Among the infinite niches of TikTok hides a thriving phenomenon born out of the boredom of quarantine: BookTok. Driven by a demographic primarily of young women and characterized by its partiality for novels that stir emotions, BookTok has grown from a small corner of creators sharing their advice to a sizable online reading community.
BookTok plays an important role as it centers readers and their preferences in an organic structure of popular type. In theory, anyone can publish their advice, and it is the community itself that decides what will be disseminated on the platform and therefore popularized. This kind of democratization isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to TikTok, but it’s still worth noting. Given the largely top-down flow of the book publishing industry, BookTok’s growing influence has the power to renew the voices and values of the people who really matter: the readers.
Another invaluable aspect of BookTok is its ability to create a culture where every type of reader and genre counts. Too often, aging into adolescence and adulthood is perceived as aging out of the worlds of JK Rowling, John Green, Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, and into the realm of rational, serious, “intellectual” literature. It seems that the only books “adults” read are classics, noteworthy biographies, academic research novels, and the occasional self-help book. BookTok, on the other hand, removes intellectualized perceptions of literature and instead welcomes genres that have previously been stigmatized into the fold.
Indeed, it is dominated by these categories, including young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy romance. The more the book evokes emotion, the better. People want to get lost in what they read, and they want their heartstrings to be tugged! It’s that simple. And it just so happens that these genres tend to deliver on these fronts. “These creators aren’t afraid to be open and emotional about books that make them cry or sob or scream or get so angry that they throw them across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people instantly connect with,” Shannon Devito, director of books at Barnes and Noble, said in an interview with the New York Times.
In essence, BookTok reminds viewers that reading should be fun. It is meant to be an enjoyable hobby, not a space guarded by the guardians of “proper literature”. This point is particularly salient given that most young adults are experiencing the residual negative effects of high school English lessons where appreciation of any semblance of storytelling is lost due to the looming perspective of assessment. BookTok helps its viewers unlearn the practice of overanalyzing each piece of text in anticipation of a quiz, encouraging reading as a source of pure pleasure and enjoyment.
Sure, Booktok has its flaws. One that comes to mind is what I like to call “the book wagon effect,” where select books receive so much praise that they are elevated to the level of untouchables, even sanctified. Inevitably, therefore, even an objectively good book hides in the shadow of the unattainable expectations that are attributed to it. An example of this is “They both die in the end” by Adam Silvera. In light of the fact that its target audience is a young adult demographic, this novel is by most standards a fantastic read. However, he fell victim to the curse of the book wagon. Through no fault of the author, but rather due to constant BookTok advertising with generous 5-star acclaim, Silvera’s novel was deemed by many to be a disappointing read.
BookTok also provides a crucial opening for increasing representation of groups that have historically been underrepresented in mainstream conversations about literature. For example, several novels that rank at the top of BookTok feature queer protagonists, including Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” Casey McQuiston, Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” and others. BookTok has faced criticism, however, for its bias towards the representation of gay men, bringing to mind allegations of lesbophobia and fetishization of mlm (man who loves men). “One Last Stop,” for example, which was Casey McQuiston’s second novel after his debut “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” was noted by some to have received less hype than its film predecessor. .
Even the racial-ethnic diversity that exists on BookTok has room for improvement. BookTok’s top five to ten core novels all tend to be pretty white, both in terms of characters and authors; Taylor Jenkins Reid, Colleen Hoover, Madeline Miller, or Sally Rooney are all notable BookTok authors that come to mind. Also, many content creators on BookTok tend to be white. Fortunately, the nature of TikTok is such that it’s easy enough to find subcommunities of BookToks that can act as affinity groups, but these groups don’t have to be limited to one identity. The diversity and inclusion of all underrepresented identities should be normalized in the BookTok mainstream, not just the fringes.
All in all, however, BookTok should be considered a welcome addition to the social media landscape. Historically, trends led by or primarily composed of young women have been relegated to perceptions of mere “girlish faddom,” where their merit is constantly questioned. Is BookTok perfect? No. Is it a little embarrassing to be seen as a college student browsing the BookTok section of Barnes & Noble? Maybe a little bit’. BookTok, however, has proven to be a force to be reckoned with and should be taken seriously as a space of camaraderie, stress-free enjoyment, and the awakening appreciation of reading for many former bookworms.