ARTICLE n. 28 / 2021
Are books still a community?
Long-gone are the days where we waited for stuffy adult critics to drop the verdict on literature. Nowadays, the kids are in the drivers’ seat.
In March of this year, the New York Times reported that a new TikTok community— BookTok—was responsible for boosting several novels back onto the bestsellers’ list, resulting in the sale of tens of thousands of units. Barnes & Noble was quick to dedicate an entire section of their website to the phenomenon, and articles about the community started popping up everywhere.
(For those not in the know, BookTok is a group of creators and viewers, unified on the TikTok social media platform under the #booktok tag, who discuss, recommend, and gush over books.)
To many, this came as a great shock. Aren’t we in the middle of a great reading slump?
Between 25% to 50% of adults don’t read at all, a third of teens don’t either, and literature in particular has been the worst-affected. As social media becomes ever-more visual and less text-based, a «post-literate society»—a theoretical future where the ability to read won’t be necessary any more—is starting to look less and less theoretical. For this book boost to come from TikTok—the «crack cocaine» of apps blamed for destroying our attention spans— seemed like a hilarious miracle.
But as someone active on BookTok, these staggering numbers weren’t shocking at all. The power of youth is, after all, uncontested, and to me these results are a natural consequence of letting young people talk about literature on their own terms. In every aspect, readers on BookTok control the narrative, barricading themselves behind a wall of ever-evolving slang and metatextual memery, and are largely unconcerned with how the outside world perceives them.
By taking a look at BookTok, we can learn a lot about the young readers of today, the topics they care about, and the language that they use to discuss them. Three things, examined below, stand out to me: the prominence of young women in this space, the way that they discuss literature in a political context, and the value they place on being authentic and real.
THE FUTURE IS (STILL) FEMALE
From Star Trek to the Beatles, women have always been a prominent force in fandom, and despite efforts to erase their presence, young girls are still loudly and proudly in love with all kinds of media. BookTok is no exception.
Young women dominate BookTok—a study published in April 2021 showed that 87% of the sampled #booktok content was made by women, with the majority of them being in the 16-21 age bracket. Female authors also outnumbered male ones, with John Green and Rick Riordan sticking out in a sea of female authors like Cassandra Clare, Sarah J. Maas, E. Lockhart, Leigh Bardugo, and Susanne Collins.
In such a feminine environment, books aimed at young women are naturally the most popular. Serial works that have female protagonists (like A Court of Thrones and Roses, The
Hunger Games, Shadow & Bone and Throne of Glass) or feature significant, well-developed female characters (like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) make up the grand majority of books that are discussed and recommended. On the less fantastical side, there are stories that retell traditionally male myths (Circe) or touch on current political events (The Hate U Give) from a female perspective. Books that don’t feature either a female protagonist or strong female characters but that are written by women (The Secret History) and/or tackle traditionally feminine themes like romance (The Song of Achilles) also enjoy popularity.
Of course, it’s not just young women who read nowadays, but young women are the ones coming together en-masse to define the new literary canon, and this is the greatest lesson BookTok can teach us. Young women are driving sales and building up new genres to suit their tastes, to address issues they find important, and they are are shaping up to be the long-term sculptors of what literature looks like in the twenty-first century. This is in sharp contrast to previous literary movements, which have almost always been shaped and directed by men. The future of literature is here, and she’s a teenage girl.
READING AS A POLITICAL ACT
BookTok’s origins in broader online fan culture are uncontested. Not only is there a similarity in demographic—mostly comprised of and led by young women—but there is also an overlap of themes, motifs, and tastes. Just like BookTube, a YouTube-based bibliophilic community that started around 2010, BookTok adores Young Adult fiction, fantasy, the enemies-to-lovers trope, and female power fantasies. It also shows roots to the more amorphous fandoms found on Tumblr, the Archive of Our Own, Wattpad, and older sites such as FanFiction.net and Livejournal. These communities are defined by discursive and transformative acts: building connections and content around existing works rather than encouraging the creation of originals. Books that have extensive worldbuilding and a large cast of characters, therefore, tend to be popular because they give fans a sandbox in which to play in.
Most importantly, though, just like many of these communities, BookTok views the discursive dissection of media as a political act. It is not enough to just like something—you must interrogate its themes and messaging, and whether those are harmful or helpful to society. Gen Z are shaping up to be the most politically-active generation to date, and their literature does not and cannot exist in a vacuum separated from real life.
BookTok’s creators come from all over the world and regularly engage in discussions about racism, homophobia, misogyny, and societal oppression both within their favourite books and outside of them. They recommend books to educate yourself and talk about problems in the publishing industry. They hold authors accountable too: popular BookTok author Sarah J. Maas was recently castigated for using the BLM movement to promote her latest book, and J.K. Rowling has been whole-heartedly disowned for her transphobic views. BookTok readers not only praise but expect literary discussion to be nuanced in regard to social issues.
Naturally, diverse books are preferred as well. Though straight Caucasian women are the majority on BookTok, the BookTok literary canon prominently features queer stories such as The Song of Achilles, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and Honey Girl; stories inspired by non-western cultures such as the uber-popular Shadow and Bone and Cinder trilogies;
Black stories such as The Hate U Give and Cinderella is Dead; and stories by authors from all over the world. Though it’s not perfect, it’s heartening to see that younger generations care enough about inclusion to act on it and vote with their choices.
The idea that politics don’t belong art is dead, and on BookTok, having a voice means being held responsible for what you say. It helps that many of BookTok’s popular authors are alive—rest in pieces, Henry Miller—and on social media, meaning that reaching them for a comment is a matter of typing @ on twitter. This is the second lesson of BookTok: far from being uncaring and illiterate, young readers today are probably more aware of politics than you are. If you want them to listen, make sure you have something to say.
Time is money, time is precious, and Gen Z knows that better than anyone: «Youth culture is feeling like if you don’t succeed by 25 someone will literally come kill you», reads a viral tweet by comedian @jaboukie. In a society that is increasingly competitive and fast- paced, directness is a golden virtue. TikTok is the embodiment of that, with videos capping at a minute and attention spans maxing out at 8 seconds—if you want to capture attentions, you better get to the point.
Gone, too, are the days of photoshopped perfection and impeccable presentation— authenticity is the new cool. This is doubly true for BookTok, where success rests on emotional openness and honesty. Creators talk frankly about their preferred kinky lit, post videos of them sobbing to a book’s ending, and humorously embrace the unglamorous realities of nerdery. Viral videos are filmed in people’s bedrooms, stuffed chock full of hilarious pop-culture references, intra-BookTok jokes, and riffs on popular TikTok content styles like storytimes. These kinds of videos are impossible to make unless you have a deep and authentic understanding of the community, as well as the courage to show the real person behind the screen.
This demand for emotional commitment extends to the books themselves. The Song of Achilles, an expansive retelling of the Illiad, would not be what it is without its earnest, tender philosophising on the beauty of love. The text believes in itself when it has Patroculus say about Achilles, «I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world». It leans whole-heartedly into its own romanticism and doesn’t shy away from its fairytale-like style. We’re growing up in a media environment where love conquers all rings as an outdated catchphrase from the seventies and happy endings are for chumps, so it’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that not only goes all in but boldly depicts love, specifically queer love, as defeating death itself. It’s hopeful, it’s enchanting, and it fits square into BookTok’s niche.
Young people today value and celebrate the courage it takes to speak your truth. That truth can be embarrassing and risqué, like talking about your questionable crushes, or it can be profound, like talking about what makes you cry, what you find beautiful, what gives you hope and what breaks your heart. BookTok is no exception, so here is the third lesson it gives us: speak from the heart, and you will earn our respect.
As with many great creative moments, the BookTok phenomenon is destined to be bright but fleeting. As the publishing industry takes note of and capitalises on this
opportunity to boost sales, the authenticity and ease that made BookTok thrive will start to fade. Outsiders are also likely to vilify and downplay the nuanced political discussions, seeing them as marketing risks. No doubt the community will continue to exist for many years to come, but it will probably never achieve the heights it has again.
This is not a tragedy.
The one great thing BookTok can do—the lasting impact it can have—is to foster a new generation of literati. It can spark connections between like-minded creators and then transforms them, as they transformed for the Romantics and the Beats, into a new literary movement. Among today’s BookTok cohort are a future generation of authors, critics, and curators. They are gathering tools and creating a language for modern literary discussion on their own turf, uninterrupted by adults and traditional constraints. Their works may not come for years, but when they do, they will be fresh and invigorating, uniquely theirs, echoing the values held on BookTok today.
That is a triumph.
Regardless of how much time BookTok has left, its presence (and power) shows us something wonderful—literature as a human tradition, a political tool, and an artform is as alive and as beloved as ever.