Among TikTok’s endless niches lies a burgeoning phenomenon born out of the boredom of quarantine: BookTok. Driven by a demographic of mostly young women and characterized by its penchant for novels that evoke emotion, BookTok has grown from a small corner of creators sharing their recommendations to a remarkable online reading community.
BookTok plays an important role in centering readers and their preferences in an organic, grassroots-like structure. In theory, anyone can post their recommendations, and it is the community itself that decides what gets distributed on the platform and thus becomes popular. This kind of democratization isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to TikTok, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Given the largely top-down flow of book publishing, BookTok’s growing influence has the power to renew the voices and values of the people who really matter: readers.
Another invaluable aspect of BookTok is its ability to create a culture where every type of reader and genre is valid. Too often aging in adolescence and adulthood is seen as aging outside the worlds of JK Rowling, John Green, Suzanne Collins, and Rick Riordan, and in the realm of rational, serious, “intellectual” literature. It seems like the only books “adults” read are classics, notable biographies, academic research novels, and the occasional self-help book. BookTok, on the other hand, removes the intellectual perceptions of literature and instead welcomes genres that were previously stigmatized back into the fold.
In fact, it is dominated by these categories, which include children’s literature, romance, and fantasy novel. The more emotion the book evokes, the better. People want to lose themselves in what they read, and they want their hearts to be won over! It’s that simple. And it’s just that these genres tend to perform on these fronts. “These creators aren’t afraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or get so mad that they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45 second video that people instantly bond with. have,” he said. Shannon Devito, Director of Books at Barnes and Noble, in a interview with the New York Times.
Essentially, BookTok reminds viewers that reading should be fun. It is intended to be an enjoyable hobby, not a space guarded by the gatekeepers of ‘true literature’. This point is particularly striking given that the majority of young adults experience the residual negative effects of high school English classes in which appreciation for any semblance of storytelling is lost to the looming prospect of judgment. BookTok helps its viewers stop over-analyzing each piece of text in anticipation of a quiz, and encourages reading as a source of pure pleasure and enjoyment.
Of course, Booktok has its flaws. One that comes to mind is what I like to call the “bookwagon effect,” where select books receive such acclaim that they are elevated to the level of untouchable — even hallowed. So it is inevitable that even an objectively good book will cringe in the shadow of the unattainable expectations attributed to it. An example of this is “They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera. In light of its target audience which is young adults, this novel is a great read by most standards. However, it fell victim to the curse of the book wagon. No fault of the author, but because of the continued advertising on BookTok with a generous 5-star consensus, Silvera’s novel was regarded by many as a disappointing read.
BookTok also provides a crucial opening to increase the representation of groups that have historically been underrepresented in mainstream conversations about literature. For example, several novels that rank in the higher echelons of BookTok feature queer protagonists, including “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid, “Red, White, and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston, “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, and others. However, BookTok has come under criticism for its bias towards representing gay men, evoking allegations of lesbophobia and MLM (man-loving-man) fetishization. For example, “One Last Stop,” Casey McQuiston’s second novel after her debut in “Red, White and Royal Blue,” was noted by some for receiving less fanfare than its MLM predecessor.
The existing racial-ethnic diversity on BookTok also has room for improvement. The most prominent five-to-ten novels that take center stage in BookTok are all rather 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. In addition, many content creators on BookTok are often white. Fortunately, the nature of TikTok is such that it is quite easy to find BookTok sub-communities that can act as affinity groups, but these groups don’t have to be limited to one identity. Diversity and inclusion of all underrepresented identities should be normalized in the BookTok mainstream, not just on the fringe.
All things considered, however, BookTok should be considered a welcome addition to the social media landscape. Historically, trends led by or composed mostly of young women have been relegated to perceptions of mere “girly fad,” in which their merit is consistently questioned. Is BookTok perfect? No. Is it a little embarrassing to be seen as a college student browsing Barnes & Noble’s BookTok section? Maybe a little. However, BookTok has proven to be a force to be reckoned with and taken seriously as a space of camaraderie, stress-free fun, and reviving the appreciation of reading for many an ex-bookworm.