelve-year-old reader and main line her with Ritalin,25 in order to get either to finish that first paragraph. It’s, like, a different thing.

Wallace has Schmidt speak for the both of them when he claims to be sparing his audience a level of detail he “wouldn’t dream of making you sit still for.” But given a comfy seat “Mister Squishy” is a truly inimitable performance.26 There are solid storytelling tools on display, as well as baroque sentence constructions. Customers who bought this also bought what? Nothing? And pledged to buy nothing for the rest of their lives? The purposes of genre are supposedly clearer—entice, suspend, escape—but “Mister Squishy” is clearer to me still. It is the clarity of ambition; an attempt to do all that literature can do at once and to accept the measure of failure sure to follow. “Mister Squishy” is irritating without any passage being skippable; it is meticulously researched, deeply sentimental (demonstrating, in interstitial moments, only a select few of the “infinite ways human beings always kept impacting each other,” as if otherwise held in painful reserve). It is so good that it is eminently put-down-able. And there’s a moral to the story. Page upon page detailing the expertise brought to bear on a snack-cake’s entry into the marketplace seems to offer proof of just how commercially determined our lives are. Instead, we’re told,

no no all that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted, without anybody once ever saying stop a second or pointing out the absurdity of calling what they were doing collecting information or ever even saying aloud—not even Team ∆y’s Field Researchers over drinks at Beyer’s Market Pub on E. Ohio together on Fridays before going home alone to stare at the phone—what was going on or what it meant or what the simple truth was. That it made no difference. None of it.

Upon reading “Mister Squishy” I am convinced that there is such a thing as literary fiction, tradition, experiment, modern-day parables of capitalism, great hypergeometric sentence-level fiction and leap-before-looking heartfelt writing, and that it is, itself, all and none of the above. These distinctions are important only as long as they’re immediately disavowed. And this is no small matter of taste. Our conviction that we control our own destinies is matched by the world’s gigantic investment in defining, manipulating, and anticipating them. We’re all UAFs in a giant TFG. We live in a “Mister Squishy” world even if we don’t know it.

Take a look at the “phase 3” Marvel movies slate and the DC-to-2021 rollout,27 a chilling, scorched-earth vision of the future center of our culture that will almost certainly occur just as scheduled, give or take a week or a test-screening gone wrong.

“Money makes the world go round” is not a new concept. Capitalism has always influenced culture, but it’s no longer throwing darts. Record labels used to listen to demos, manage unruly drummers. Movies had an absurd target audience: America? Television’s upfronts took place in a scattershot, semi-technological era where we produced things that might work, not just more of that which has already been proven to. Never has our culture been more efficient. Amazon’s precision has raised the stakes—world in the balance, three-headed screenwriter fluff-stakes—until it seems verily as if only bestsellers will be left standing.

“Openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety,” writes Astra Taylor. The technological new giveth, and it taketh away. Tech-boosters and doomers are equally fond of the rhetoric of historic precipice, and today’s world does seem fast, participatory to an unprecedented degree. But many voices speaking at once is the only way the merciless rule of commerce is mistaken for anything else. As the rich get richer in the market for pulp, some can still glimpse a brave new genreless world. In a raucous democracy of fandom—and a plutocracy targeting advertising at it—it’s possible to confuse artistic integrity with big-time compromises.

In Henry V, the king tells his troops that to be outnumbered and die is really exciting. He is sued for peace, but money would deprive him of glory. No deal! On St Crispin’s Day:

Herald, save thou thy labour;
Come thou no more for ransom, gentle herald:
They shall have none, I swear, but these my joints;
Which if they have as I will leave ‘em them,
Shall yield them little, tell the constable.

For the 29 days a month that the rent isn’t due, I might think, hey, it’s only ransom. Ransom can’t buy happiness. This is not so much an argument for coming clean about the profit motive—we all have it. In particular, “artwork” is motivated by a galvanizing vanity, and not an entirely coherent one, being both a desire to connect to the world and a result of an alienating distinction from it.

Problems of definition are intrinsic to an arts economy, which blends “making your voice heard” and relentlessly tacky self-promotion. The drive to breach the walls of other selves is twisted up in the desire for recognition and an endless curiosity with how it must feel not to worry so much about money. Attention is both sought for its own sake by the lesser angels of our nature and seems to carry along with it breathing, meaningful life. Still, in our temptation to be clever and pithy and ideologically consistent there’s been something of an overcorrection for ethical arrogance. We would let Amazon create an absolute wasteland of WhatSells. A world of Bud and no snobs. The Ford F-150 and no one telling you what to do. Taylor Swift and haters. “8th grade and up.” Fanfic of fanfic. Not a lick of sex without hokey whips and chains. Harry Potter and nothing holier-than-thou. McDonald’s chicken nuggets without foodies or picket lines. The Voice and the vacuum. The Sunday Night Football Theme Song brought to you by Verizon Mobile and no one sees your band. Literally nothing to read other than “5 Ways to Tell You’re an Elitist,” “Against Philistines,” and Walmart aisle markers. Captain America with a minimum of depressing America.

Our conviction that we control our own destinies is matched by the world’s gigantic investment in defining, manipulating, and anticipating them.

A good-humored irony about pop-cultural excess wins every argument against a stodgy anti-capitalism.28 And just as well, a pox-on-both-houses exhaustion with the discourse is a sly victory for the status quo—which is at this unfortunate moment an intensifying inequality in the economy and the culture. The important thing is not to be ideologically pure but to be clear: The market is not tied to something so mysterious as pleasure, but to something so quantitative as sales. The market is a useful fact in our world, but it’s a force with a distinct taste for the familiar, the already preferred, the highly rated, the related item. Much of this is a digital matter of course—we need not see it as corrupting. And yet the convenience it affords us is not equal to its bending of the arc of history toward kinda shitty middle-of-the-road fare, in regular installments, the last of which is divided in half for the film adaptation. At some point, a stingy anti-commercialism becomes the only thing we can afford.

We are all modern, implicated in moral complexity. The commercial imperative is woven into self-expression. Genre is but a manifestation of that compromise. It is a kind of market solution (which kind sells best, and how to make more of it quickly and cheaply)—for its distributors, certainly, but also for its practitioners. By which standards do we feel the need to succeed, and how much can we bear to fail? We should be honest with ourselves about what mode benefits a story worth telling. We should be wary of companies that traffic in our own self-interest. Le Guin shows us the way back to a moral clarity that would seem like contemporary naïveté: a black-and-white fantasy pitting the craven against the pure. It is a clarity that predates our world, from before it seemed possible that our loneliness would be assuaged by everyone at once. As writers or readers I’m sure we’d all say there’s nothing like turning to the next page. Compulsion puts us in the sights of commerce, where we shall stay for the foreseeable future. “Come thou no more for ransom?” Really? Is there any way we could do what we can’t help but do, with just a little ransom to spare? icon

  1. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is often cited because it’s the more evocative signifier, but in fact the DMG is rife with esoteric treasure tables and endless descriptions of magical items—Gauntlets of Dexterity, Bag of Holding, the bookkeeping headache which is the Sword +1/+3 vs. Lycanthropes and Shape-changers. The book with all the necessary rules—and the only one required for play—is the Player’s Handbook.
  2. For example, Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of some length with something wrong with it.” For a definition of that prose, James Wood’s discussion of “free-indirect style” in How Fiction Works. Wood’s question is, basically, “Whose word is this?” as in “belonging” to the author, or to the character, or in an emergent coherence, both.
  3. Statistics on bookselling are often accompanied by a lament about how hard they are to come by. Here’s the closest I could find to year-to-date stats on 2014, an entire year beset with worry that the numbers would appear catastrophic due solely to the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey had been published the year previous. Not to mention that 2014 is years upon years after the initial rise of YA: Hunger Games, Wimpy Kid, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter & the Expanded Universes.
  4. The Genre Wars tend to put literary fiction in one corner of the ring, ignoring the various forms “serious” literature takes. Here are only a few of the contending egghead genres: realist fiction, experimental fiction, the personal essay, the reported story on actual events, the “novel from life.” Every once in a while one of these subgenres is reported missing, presumed dead.
  5. My preferred genre—to use the term uncontroversially—is comedy. Likely only in its purest form—standup—is it still considered even a little lowbrow. If comedy is not present in something I’m watching or reading I will find this something unwatchable or unreadable. Louis C.K., Mallory Ortberg, Jenny Slate, and writing staffs at HBO, Comedy Central, FX, seem to have no aesthetic problems except the most mysterious: how to be funny. Standups share an ideal with writers: honesty. It’s the same honesty that’s an odd combination of realness and artifice, craft and artlessness. Comedy and lit are acts of cagey confession.
  6. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that different readers are turning the pages of completely different kinds of books. There is pleasure in quickness, but that speed and eagerness with which we devour prose is mostly dependent on the serendipitous, imagined bond between reader and writer.
  7. “The conditional quality of novel speech, applicable only to particular characters, enables the novel to be acute without being reductive. In novels, it is left to readers to see—or not to see—the universal in the specific. In this, there is something humble and essentially democratic.”
  8. However shopworn the premise, the real competition is the “Golden Age of TV.” Rothman thinks “it’s where the ‘social novelists’ work.” I don’t want to dwell on this point but it’s useful to think about a medium’s intellectual situation when there’s plenty of prestige and financing to go around. Watch whatever you want: Broad City or True Detective. TV shows are good. What are they? They’re good. Genre anxiety dissipates on the small screen. Game of Thrones is thought of as another bang-up HBO job, as if it didn’t belong squarely to a genre that used to ensure the social exile of its adherents. The problems with over-familiar anti-heroism and authenticity in Girls wouldn’t be problems at all if we didn’t presuppose that TV speaks to all of us, to the human condition.
  9. The rating PG-13, YA’s old partner in crime, was instituted after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which intended fun for the entire family while having a lot of violence. Similarly, YA somehow connotes both pre-approval for ALL AUDIENCES and a kind of illicitness. The classics of the genre have weird morals, end-deaths, if not hearts ripped from chests.
  10. How funny is it that the post-apocalypse has become our biggest cliché—so overwhelming is our sense that we deserve it. That being said, Divergent, the first installment in The Divergent Series, sucks. Divergent is set in a world where teens are taken from their families and divided into factions according to an oppressive, ritual reduction of the teens’ humanity into a singular quality: brains, brawn, priestly kindness, hick, and standup comic. So desperate to capitalize on the market, Divergent skips right on past the inconveniently contrary present-day situation that any respectable work of sci-fi would extract into dystopia: this generation’s protracted adolescents, told they can be anything they want, possessed of every technological tool of self-expression, and coddled not until 16 but all the way to 26 (when they’re no longer covered under their parents’ insurance policy—the language on is actually “coverage ends on a child’s 26th birthday.”). Currently, is there any sense that mama’s little boy will one dark day be culled, reaped, factionalized? What about (in voiceover): a world where twenty-three-year-olds are sent away from home and expected to get JOBS, a grim future they will FIGHT TO THE LAST MILLENNIAL. Also, teach persecution complexes to the young much?
  11. See Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform. The situation in music—the coalmine canary of free culture—is a crowd-pleasing case-study. There are many songs out there for sure, but the anecdotal evidence is that most of them are Taylor Swift songs about the fear of minor injuries to celebrities in snowmobiling accidents.
  12. “Nerd”—we keep using that word, but I do not think it means what we think it means. The Nerd now has a plum job and the lion’s share of production resources. This is a big, argumentative aside that I’ll just sketch, but there’s a connective strand between the Marvel/DC rollout, how YA privileges the sense of rejection, tech chauvinism, Gamergate’s rock through the window, and swords-and-sorcery’s LoTR/GoT-aided journey to the absolute mainstream of pop-culture.
  13. “The Everything Store,” Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. In the analog past, to say “everything” or “everybody” was to begin a generalization. Something about the current moment is informed by “Everyone” being a coherent, even essential, idea.
  14. Amazon eventually bought Zappos and Is the strategy to stay aggressive in a select few retail sectors? “They want to own all of it.” Oh, well.
  15. “Publishers are getting squeezed out because they don’t contribute anything of value.” — Matthew Yglesias at Vox.
  16. People in publishing work hard at highly specialized tasks. Of course they could improve in any number of ways. But real, live editors work there. They read, they have idiosyncratic taste in different things. They wonder where things came from and how stuff works and how people other than themselves experience things. They hope their books sell.
  17. I just looked up The Secret on Amazon thinking that if I hoped, prayed, wanted it to surprise me it would. After a raft of the usual self-help suspects the recommendation system offered up the sequel to a bestselling YA novel.
  18. “The Amazon Effect” by Steve Wasserman in The Nation.
  19. One en vogue solution in support of the arts is to pay more. The premium, the subscription model, an ethics of profligacy (more authentic, independent, local—the beef is gamey, the music noise.) Many of us are partly engaged in this ethic. Here’s my ledger: the New Yorker is a necessity, non-negotiable, and I would renew with my eyes closed if they weren’t always trying to give you that gift calendar. I wouldn’t trust meat I didn’t pay out the nose to have killed right in front of me. For uncomplicated reasons, I use Spotify. “The Free and the Antifree” in n+1 describes the absurd amount of freelance writing that can be had for fifty bucks or nothing.
  20. Gessen, Vanity Fair. “‘And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book. No one, unless they have inherited million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.’ Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine.” One of the strangest attributes of writers is that despite what we’ve done to ourselves we want to succeed just like anyone else. Inside us is that same mélange of self-interest and intellectual principle that resides in anyone—we just barely have half a chance. We cling to this faint idea that they might cast in the movie version the sexiest actor of our approximate ethnicity and he would look cool holding a gun, make love real well, etc.
  21. “Content” is a bad joke to everyone—until it’s no joke at all to anyone. A Contently surveyasked marketers which content in their experience had the best ROI. “Longform” (22.59) won out, beating the indefatigable “I don’t know” (17.77).
  22. In the same interview, Wallace mentions the “hard work serious fiction requires.” In various forms this homely idea has reached a kind of tenet-status on the literary side of things. It’s genre war artillery, basically, though I’m never quite sure what it means. Apropos to this essay, Wallace uses the terms “commercial culture,” and “commercial art” without much fanfare or hem-hawing. Perhaps it’s not “work” so much that goes into the appreciation of literary fiction over commercial forms, but whatever means readers use to—naturally, intuitively—tell the difference.
  23. Using a pseudonym in McSweeney’s—tough to find a comparable present-day fringe literary experience.
  24. Academic approaches to Infinite Jest in particular preserve some of this characterization. Attempts to prove its structure are often made in a language that would make the book seem all but unreadable to an ordinary civilian. Like all good writing, the book is very much readable, regardless of fractals, and despite Wallace’s intermittent obscurity. The book’s sendup of an elite tennis academy is rather delightfully broad, alternating with sections of beautiful and wildly earnest prose on AA.
  25. I apologize for this R-rated image. It was, at once, precisely the language I wanted to use and clearly depicts the torture of a twelve-year-old, which I cannot endorse.
  26. Wallace signatures present: Schmidt’s worry that he had a “fat man’s waddle” (articulating not only the mechanism of self-consciousness but the tragedy of it—as it turns out, no one even noticed what he’s painfully certain they had); the unforgivable use of the word “neocortices”; a series of reveals in earnest which peg it as genre—a mystery novella of corporate espionage; this part about a growing crowd watching a mysterious figure scale the façade of a building that is not my favorite but is fairly clearly about how an American audience interprets novelty as either imminent violence or imminent advertising and is an ingenious plot element or “framing device.” Wallace trashes Tums and the “repeat” instruction on shampoo. He leverages suspense from POV itself—it’s a mystery as to who is telling the story. Stick around for the lengthy would-be excerpt from the Anarchist Cookbook.
  27. See Mark Harris in Grantland. Check out the graphics headed “DC and Marvel Comic Book Movies (32)” and “Other Sequels and Major Franchises.”
  28. All in play here: the comic book film franchise, the unimpeachable hits of “Poptimism,” and our very personal relationships with a frighteningly small number of tech/social media behemoths.
Featured image: Flying Brooms. Photograph by Dave Catchpole / Flickr