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Amazon’s Influence on Literature

photograph of Amazon package with Smile logo upside down

According to Amazon lore, Jeff Bezos abandoned a cushy hedge fund job after reading The Remains of the Day, Kuzuo Ishiguro’s melancholy tale of wasted energy and missed opportunities. The young entrepreneur was so moved by the novel that he committed to a life of “regret minimization,” and struck out on his own to start a small online bookstore. Bezos’ then-wife claims that he didn’t pick up Ishiguro until after he started Amazon, but it still makes for a potent founding myth. Though Amazon’s virtual marketplace now offers far more than books, the nascent mega-corporation was influenced by literature on a fundamental level, and perhaps, for better or for worse, it has come to influence literature in turn.

Mark McGurl, a literary critic who teaches at Stanford, traces the influence of Amazon on the fiction marketplace in his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. McGurl sees Amazon as a black hole with an inescapable gravitational pull, sucking everything from highbrow metafiction to niche erotica into its dark maw. He makes the bold claim that “The rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail.” Every book is neatly codified by genre (often incorrectly) and plugged into Amazon’s labyrinthine algorithm, where they become commodities rather than texts. “As a lit­erary institution,” he writes, Amazon “is the obverse of the writing program, facilitating commerce in the raw.” In other words, online retailers nakedly prioritize the market over artistic individuality, which ultimately homogenizes the literary landscape. McGurl acknowledges that Amazon has democratized self-publishing, in-so-far as it’s possible for Amazon to democratize anything. Through Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year to authors around the globe, and though few writers make enough to support themselves through the platform, we have never been more inundated with things to read.

McGurl’s argument does have some weak spots. For example, Kyle Chaka objects that McGurl “doesn’t present any evidence that Amazon’s algorithm incentivizes novelists like Knausgaard or Ben Lerner to write in a certain style, or that it even accounts for their popularity, relative to other, lesser-known contemporary novelists.” If the argument is that Amazon has changed every aspect of literary production, shouldn’t we be able to see that impact in the style and form of bestselling novels? McGurl also oversimplifies the broad range of stories that Amazon promotes. He believes that all commodified fiction can be categorized in one of two ways. A story is an “epic” if it takes a cosmic perspective on life, uplifts the human spirit, and creates (in McGurl’s words) a sense of “cultural integration.” Alternatively, “romance” stories involve interpersonal drama, intimate worlds, and soothe us rather than puff us up. These categories flatten the diverse array of fiction published by Amazon and its subsidiaries, and how can we be sure that the company created our desire to be soothed or aggrandized? They’ve certainly profited off such desires, but there isn’t evidence that we’re increasingly relying on these narrative models or that Amazon alone is driving that change.

Amazon certainly is a problem for literature, but as Chaka points out, the problem has more to do with business than genre trends. Amazon’s low prices endanger small bookstores and the traditional publishing houses that stock their shelves. When negotiating contracts with independent publishers in the early 2000’s, Bezos advised his company to “approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” This predatory attitude towards traditional marketplaces has hardly changed, and does affect the literary landscape in tangible ways. Whether the democratization of online publishing has come at the expense of traditional publishing is difficult to say, and it’s even more difficult to determine whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing, given how extremely homogeneous the publishing industry is.

Beyond the publishing industry, it might be said that Amazon poses an existential threat to writers. When so much content is available online, and millions of writers are forced to compete for the public’s attention and money, is there a point in writing at all? Parul Sehgal notes “a certain miasma of shame that emanates from much contemporary fiction,” even fiction produced by successful and well-known authors, and wonders if this despair arises from the online marketplace Amazon has created. Given the general mood of self-doubt and ennui, it’s worth celebrating how many people continue to be creative without hope of material reward. Amazon can hardly take credit for the vast output of such writers, but if Amazon has altered the way we approach and consume fiction, they certainly haven’t crushed the creative impulse.

Free Speech and Good Omens

photograph of Good Omens advertisement on escalator

On May 13th, a Christian group called Return to Order began circulating an online petition to “Tell Netflix: Cancel Blasphemous ‘Good Omens’ Series.” So far, the petition has received over 21,000 signatures and has attracted the attention of many more. It generated substantial buzz in news sources and on social media, but perhaps not for the reasons that those who started it had hoped—Good Omens, an adaptation of a book written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, was produced as a collaboration between Amazon and the BBC. The series was not made by nor is it hosted on Netflix. There is little that Netflix could do to get the series cancelled. 

The fallout from this flub was amusing. Gaiman responded to the incident on Twitter: “”I love that they are going to write to Netflix to try and get #GoodOmens cancelled. Says it all really. This is so beautiful … Promise me you won’t tell them?” Both Netflix and Amazon had some fun with the mix-up on Twitter. Netflix tweeted, “ok we promise not to make any more,” and Amazon replied, “Hey @netflix, we’ll cancel Stranger Things if you cancel Good Omens.” Needless to say, the series was not cancelled.

The series stars David Tennant as the demon Crowley, and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale. It is set at the end of days during the rise of the antichrist. The unlikely pair has developed a fondness for the human race and they work together to save it. In their petition, Return to Order expresses concern that the show “is a mockery of God’s order and religion, and makes Good and Evil seem equal and interchangeable.” They also complain that God is voiced by a woman (Frances McDormand) and they voice their fear that, the series is “another step to make Satanism appear normal, light and acceptable.”

From a legal standpoint, there is nothing wrong with what Return to Order did. The members have a constitutional right to free speech, and in this instance they inadvertently used that right to heartily embarrass themselves. The stakes in this debate are insignificant and it is easy to simply find the story amusing. There are, however, compelling moral issues lurking behind the scenes, obscured by the mistake. 

Art is a form of speech.  When we disagree with what we take to be the content of the message, should we campaign for the speech in question to simply go away? In this particular case, the answer may seem obvious—if a person doesn’t like what they take to be the message of a piece of art, that person is free to simply avoid that piece of art. No one is forcing anyone to watch Good Omens. The answer may not be as clear in other cases.  

There is no reason to believe that Gaiman or Pratchett are trying to sweeten up Satanism to make it go down easier. Perhaps if members of Return to Order took the time to watch Good Omens, they would realize that the message of the series is not what they assumed that it was (and they’d also be aware of who made it). What about cases in which the message is more reasonably offensive to a religious community? In 1987, New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine and titled it “Piss Christ.” This offended many Christians. In 2011, the photograph was displayed in an exhibition called, “I Believe in Miracles.” A group of protesters entered the exhibition, threatened the guards with a hammer, broke the plexiglass and destroyed the photograph.

This issue is morally complex. A person’s core beliefs tend to be fundamental to their identity. When those beliefs are treated with disrespect, often the person who holds them feels that their dignity is being disrespected as well. Complicating matters is the fact that beliefs that turn out to be false can, nevertheless, be fundamental to a person’s identity. It can often feel, then, that demonstrating respect for the dignity of other people involves demonstrating respect for beliefs that we might think are false and even harmful. It is difficult to know how to keep discourse respectful under these conditions. There are obligations on both sides.

Some argue that, at least in certain cases, respectful discourse shouldn’t be our first priority. Some messages are so hateful and potentially harmful that they should have their platform taken away immediately. If messages are racist, sexist, or homophobic, they simply do not deserve a platform of any kind. There may be benefits to criticizing things like religion, however, because religion is a belief system that people can choose to either accept or reject. Some argue that there is no similar benefit to hate speech.  

Others argue that the healthiest environment, intellectually and morally, is one in which all ideas can be expressed. Philosopher John Stuart Mill famously argued that ideas, even if insidious, should not be suppressed. In On Liberty, Mill argued that 

“the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

This is a somewhat settled matter when it comes to the obligations of government; free speech is crucial to a thriving democracy. But determining what to do in our private and creative lives is more difficult. We must find ways to speak truth and also to respect dignity, to express ourselves but also to understand and appreciate that our words have consequences. We also have obligations as listeners. It may be that the most effective way to deal with speech we dislike is not to cancel or destroy the speech, but to use our own voices to express why the speech might be problematic.

Who Can Help? Who Should? Being a Billionaire in a Suffering Society

Photograph of Jeff Bezos speaking at a podium and gesturing with arm

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and richest man in the world, announced on the 13th of September that he would dedicate $2 billion to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.

This move is controversial for a number of reasons, perhaps primarily given the relative amount of funds dedicated to Bezos’ spectacular fortune of 164 billion dollars. The two billion dollars amounts to 1.2 percent of Bezos’ fortune. Bezos has long been criticized for his lack of commitment to philanthropic work, and is the only American in Bloomberg’s top 5 world’s richest people who hasn’t joined the Giving Pledge, which would commit him to donating at least 50% of his fortune to charity.

Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest man in the world in 1899, wrote about the moral obligation of the wealthy in an essay entitled The Gospel of Wealth: “The man of wealth thus becoming the sole agent and trustee for his poorer brethren.” Carnegie spend approximately 90% of his wealth on public programs and scientific discovery. It’s noteworthy that during that era, the tycoons who earned their massive wealth through monopolies and breaking labor unions operated in a society pre-New Deal, so that government assistance programs of the twentieth century were not yet established.The philanthropic work of the barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller that paid teachers and established libraries were a sharp contrast to the working conditions of their employees.

The conditions of Bezos’ own employees have been raked over in the news for years, creating a contrast between his wealth and the conditions of employees that allow his fortune to amass. Amazon floor workers have been reported to resorting to sleeping in tents in the warehouses in which they work and urinating in bottles in order to meet work quotas. Amazon is one of the country’s top employers whose employees receive food stamps. When those under Bezos’ direct influence are living in such conditions, his recent philanthropic announcement seems hypocritical or a media grab.

Beside concerns over publicity, the real impact of the charitable contribution of the mega-rich raises real moral questions. In a society that allows such drastic inequality that there are individuals that have amassed enough wealth to create programs to dramatically alter the lives of significant swaths of worse-off, is donating from their fortune a sufficient act of benevolence, discharging their moral burden for benefitting for the inequality-sustaining society? A recent critique by BBC news references Anand Giridharadas, “whose book Winners Take All tackles the so-called ‘charade’ of modern philanthropy, characterises Carnegie’s approach as ‘extreme taking followed by extreme giving.’ The super rich,” he argues, “stop short of ‘transforming the system atop which they stand.’”

To further complicate the moral evaluation of Bezos’ charitable actions, Senator Bernie Sanders recently claimed that Amazon paid no federal tax in 2017. This draws out the questions of responsibilities of corporations and businesses to contribute to society. While many of Bezos’ workers rely on government support programs, the corporation they work for does not support those programs.

In such circumstances, what obligations does the founder of the corporation, who can make nine billion dollars in two days, have to society, the government, and his workers? Bezos’ philanthropic move can be read as prioritizing private subsistence assistance, sidestepping government support that taxation would help, or directly supporting his employees by providing employment that would allow members of society to live without working multiple jobs and relying on government assistance.

With Bezos, the contrast between working conditions and philanthropic goals remains, but today it is less clear what the obligations of the wealthy are towards society en masse. The issue of what corporations owe to society is a complicated one in business ethics, for businesses are purportedly aimed at profit, not beneficence, but what obligations remain for the individuals that gain from the profits of the businesses like Bezos, Buffet, Musk, etc.?  When individuals have enough money to effectively run government programs of their own, while not paying taxes, the influence on society and the public good is significant.

When the public rely on the charitable feelings of the super-wealthy, and these wealthy individuals and their corporations can so easily side-step contributing to government programs via taxation, then problems of society become even more difficult to tackle. Public education, a long-term legislative log-jam, has attracted a number of uber wealthy, Bezos included. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has been most attended to by private charities rather than the government. Elon Musk is currently addressing the problem along with celebrities such as Will Smith, the Game, and Eminem.

The obligations of individuals with wealth are complicated. As Giridharadas points out, the origin of one’s wealth is morally significant, and if there are massive inequalities between the wealthy and poor, or if the wealthy continue to rely on an economically exploitative system, it suggests there are real moral obligations on the wealthy. It may be wrong to remain that wealthy, to not take action using that wealth to adjust the system to produce less inequality, and to ensure that the production of wealth does not rely on unjust working conditions. The ways in which private philanthropy can undermine government efforts further complicates these questions — when should individuals step in where government fails and when should individuals work to adjust the way that government is being sensitive to the needs of society so that it won’t fail in the future?

Individuals with great wealth must grapple with these moral issues. The Giving Pledge is an overt statement that it does not make sense (potentially morally) for individuals to have as much money as those that top the Forbes list currently do. The amount of money that it would be permissible to keep, and what to do with the surplus, is difficult to determine, perhaps, but these observations put pressure on the complicity of the wealthy in an economic and political system that could be more morally permissible.