The Pros and Cons of Lydia Davis’ “Stance” on Amazon

Described as “one of the most original minds in American fiction today” (not exactly a difficult feat, but anyway…), Lydia Davis is known for something of an irascible, curmudgeonly tone (at least in print). This much was encapsulated in the title of her 2013 short story collection, Can’t and Won’t. As for the latest thing Davis “can’t” and “won’t” do, it’s sell her book on Amazon, the pervasive retailer that seems all but unavoidable to most who want to peddle their novel to as robust of an audience as possible. Her forthcoming short story collection, called Our Strangers, will instead be sold solely in brick-and-mortar bookstores, select independent online retailers and via This is, as usual, what’s known as a Major Stance on the part of a Major Author. These typically being the only sorts of authors who 1) have the clout to and 2) can afford to “take the hit” of staying off Amazon. That multi-tentacled juggernaut that has allured many an independently-run press for the sake of being able to better disseminate their literature to less nebbish ilk (because yes, the literary “world” a.k.a. bubble is filled primarily with dweebos).

As of now, however, the majority of Davis’ various tomes can be found on Amazon, courtesy of her most frequent publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. For Our Strangers, Davis has turned to a different publisher, Canongate Books, headquartered in Edinburgh (rightfully named as one of the most literary cities in the world—but again, is that really difficult to achieve in this climate?). The release of the collection on October 5th is timed to coincide with Bookshop Day on October 14th, another ode on Davis’ part to that ever-dying breed. Davis commented of her decision, “We value small businesses, yet we give too much of our business to the large and the powerful—and often, increasingly, we have hardly any choice,” adding, “I am all the more pleased, now, that Canongate, with its long history of independence and its high standards, will be publishing Our Strangers and doing so in a way that puts my book on the shelves of booksellers who are so much more likely to care about it.” “More likely,” sure. But not necessarily that concerned with the book itself so much as the “blockbustery” cachet it might give to one’s shop thanks to an air of “exclusivity” about it. This itself being yet another marketing technique, inverse to the usual blitzkrieg that states: sell this shit anywhere and everywhere—at a fuckin’ electronics store if you have to (and yes, Best Buy does technically sell “books,” if you count e-readers).

Thus, Davis is doing what so often happens when someone wants to take the moral high ground about sales: being something of a hypocrite. On the one hand, it’s noble and well-intentioned to avert Amazon and bill it as trash, on the other, it actually does a disservice to denigrate it as being solely for immoral, broke-ass consumers. Because there are many independent presses who rely on it heavily as a medium for their wares to be bought thanks to a certain distribution monopoly. And it’s also relied upon particularly since shipping is often too expensive when books are purchased from other online outlets, this increasing tenfold now that Book Depository is closing (said retailer offered free shipping worldwide, something that’s all but unheard of). The “true” anti-capitalist (which it is impossible to be as a result of how encoded the system is in our DNA) would say, I don’t want to “sell” this book at all: here it is, totally free of charge. Out of the goodness of my heart, purely because I want people to read it. And this is where the “small” publisher (of which the likes of FSG and Canongate ultimately are not compared to, say, The Opiate Books) is frequently misconstrued as a beacon of light and beneficence. At the end of the day, though, they’re just trying to collect their bag, too. Even if by the “avant-garde” means of selling a book where it was originally intended to be: at a bookstore.

In the present, however, this actually tends to create an air of snobbery around the literary at a time when publishers and authors should do all they can to make literature as accessible to the already-turned-off-to-it masses as possible. This, of course, isn’t being an “advocate” for Amazon, so much as realizing that the likelihood of eradicating a consumer dependency on it doesn’t seem all that probable. That’s not nihilism, so much as realism. Sure, every so often, it will make a dent in the (sparse) literary news cycle when an author like Dave Eggers also refuses to sell his book on Amazon, as he did in 2021 with The Every. But cut to the present day and The Every is available for purchase on said website. There’s no “fighting it,” it would seem. And one can imagine that Our Strangers will eventually end up on Amazon one way or another despite all this initial posturing from Davis. Funnily enough, part of the summary in Eggers’ novel reads, “Does humanity truly want to be free?” Free of the monopoly that makes everything so “convenient.” In other words, it’s just as Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) said in Mr. Robot as part of his “fuck society” speech: “…the world itself’s just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. [Worse still is] that we voted for this[.] Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books make us happy but because we wanna be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards.”

Even the occasional “rebel” à la Eggers and Davis can’t stop the sedation, themselves under the effects as a result of being, at least to some extent, glamored by the financial perks (however minimal compared to other “celebrities”) that come with being Major Authors. Nonetheless, at the time when The Every was being promoted, Eggers declared, “Amazon is a monopoly that uses unfair business practices to drive out competition. They do not play by the rules and they do not pay anywhere near their proper tax burden. Meanwhile, you can bet your local indie bookstore is paying taxes. Amazon loses money on book sales because they can make up those losses through other revenue streams. That’s the essence of predatory pricing, and it should be illegal under existing antitrust laws. Because The Every is about an all-powerful monopoly that seeks to eliminate competition, it seemed like a good time to remind book buyers that they still have a choice.” But that little mantra—“we still have a choice”—feels itself like a form of sedation. For in the very same interview Eggers also pointed out, “Amazon’s tendrils are everywhere. It’s mainly because McSweeney’s is a small independent company that we could cut Amazon out of the loop. Most companies, and distributors, are locked into contractual obligations with Amazon that preclude them from having a choice. Which is part of the problem.”

So how does one really solve that problem? Especially when most of us have surrendered willingly to the form of corporate totalitarianism Eggers dissects in The Every. To this point, Sam Leith, who conducted the interview in question with Eggers, describes the book’s emphasis on “the seductiveness of moral purity” often associated with millennials and Gen Zers who ultimately do nothing to effect the change they seek (see: Gen Z lapping up Shein). But, on a broader scale of late, it’s also something that can be attributed to left-wing politics as it pertains to the weaponization of language and cancel culture. The latest attempt at bolstering “moral purity” from an author’s perspective is, instead, not selling one’s books on Amazon and therefore tacitly stating that those who do are immoral. Yet many are not naïve enough to think they have a choice. In fact, they know that they don’t. Not if they want the work they’re shilling to be seen/made available to a wide-ranging audience.

So yes, Davis’ “stance” is a luxury and a privilege reserved for authors of her kind (and maybe more authors within this echelon ought to band together to keep protesting the juggernaut). Even so, no one is saying it’s not a much-needed “anti-capitalist” stance that sheds light on Amazon’s nefarious monopoly and also advocates for small bookshops. Which are still, despite being more noble-seeming, engaged in the practice of capitalism. That unavoidable machine that comes for all of us at every turn no matter how high above it we think we are as we walk out of such a shop having paid twenty-five dollars for a work under two hundred pages. Sure, support the independent bookstores you can when you can. No one is saying that shouldn’t be the top priority…but that doesn’t mean you have to tar and feather those who still “can’t help themselves” by buying or selling books on Amazon. Particularly when the entire purpose, for everyone involved in the publishing process, is to circulate literature as much as possible…which means in a way that’s affordable to those who would otherwise be priced out of accessing the work.

Leave a Reply