What Amazon’s Bestsellers Say About American Culture in 2014

graymountainAmazon’s list of its best-selling books in 2014 reveals an American culture gritting its teeth, biding its time, immersing itself in serial narratives. If Amazon’s 2013 list aired out the dying gasp of a “can-do” spirit — with books like (#1) Tom Rath’s Strength Finder, (#2) Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and (#17) Gary D. Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts  — the 2014 list bails on that ethos entirely. Many of the basic social, cultural, and economic pieties that have guided Americans into and through the 21st century are missing from the best-selling books of 2014.

They’ve been replaced by serial narratives. We seem to be exchanging metanarratives — religion, familiar left/right political agendas, entrepreneurialism, American triumphalism — for recurring, often fictional, worlds and characters. More than half of this year’s list comprises serial narratives, a significant increase over last year. The list includes (#4) Twenty Seconds Ago (the 19th book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series), (#8) The Heroes of Olympus Book Five: The Blood of Olympus, and two of Nora Roberts’ Cousin’s O’ Dwyer books, among many others.

The list also includes (#10) Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton, which is basically also a serial book, given that it takes its title from last year’s Killing Jesus. It’s worth noting, too, that O’Reilly (briefly?) dropped his theocratic agenda for a book on WWII. Moreover, O’Reilly’s history is not the only WWII book on the list: the best-selling literary novel of 2014 is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a National Book Award finalist set in Germany and France during the war. And what is World War II if not modern history’s most serializable moment?

The victory of the serial narrative in 2014 chimes with developments in broader culture. In a year when a podcast called Serial rapidly became the most discussed and shared example of its medium ever, it isn’t hard to see why book culture follow suit. What is new is the domination of serialized narratives and the decline of familiar articles of faith.

O’Reilly’s book on Patton, too, comes across as a desperate attempt to breathe life into American triumphalism, perhaps the metanarrative that has died hardest in recent years.

The death of American triumphalism as a best-selling concept may be signaled by the strange emergence of a new, probably temporary genre of books that can best be described as post-post-financial crisis. In (#20) Flash Boys, Michael Lewis charts the post-regulatory world of high-speed finance. If anything, it designates an America that is incapable of understanding (much less regulating) its own financial sector.

Even more bizarre is John Grisham’s post-post-financial crisis novel Gray Mountain, wherein the protagonist loses her high-powered gig after the crash and relocates to appalachia. Not to be outdone, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens with a Mercedes crashing into a line of jobless people waiting at a job fair.

The deep, recurring time of serialized narrative and the empathic power of page-turning fiction (opposed to “literary” developments: here) are certainly assuaging the American soul in a time of cautious agnosticism. But is the serialized narrative just a placeholder? Or is it the future? Here’s a serialized answer: stay tuned for next year’s list.

Update: Here is Amazon’s combined print and ebook 2013 bestseller list. The 2013 list mentioned in the piece is apparently print only. We still see an increase in serial narratives, and there are still fewer “metanarrative” books on the 2014 list.