A critique of the bookworm-centric subculture on Tiktok
Imagine you’re on TikTok, mindlessly scrolling as you always do when you come across a book-related TikTok. It’s another TikTok raving about the same five nondescript novels that have been circulating your FYP. You grimace as something jumps out from the hashtags at the bottom of the caption: #booktok. Having gained popularity around the start of the pandemic, one of many popular Tiktok communities is “Booktok”, which attempts to encourage discussion about books and various characters from them. Many people who discover this subculture are persuaded to rediscover their love for reading.
However, this seemingly positive community is actually one filled with distasteful bullies that promote discussions about mind-numbing, copy-paste novels which develop into toxic rabbit holes centered around a very niche section of literature.
A lack of diversity
Booktok has the distasteful habit of promoting the same few books. One won’t be able to escape the incessant remarks about anything and everything romance, realistic fiction and young adult (YA) fantasy.
Junior Ruby Burckle, a member of Project Lit, which is an initiative that seeks to inspire a love of reading and culturally relevant literature in numerous communities, hardly notices book recommendations outside of these genres. “It’s generally the same few books that keep circulating over and over,” Burckle says.
To a new reader looking to discover a broader range of books, this can be frustrating. Especially given that a large majority of its audience is made up of beginner readers, Booktok must do a better job of representing different genres.
When readers come into a new space to find new books, they expect to see diversity in terms of authors and books. However, on the platform, aspiring readers won't find much minority-centered work unless they happen to come across a minority booktoker that promotes books with minority authors and characters. “The books you hear [about] are generally by white authors,” Burckle says.
As a result of this niche section of literature, gatekeeping and selectivity are prominent. When new readers see every Booktoker raving about a select group of novels, they can feel guilty and out of the loop. The most popular booktalkers have a snobbish viewpoint regarding the books they believe are tasteful. These attitudes are especially harmful to new readers, who are pressured to read and push themselves to enjoy a particular selection of books in order to be accepted in Booktok society. For a beginner reader, finding genres that are appealing might be intimidating. There is a great variety of literature available, and obviously, some genres appeal to people more than others. If someone isn't the biggest romance enthusiast and all they've heard from booktokers is romance, they may feel alone and have a sense of guilt for not benign able to fit in with the other readers.
This lack of diversity is also reflected in the booktokers themselves. “Most [booktokers] are white or their identity is more anonymous,” Burckle says. In this day and age, a diverse set of literature with various characters is important to reflect the diversity of readers themselves. Seeing novels written by authors or with characters you identify with popular is an awesome feeling. Not seeing diverse works is damaging and demoralizing.
Booktokers will recommend the most racist, misogynistic, poorly framed novels, and proceed to proclaim them one of the "greatest" books ever to grace their presence. We as people can collectively agree that there are far better books out there to promote.
In addition, toxic relationships have been at the forefront of a lot of popular literature. As romance plays a leading role in most popular books, the same common tropes make several reappearances, such as falling in love with your bully. In general, people on Booktok seem to romanticize toxicity. “I've seen so many people, like, romanticizing them [toxic novels] and promoting them [toxic novels] when they're about really seriously not good topics, like, centered around, like, really toxic relationships and things like that,” Burckle says.
This romanticization of toxicity can contribute to a sense of normalcy in regard to unhealthy relationships, leading people to believe that these relationships aren’t anything to worry about. Burckle comments on how this romanticization can feel to people who may have experienced similar events. These tropes gaining popularity could be reminders of what people have experienced, which can trigger unwanted emotions or memories.
The Tiktok community known as Booktok promotes genuinely awful books. Even while the absence of diversity in writing is concerning, the fact that so many people promote these few novels as the highest form of literature is even more disturbing.
Booktok should take a pause and think critically about the books that they’ve collectively chosen to garner clout from. Promoting these novels isn’t the problem, but only promoting these books is a serious issue. Making positive changes on Booktok requires a serious detox.
By expanding the genres that Booktok focuses on, not only will there be more to talk about, it will welcome a more diverse set of people whom new readers can look up to and get recommendations from. Instead of focusing on the positives of books, Booktok should welcome critiques of these novels, giving readers an idea of what they should look out for.
Being mindful of why you are consuming the content you do ensures that you aren’t feeling compelled to read something simply because others are doing so. Reading is like Tiktok, once you start finding the books that you like, you’ll keep on flipping through pages.
Srijani Chakraborty. Hi, I'm Srijani and I'm on the business and art staff for SCO. I like to read and draw. More »