Robert Weibezahl

There is little question that Amazon has radically changed publishing—in both the way readers read and writers deliver their work. But has Amazon’s digital platform changed literature itself? Stanford professor Mark McGurl believes it has. His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

Amazon, of course, started as an online bookstore, and while it’s now responsible for more than half of all book sales, those sales are a shrinking piece of the company’s ever-expanding pie of profits. But with KDP, which McGurl is careful to label as a platform rather than a publisher, the company has “partnered” with hundreds of thousands of writers, further increasing its stranglehold on the reading public.

Unlike a traditionally published writer, those who self-publish on KDP need to be entrepreneurs as much as, or perhaps even more than, artists. Their work, at least as assessed by Amazon, is a product. Readers are customers. The same principles that make customers click on a suggested product have been transferred to the selling of digital books. The result is a proliferation of series and a tilt toward genre fiction, which best accommodates serial storytelling. Literary fiction, McGurl finds, is not the bailiwick of the successful KDP writer-entrepreneur. Indeed, nowadays, the saga-inspired territory once confined to the fantasy and science fiction genres has taken root in unlikely places, especially romance novels and their kinkier erotica siblings. (One of McGurl’s most engaging sections looks at Fifty Shades of Grey and its seemingly millions of KDP imitators as heirs to the marriage plot novels of Jane Austen and Henry James.)

McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP “product” he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP’s influence, as well, as when “serious” writers such as Colson Whitehead and Viet Thanh Nguyen infuse their work with genre tropes.

But the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It neither predicts nor condemns the future. The scholarly McGurl does not always wear his erudition lightly, and portions of the book require some heavy lifting on the part of the general reader. Still, Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about, a fair bit of it dire, for those who cherish traditional publishing and still place some value in the role that gatekeepers have long played in the book industry.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

When it appeared in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five turned Kurt Vonnegut—until then an admired, if pigeonholed writer—into a bestselling celebrity overnight. The novel, which drew on Vonnegut’s wartime experiences as an American soldier during the Battle of the Bulge and, most saliently, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which occurred while he was held there as a POW, was anything but a straightforward war chronicle. With its darkly humorous tone, time-traveling structure and groundbreaking use of the author as a character/narrator, the novel hardly seemed mainstream. But its absurdity struck a chord with America in the midst of cultural upheaval, and Vonnegut’s unique vision spoke to two generations at once: those who had fought in World War II and those who were coming of age amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

A journalist outlines the story behind Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the wartime trauma that inspired it.

In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, journalist Tom Roston revisits the story behind the book, which Vonnegut struggled to write for many years until he finally found the right voice to use. The engrossing tale Roston reconstructs is twofold. It begins with an absorbing biographical study that explores what made Vonnegut Vonnegut, including not only the events of his war years but also traumas from his Indianapolis childhood and early adulthood that shaped his singular blend of pessimism and humor. Famously quirky in his demeanor as well as in his manner of writing, Vonnegut played by his own rules, even if that meant being incorrectly viewed as only a science fiction writer at the start of his career.

Roston ties Vonnegut’s sometimes peculiar behavior and outlook to his past, and in the latter part of The Writer’s Crusade (whose title is an homage to The Children’s Crusade, the alternate title of Slaughterhouse-Five), he contemplates whether Vonnegut suffered from what has come to be called PTSD. To this end, Roston speaks with other novelists whose work focuses on war, such as Tim O’Brien and Matt Gallagher, as well as with a number of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also talks with Vonnegut’s three adult children and others who knew him well. The verdict is inconclusive, but Roston does make a strong case that the roots of the novel—and its ultimate message—stem from Vonnegut’s attempts to process all he had witnessed in the war. Interestingly, Roston suggests that one of Slaughterhouse-Five’s legacies may be the role it played in changing public perception of PTSD, helping Americans recognize its existence and causes.

There will always be mysteries surrounding what is truth and what is fiction in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut himself was cagey and inconsistent when talking about what happened to him or what transgressions he may or may not have committed in Dresden. “So it goes,” he enigmatically wrote after each death in the novel. Still, Roston hopes its writing brought the author some closure and that Vonnegut was able to make peace with his past.

Journalist Tom Roston outlines the story behind Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the wartime trauma that inspired it.

Fourteen years ago, Colm Tóibín gave us the exquisite novel The Master, a lyrical and probing portrait of Henry James that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Magician takes a similar approach to Nobelist Thomas Mann, and though Tóibín has not quite captured lightning in a bottle a second time, this deeply researched, highly accomplished fictional narrative still makes for compelling reading. While The Master focused on just five years in James’ life, The Magician covers some 60 years in Mann’s, lending it a more sweeping trajectory. In many ways, it is as much about Mann’s eccentric family as about the great writer himself.

Tóibín has assuredly drawn heavily on Mann’s diaries, which were published to great attention in 1975, 20 years after Mann’s death. Those private papers revealed truths the circumspect writer had been careful to conceal during his lifetime, particularly regarding his sexuality. Since the 1912 publication of Death in Venice, speculation existed about Mann’s attraction to men, but the father of six was largely able to deflect such talk. Tóibín makes Mann’s generally repressed but occasionally acted-upon sexuality one of the throughlines of the narrative in The Magician, but it is by no means the sole focus of this meaty fictional biography.

Mann lived through the shattering events of the first half of the 20th century, but he was born into the placid, privileged world of the fin de siècle German bourgeoisie—a world he re-created in his 1901 masterwork, Buddenbrooks. Propriety and discretion were his watchwords, so it is all the more remarkable that he sired a brood of rule-breaking offspring. The opposite of their cautious father, three of Mann’s children were openly gay, and two of those, Erika and Klaus, were political and artistic provocateurs. The family also had deep-seated emotional disorders; Mann’s two sisters and two of his children, as well as his sister-in-law, died by suicide.

Mann himself, as Tóibín presents him, was a stoic observer of all of this familial drama, trussed by his Teutonic restraints. Only the horrific disruption of World War II, which scattered the family and jettisoned Mann and his wife, Katia, to Los Angeles, seemed to awaken the elder statesman to the evils of the wider world and the fragility of his family. The pages of Tóibín’s novel dealing with the war years crackle and soar above the rest.

In addition to the colorful Manns themselves, The Magician is populated by literary and cultural icons—Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden (who married Erika to protect her with British citizenship), Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss, Gustav and Alma Mahler, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt—underscoring how Mann lived within the circumference of more than one great circle. His children dubbed him “the Magician” because he performed tricks for them at dinner, but Tóibín suggests Mann was more audience than performer—“the Observer,” perhaps, transfiguring his observations of others into enduring art, even though he never fully understood himself.

Colm Tóibín paints an elegant fictionalized portrait of a literary great, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann.

The long overdue publication of Richard Wright’s short novel The Man Who Lived Underground could not be timelier. In the opening section, which he began writing in 1941, Wright (Native Son, Black Boy) constructs a harrowing episode of a falsely accused Black man named Fred Daniels who is beaten near senseless by police officers intent on getting a confession. Sadly, Wright’s brutal realism still resonates 80 years later. When his agent and publisher originally rejected the book, Wright pared down the material into a truncated short story with the same title. This new edition, which languished in manuscript form among his papers, restores Wright’s original vision.

Richard Wright’s forgotten, foreboding allegory has now been published 80 years after his original publisher rejected it.

Triggered by a true story that Wright read of a man who lived underground in Los Angeles for a year, the novel is set in an unidentified city. Once Fred Daniels escapes police custody, he descends through a manhole and encounters a dank, subterranean network of tunnels that leads him to the cellars of a series of businesses—butcher, jewelry store, insurance company with a safe full of money, greengrocer. His thefts from these establishments come to mean nothing, for he now lives in a world where such material possessions are meaningless. He listens to hymns through the walls of a church and begins to view sin and salvation from a new perspective. He becomes alienated from the “normal” world, seemingly forgetting that he has left a wife and infant behind, and his alienation frees him in ways that can be viewed as either liberation or insanity.

While issues of race launch the story, these issues weren’t the impetus for the novel. As Wright explains in an accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother,” The Man Who Lived Underground is an attempt at something far more complicated: an allegory for religion, guilt and alienation. It was inspired by Wright’s deeply religious grandmother, who lived apart from the world even as she lived among people—hating anyone who did not share her beliefs but adhering to society’s rules. It’s informed, too, Wright says, by blues rhythms and surrealistic perceptions, and it borrows, consciously or not, from the hard-boiled urban fiction of the era.

Wright also reveals in his essay a long fascination with stories about invisible men, and The Man Who Lived Underground at times pulses with a certain pulp fiction sensibility, located somewhere between Wright’s usual gritty realism and a more heightened, fabulist realm. “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom,” he writes. Enigmatic and haunting, Wright’s restored novel adds layers to his legacy as one of the leading Black writers in American literary history.

Enigmatic and haunting, Richard Wright’s restored novel adds layers to his legacy as one of the leading Black writers in American literary history.

On the strength of the short story “The Lottery” alone, Shirley Jackson endures as one of our most important American writers. More devoted fans also cherish her novels, such as The Haunting at Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or the inspired domestic comedy of Life Among the Savages. Yet because she wrote in such wildly different modes—gothic, comic, stark realism—it can be hard to pin Jackson down, and the woman behind the work has remained something of an enigma. The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, makes some headway into our understanding of what made this one-of-a-kind writer tick.

A capacious collection of never-before-published letters from one of America’s most enigmatic writers

Hyman reports that his mother loved writing letters as much as she loved writing fiction and essays and that she fully expected her correspondence to be published one day. (She implored her parents to save everything she wrote to them.) Despite this forward glance toward posterity, the letters are never ponderous or myth-building. Indeed, Hyman attests that they perfectly convey his mother’s natural voice, which seems a congenial mix of insouciance, sardonic wit and exasperation. Jackson wrote these letters on her trusty manual typewriter in a kind of conversational stream of consciousness, mostly in lowercase (which requires some adjustment by the reader).

Of the 500 or so extant letters Hyman could locate, he chose about 300 for this collection, written to some 20 recipients. He has made a bit of a miscalculation, perhaps, by including so many of the early love letters Shirley wrote to her future husband (Hyman’s father, New Yorker writer and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman); the kooky, unconventional tone of their courtship could have been equally well captured in fewer pages. Once the Hymans are married and settled into their own brand of domestic and professional chaos, however, the letters become more engaging.

While the letters are largely quotidian in their concerns (Jackson learns to drive or frets about the household bills or enjoys a martini lunch with her editor), her take on life is generally entertaining and occasionally hilarious. She adroitly expresses the frustrations of trying to write amid the exigencies of motherhood and midcentury housewifery, although her prolific talents seem to win out in the end. On another, obviously unintentional level, the letters beautifully capture a bygone era when one could make a solid living writing short stories—solid enough to raise four children in a rambling house with a domestic attendant or two in ever-changing rotation.

Jackson, who died at 48, never wrote an autobiography, so her letters must stand in for a more polished view. While one feels suspicious of this collection’s elusiveness around revealing certain difficult truths about her personal life, the rough spontaneity of the letters nonetheless make this view into Jackson’s simultaneously conventional and unconventional life extremely intriguing.

A capacious collection of never-before-published letters from one of America’s most enigmatic writers makes its debut 56 years after Shirley Jackson’s death.

The concept behind Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books is nothing short of brilliant, and journalist Jess McHugh delivers on her inspired premise with insight and aplomb. As the book’s subtitle explains, she looks at the history of America through the success of 13 bestselling books, but the curveball is that these are not the sort of titles that immediately come to mind when we think of bestsellers. There’s no Gone With the Wind here, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Roots. The bestsellers McHugh explores are true megasuccesses, to be certain, each having sold tens of millions of copies. They’re even books many of us have on our shelves. But they’re probably not titles we’ve given much thought—such as Webster’s Dictionary, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and Emily Post’s Etiquette. But according to McHugh, these books have both reflected and shaped society and the American character in ways that far surpass any novel.

This refreshing dive into American social history uses the unexpected lens of reference books, primers and how-to guides that shaped our national identity.

McHugh recounts the origins of these books as she investigates their content and influence, beginning with The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which published during our country’s infancy, and ending with two New Age self-help books that are still influential: Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Along the way she delves into Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). She also looks at books that we in the 21st century may not remember but that played seminal roles in molding many generations, including the McGuffey Readers that educated children for decades and Catharine Beecher’s 19th-century domestic guides, which defined a particular ideal of womanhood and launched many imitators.

McHugh’s well-supported argument is that while these books grew out of the particular needs and mindsets of their times, they were all built on societal underpinnings that support our national mythology: that self-reliance, self-sacrifice and self-improvement pave the road to success and to becoming a “good” American. Of course, this is a white-, Protestant- and male-centric mythology. Even something as seemingly benign as a dictionary is complicit. As Hugh reveals, Noah Webster’s impetus for his speller and dictionary was to codify the way “proper” Americans speak and write, with no room for immigrants and outsiders to dilute the language with regional or cultural variants. Historically, even sex manuals, despite their titillating aspects, generally hewed to conventional, heterosexual norms. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* was blatantly homophobic and racist, despite being published and gaining popularity on the cusp of the sexual revolution in the late 1960s.

Some of the most astute observations in this penetrating history are about how these books’ creators did not always live by the same rules they imposed upon their rank-and-file readers. McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf in quite the same way.

Jess McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf the same way.

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