Over the course of just three years, BookTok has grown from simple book recommendation videos to skits involving fictional characters and authors releasing preorder deals. As of January 2022, there were 35.8 billion videos tagged #booktok on TikTok.
BookTok is an economic kingmaker. Some believe that it has saved retailers such as Barnes & Noble from bankruptcy by accurately forecasting trends among readers. According to Elizabeth A. Harris, “bookstores . . . started paying attention to which books were gaining traction on the platform . . . Barnes & Noble . . . caught on early — many of its stores put out tables with a selection of trending titles. Those displays spread the word about BookTok to new readers, and the cycle continued.” Barnes & Noble now has a litany of “TikTok tables” boasting titles like “Song of Achilles” by Madeleine Miller and “It Ends with Us” by Colleen Hoover. BookTok is highly influential among publishers as well. Milena Brown, the marketing director at Doubleday, highlighted BookTok’s ability to amplify the emotional appeal of a book over pedantic details. Video compilations of “aesthetic” photos — such as photos of forests, crowns and swords meant to evoke a sense of adventure — are often used to advertise books with similar themes. In September, TikTok officially partnered with Penguin Random House to allow creators to link books in their videos, meshing the industry with social media even more. BookTok has certainly streamlined the process of discovering new books, and its impact has notably bolstered the popularity of self-published authors, who self-promote on TikTok in lieu of access to a traditional publisher’s marketing team.
However, the platform has also promoted something more problematic — the “trope-ification” of literature. BookTok is dominated by categories that fall outside the traditional fiction divisions of genre fiction, including romance and mystery and literary fiction — rather, most influencers create videos centered on tropes such as the “sad girl” aesthetic and the “‘who did this to you?’” line. “Enemies to lovers” is one of the most popular tropes, with its tag amassing over 4 billion views. Trope marketing also often focuses on salacious details — SmutTok, a subcategory of BookTok, centers on sexual themes. While trope marketing is not inherently bad, allowing readers to explore a variety of literature while anchoring their tastes in something familiar, it promotes a troubling oversimplification of literature.
Reducing a work of literature to a single trope obfuscates other subtleties, something that becomes particularly problematic when darker works are advertised with their most superficial qualities. Influencers recommending Hoover’s “It Ends with Us” have weathered criticism for promoting the book as a romance rather than providing warnings for its themes of domestic violence and abuse. Porous boundaries on TikTok also leave minors vulnerable to recommendations on SmutTok.
For authors, trope-ification promotes the production of literature centered around only one theme or scene rather than literature involving wider messages. There should be a distinction made between the traditional dichotomy of genre fiction and literary fiction, as well as the dichotomy of trope-ified literature and literature created without the influence of social media. Conventional debates over literary and genre fiction center on the supposed “entertainment-only value” of genre fiction and on the “elitism” of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores themes of the human condition such as life, pain and death, which are traditionally regarded as more profound.
Critics of the trope-ification of the book industry have weathered similar attacks on their perceived elitism. It’s easy to see critics of trope-ification as supercilious, self-appointed guardians of “proper” fiction, but trope-ified literature is not a concern of taste — it’s one of content. When literature is reduced to only one trope — and when this kind of literature outsells all others — it signals a concerning future for literature as easily consumable entertainment rather than something that encourages a thoughtful exploration of larger themes. Traditional genre classifications, such as romance, offer only vague hints about the content of the book, leaving the reader (and author) open to speculate about how the details of the genre may be interpreted. A reader might expect a romance novel to feature a relationship between two characters and zany hijinks to bring them together — but how those qualities are interpreted will vary. Even popular romance novels such as Emily Henry’s “Beach Read” subvert the genre’s expectations and consider darker themes of grief.
Tropes are less nuanced. They reveal direct details about the plot and encourage the distillation of the book down to that single trope, especially by conflating different books with the same trope. Even if two books both feature the “enemies to lovers” trope, they may explore it in different ways, especially if they fall under different genres. This nuance is lost when multiple books are subjectively categorized by a single user in a single video as “enemies to lovers” books.
The reorientation of literary culture around tropes coincides with a rise in self-publishing. Outlets such as Amazon have produced new ways for authors to publish their works without undergoing the tedious process of querying literary agencies and publishers. But the relative ease of book publishing means that authors are more responsive than ever to what sells the best. In a HuffPost article, author Lorraine Devon Wilke writes, “Where the best of traditional publishers set their sights not only on commercial viability but award-quality work . . . self-published authors are advised to, ‘Crank out loads of books’ . . . But if your point and purpose as a writer is to take someone’s breath away . . . don’t listen to that advice.” With BookTok simultaneously bolstering the popularity of self-published authors and the popularity of easy-to-understand and easy-to-produce trope-ified books, the literary canon is increasingly devoured by one-note works.
Not all literature needs to explore heavy societal topics. Literature that seeks to entertain is just as valid as literature that dissects the human condition. But the bulk of literature should remain three-dimensional, both on the author’s part and the reader’s. Simplifying a book to a single trope does a disservice not only to the book but also to the book industry as a whole. It sends a problematic message to authors and publishers that the only books that profit — or deserve to profit — are those that satisfy a certain ideal.
Kathryn Lee is a sophomore double-majoring in English and economics.