Culture

BookTok and the demonisation of women’s interests

Walk into any bookshop right now and you’ll likely come across a stack of similarly designed, brightly coloured tomes, carefully curated on a table labelled ‘BookTok picks!’ or ‘TikTok made me buy it!’ or something else suitably current. Between the magenta hues and “playful” cover illustrations, no secret is made of the fact that, more often than not, these are books by women, for women.

But what is BookTok? BookTok is the aptly named online space made up of mostly young, mostly female readers, who share their latest literary discoveries, engage in passionate discussions, and document their reading experiences through vlogs. Many contemporary popular authors have developed an almost cult-like following on BookTok, often shooting their works up the bestseller lists seemingly overnight. In fact, several of the most popular books of recent years can trace a huge amount of their success back to this community: The Secret History, A Little Life,and My Year of Rest and Relaxation are all widely discussed on BookTok by deeply dedicated fanbases.

In many ways, BookTok has democratised the process of book promotion and discovery. In the past, achieving commercial success as an author usually required the backing of major publishing houses and extensive marketing campaigns. Nowadays, independent authors can take to TikTok to promote their upcoming novels, which has also enabled authors from traditionally under-represented backgrounds that have historically struggled in the very white, male publishing industry, to gain global recognition.

Photo: aliceoseman

So what’s the problem? In this digital age of ever-decreasing attention spans, a space for young people to discuss literature is surely something to be celebrated. Why then, does this ostensibly innocuous online community regularly find itself on the receiving end of, at best harsh mockery, and at worst quite vitriolic derision?

Type the word “BookTok” into YouTube and the kinds of suggestions that pop up include: ‘BookTok cringe compilation’, ‘BookTok brainrot’, and ‘How TikTok ruined reading’. Numerous think pieces with a similarly disparaging tone can frequently be found across the internet, in publications of varying repute.

One of the major victims of this is Colleen Hoover, sometimes referred to as the darling of BookTok, whose novels dominate the charts, and yet whom it has become the trendy thing to tear to shreds. You’ll find all manner of mocking, dramatic readings of Hoover’s work online. Between making fun of her audience and condemning her writing style, the one accusation that keeps coming up again and again is this: that Hoovers’ work is not “real” literature.

What is it about BookTok, and the types of books those within it love, that has people suddenly clamping down on the definitive parameters of literary credibility?

Surprise! It’s about gender.

The literary world only became accessible to women relatively recently. Even as recently as the 80s, best-selling books were written almost exclusively by men; think Stephen King, Martin Amis, or Ian McEwan. Compare that with right now, when on the New York Times Bestsellers list this week, 9/10 books are written by women. Just thinking of the authors that have defined the 2020s, it is women who come to mind: Donna Tart, Sally Rooney, Colleen Hoover. Yet despite this, it is the male writers who are seen in literary circles to be the more ‘serious’ authors. With 90 of the Time Magzine’s Top 100 Books of All Time having been written by men. 

Photo: Screenshot from @jack_edwards

Perhaps this is because men just don’t read books written by women. A study into reading and gender found that while male authors tended to have an even split in terms of audience (about 55% male readers and 45% female readers) for female authors their audience was around 81% women and 19% men. 

This trend can be seen reflected across all forms of media. Male-focused movies, TV shows, and books are understood as the default. Look up any Top 10 lists of these mediums and you will find them to be overwhelmingly male. Media that revolves around women, however, is seen as “other”, and is frequently dismissed and under-appreciated. Male perspectives are assumed to be universal, symptomatic of the human condition, while female perspectives are only that, female. 

And there is something specific about the youth element of BookTok. Anything that is marketed towards teenage girls or young women is consistently thought of as the epitome of bad taste and low quality, whereas things marketed towards teenage boys and young men are never subject to the same derision. 

Take Twilight, a pretty low-effort yet largely inoffensive vampire story that struck a huge chord with young girls when it came out. However, to publically admit you liked Twilight in the 2010s was akin to committing social suicide. It was the butt of every joke, the actors in the movies were cruelly mocked. Yet, looking back, there were plenty of other equally derivative, cliche movies of that time that just happened to be more male centred and appealed more to a male audience. Transformers, for example, was never treated in the same way as media that had a female following. 

It would be nice to believe that society has gotten kinder to teenage girls, yet it appears that we are witnessing the exact same thing happen all over again with BookTok. These books are dismissed as ‘guilty pleasures’, with detractors frequently claiming that fans of Colleen Hoover or of genres such as YA or fantasy, are not ‘real readers’. 

Surely it’s time to challenge entrenched notions of what constitutes “good” literature. Does every book need to aspire to the status of a modern classic to be considered valuable? Is there not inherent worth in stories that captivate and entertain their audience, regardless of their so-called “literary merits”? As far as we’re aware, neither Stephanie Meyer nor Colleen Hoover have ever claimed they set out to be the next Dostoyevsky, so why are we holding them to these standards? And why are the stories of Dostoyevsky necessarily more valuable than stories about teenage girls falling in love with vampires?

Photo: Ying Ge on Unsplash

This world is not kind to teenage girls and young women. They are constantly reminded that things they enjoy are seen as ‘cringeworthy’, and that their voices are not valued. The fact that now more than ever they can access literature that speaks to them in some form is a good thing. 

The true value of a book is not solely about its critical acclaim or prestige, but also the fact that people simply enjoy it. Reading has always been a form of escapism, and when women’s experiences are so often marginalised and dismissed, it’s necessary to give as much credence to the novels that speak to our own experiences and fantasies as we do to books that reflect the male experience.

While BookTok is, of course, not a space that is above criticism, so much of the criticism it does face is just a rehashing of the same boring old sexist stereotypes that have been present for decades. When women gather to discuss books marketed towards them that they enjoy, wider society decides this is ‘ruining literature’, and yet women continue to be the dominant market in the publishing industry. It’s therefore high time we recognize the validity and importance of female perspectives in literature, acknowledging that every reader’s journey is valid and every story has its place. Perhaps BookTok is the place to start.

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