The ‘TikTok-ification’ of Literature: Exploring Online Anti-Intellectualism Discourse
It’s happened to the best of us. You go on your phone with the intention to Google something, or maybe check your e-mail, and somehow you end up mindlessly scrolling through TikTok for the next hour. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing this, you’ve probably stumbled across #BookTok.
#BookTok is a corner of the Internet where creators post videos reviewing, discussing, and sharing books with the hashtag. It is credited with having changed the book industry, as the millions of videos posted with billions of likes are incredibly influential on book sales. Many authors, particularly within the romance genre, have achieved great success because their books became popular on the app. Some of the most well-known authors include Taylor Jenkins Reid, Sally Rooney, and Emily Henry, all of whom can typically be found at the top of bestseller lists.
Many authors attribute this accomplishment to TikTok and Generation Z, the most frequent users of the app, who are classified as being born between 1997-2012. Among these authors is Colleen Hoover, who is arguably one of the most popular authors today with titles like ‘It Ends With Us’ and ‘Verity.’
“Gen Z is my favourite of all generations for so many reasons […] I love that they’re consuming, recommending, and sharing books,” Hoover says.
“Gen Z is a huge audience for romance. Their youth has been marked by global and social upset in many ways, so looking for a happy ever after seems like a healthy way of coping,” her publicist adds.
Although Hoover enjoys a very large audience, her work is not without criticism. Many of Hoover’s books are centered around very emotionally intense situations, including trauma and abuse. This has led many readers to question if her work, which is generally targeted towards young Gen Z women, romanticizes and glorifies abusive relationships.
Criticism of Hoover’s work is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. The culture of mass consumption perpetuated by #BookTok might seem like a good thing- after all, what could possibly be wrong with reading?
The main issue many observers have with this is that TikTok has enabled a culture of mass consumption without giving much thought to any potential consequences. #BookTok has changed the way many people read and analyze literature, and not always for the better.
By exclusively reading books that are trending online, we may be sacrificing our ability to critically engage with the text.
Why aren’t we thinking about what we’re reading?
Many popular romance books rely on a limited number of ‘tropes’ for plot advancement and structure. For example, Emily Henry’s ‘Beach Read’ employs an ‘enemies to lovers’ trope, while her novel ‘People We Meet on Vacation’ uses a ‘childhood sweethearts’ trope. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the use of these themes, they tend to be very repetitive across many books by different authors.
These books are marketed as such, because it is known that these themes are popular and well-loved, especially amongst a younger audience who may not have had these experiences themselves. So, rather than creating a detailed, effective plot, some authors might rely too heavily on the use of tropes as an attention grab, because they know that the audience isn’t interested in engaging with the text, but instead is simply looking for entertainment.
Mass consumption on TikTok is not a hidden phenomenon- it has made its way into many hobbies and interests, including makeup, clothes, and books. #BookTok places a very heavy emphasis on reading as much as possible. Users post ‘what I read this week’ videos to update their followers on their current reads, and it’s not uncommon for these to include upwards of five books. The culture of ‘speed reading’ and reading simply for the sake of doing so is a hindrance on one’s ability to digest and engage with the text. Of course, some people are just fast readers, but I believe that it is important to take your time with a book in order to understand the author’s intentions and the message they are trying to convey.
Of course, everyone is entitled to read whatever they want; however they want to. There is no ‘right’ way to read a book, and one would be hard-pressed to find any real implications to reading.
However, some have argued that some aspects of #BookTok feed into anti-intellectualism, which is defined as a social attitude that undermines academic authority and the pursuit of knowledge.
This is often countered with the popular sayings ‘read what you like’ and ‘let people enjoy things,’ both of which can be true- but they are often used in a way that defends attitudes of anti-intellectualism. #BookTok places heavy emphasis on books that are fun and easy to read, and there can be negative connotations surrounding more classic work because it can be dense and difficult to understand. While these sentiments are true, it is important to maintain a certain degree of media literacy.
Critically engaging with text doesn’t have to mean highlighting, underlining, and tearing it apart to find some secret underlying message. What it truly means is understanding the message a story is trying to convey through its themes, genre, and the sociopolitical norms present at the time of publication. This makes for a much more fulfilling experience, rather than mindlessly absorbing words on a page.
In today’s world, it is more important than ever to critically engage with the media that is presented to us. We constantly have information thrown at us, some of it accurate, but most of it not. Books can be used as a tool to help us practice ‘reading between the lines’ and discerning what information we wish to accept as being valid. By engaging in a broader range of literature, we can open ourselves up to new perspectives and understand different conceptualizations of the world as it is.
Some might say all of this is pretentious, and it just might be. Some of my favourite books have been recommended to me by TikTok, and they are undeniably enjoyable and entertaining. Again, there’s really no such thing as ‘bad reading,’ and there’s nothing wrong with being part of a community who enjoys the same interests.
Reading should be fun. Research shows that reading regularly strengthens your brain, increases your vocabulary, increases your empathy for others, and reduces stress. Critically engaging with what you’re reading doesn’t have to be a chore- all you could do is keep the question “why am I reading this?” in the back of your mind.