Opinion: How BookTok is causing women to look like sellouts

BookTok blurs the lines between trend-following and genuine literary engagement, prompting women to question the essence of their relationship with books.
With BookTok becoming more popular amongst users of the app, critics say its dumbing down the quality of what women read.
With BookTok becoming more popular amongst users of the app, critics say it’s dumbing down the quality of what women read.
Sara Leon and Natalia Fierro-Gomez

Caught up in the BookTok craze, followers feel a strong urge to keep up with the latest trends. With the purchasing of more books than one can read at a time, doubts can naturally surface. Is this trend meant to be truly engaging with literature or are users just following the crowd? Worries have arisen that others might perceive their love for reading as ingenuine, and it is often perceived as such for young women.

#BookTok, sitting at 233 billion views as of March 2024, is a community on TikTok that discusses various literary genres, from romance novels to fantasy and philosophy. However, amid its popularity, discussions surrounding BookTok have sparked criticism. One common accusation being that certain users, who are considered by many to have mediocre content, are being performative by posing with books.

“BookTok is not encouraging young women to read, it’s generating ignorant conversations centered around poorly written, depressingly similar books,” said Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger in the article “BookTok is a mistake.”

Critics aim their criticism of BookTok to books primarily enjoyed by an audience of young women, drawing parallels to historical judgments of women’s literature.

“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1855 in a letter to his publisher William D. Ticknor.

In popular Youtuber Mina Le’s video “booktok & the hotgirlification of reading,” she refers to this quote by Hawthorne in context to his response to the mid-19th century emergence of marketing books to middle-class women.

Almost 175 years later, the same narrative is being shared about many women’s favorite books whose popularity increased through BookTok. Through this shared line of thought, critics accuse the platform’s users of contributing to the degradation of literary standards and promoting unchallenging art.

Elizabeth Wolfe expressed concern in her article “The Narrative of BookTok,” highlighting the vulnerability of books authored by women, particularly in the romance genre, to being labeled as “frilly,” “cheesy,” and not meeting the criteria of “real literature.”

This doesn’t suggest that users shouldn’t engage in a critique of books enjoyed by young women. However, labeling readers with generalizations can contribute to the historical socialization of women who read as silly and shallow, perpetuating the notion that they only read to appear intelligent.

These simplistic labels overlook the deeper issue of how the consumerism model in the publishing industry shapes perceptions of young readers who explore literature through the BookTok community.

A significant portion of BookTok’s content focuses on the idea of consuming numerous books quickly, linking reading more books with productivity, therefore becoming a more well-rounded reader.

Many prominent BookTok influencers accumulate vast numbers of books, often unread, solely for the prestige of ownership. This culture of “book hauls” has created pressure on BookTok followers to feel inadequate, as videos are filled with packages of books arriving in bulk and yearly reading goals that are usually unrealistic to the average reader.

It’s uncommon to find videos following the conventional review style because, in line with TikTok’s format, these videos are designed to cater to short attention spans. This raises concerns on if this content prompts critical thinking to the audience regarding a novel’s full content.

This quick content sharing makes people choose books based on algorithms pushed by influencers and authors for profit, rather than focusing on giving readers honest discussions about the book’s content, which could affect the reading experience negatively.

Isys Morrow, in her article “The Hustle Culture of BookTok,” observed that writing is increasingly becoming a secondary source of income for many authors, given the rising cost of living and the scarcity of book deals. She pointed out that contemporary culture is fixated on efficiency, optimization, and maximizing one’s abilities.

This consumerism model isn’t just affecting influencers promoting the over-consumption of books, but it also extends directly to authors who are enabled to produce such content. This is what raises concerns about the quality and substance of these books.

“The rise of shallow romance novels, the dumbing down of literature, the focus on superficial marketing techniques, the shunning of critical thinking, and the loss of literary diversity are all concerning trends that have emerged from BookTok’s impact,” said Aarna Taneja in the article “BooksTok’ Shallow Revolution and Death of Literary Depth.”

The concept of a “bad book” remains inherently subjective; Everyone’s opinion varies. While BookTok undeniably influences the prevalence of certain romance tropes and repetitive narratives, there are still readers who find enjoyment in them. Should we, as a society, feel obligated to deny them this enjoyment based on our standards of what constitutes a good book?

“This inclination towards aesthetics can undermine the true essence of reading and reduce it to a shallow lifestyle trend,” said Sonderling Press in the article “Is BookTok Changing Reading Habits for the Worse?”

Comments doubting the idea of reading for simple pleasure, dumbing it down to an aesthetic, creates pressure on young readers, particularly women, to validate their love for reading. This can lead young women to feel compelled to conform to consumerism models, buying books at an ever-increasing pace to affirm their status as “real readers.”

It’s crucial to understand the hurdles of navigating literature in a consumer-driven culture. BookTok should embrace all reading experiences, regardless of trends. BookTok exemplifies literature’s commodification, particularly through narratives that devalue literary merit, especially those featuring young women.

Despite this, it’s important to acknowledge how BookTok introduces readers to diverse communities and genres, growing the community of book engagement daily. Rather than condemning BookTok influencers and authors for engaging with consumerist platforms, we should advocate for positive reading habits and genuine reviews. This could cultivate an authentic literary community that all readers can enjoy and join without being put to shame.

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