Among the endless niches of TikTok hides a budding phenomenon born out of quarantine boredom: BookTok. Driven by a demographic of mostly young women and characterized by its bias for novels that stir the emotions, BookTok has grown from a small wedge of creators sharing their recommendations into a notable online reading community.
BookTok plays an important role in that it centers readers and their preferences in an organic, local-like structure. In theory, anyone can post their recommendations, and it is the community itself that decides what will be broadcast 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 downward stream of the book publishing industry, BookTok’s growing influence has the power to refocus the voices and values of the people who really matter: readers.
Another invaluable aspect of BookTok is its ability to create a culture in which every type of reader and genre is valid. Too often, aging through adolescence and adulthood is seen as aging out of the worlds of JK Rowling, John Green, Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, and into the sphere of rational, serious, “intellectual” literature. . It is made to believe that the only books “adults” read are classics, notable biographies, scholarly 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.
In fact, it’s dominated by those categories, including young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy romance. The more moving the book, the better. People want to get lost in what they read, and they want their heartstrings pulled! It’s that simple. And it turns out 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 and sob or scream or get so angry they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional video of 45 seconds that people immediately connect with,” Shannon Devito, director of books at Barnes and Noble, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Essentially, BookTok reminds viewers that reading is supposed to be fun. It’s meant to be an enjoyable pastime, not a space controlled by guardians of “real literature.” This point is particularly important given that the majority of young adults experience the residual negative effects of high school English lessons in which the appreciation of any semblance of storytelling is lost to the looming prospect of assessment. BookTok helps its viewers unlearn the practice of over-analyzing every piece of text in anticipation of a quiz, encouraging reading as a source of pure enjoyment and enjoyment.
Of course, Booktok has its flaws. One that comes to mind is what I like to call the “carriage effect,” in which certain books receive so much praise that they’re elevated to untouchable—sanctified, even. Inevitably, then, even an objectively good book cowers in the shadow of the unrealizable expectations attributed to it. An example of this is “They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera. Given that its target audience is a young adult demographic, this novel is, by most standards, a fantastic read. He was, however, a victim of the curse of the bookcar. Through no fault of the author, but rather due to constant publicity on BookTok with a lavish 5-star consensus, Silvera’s novel was judged by many to be a disappointing read.
BookTok also provides a crucial opening to increase representation of groups that have historically been underrepresented in mainstream conversations about literature. For example, several novels that rank in the upper 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. BookTok has, however, come under fire for its bias in favor of the representation of gay men, citing allegations of lesbophobia and mlm (man-loving-man) fetishization. “One Last Stop,” for example, which was Casey McQuiston’s second novel after her debut “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” was noted by some to have received less fanfare than its mlm predecessor.
The existing racial and ethnic diversity on BookTok can also be improved. The top five to ten novels at the center of BookTok 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. Additionally, many content creators on BookTok tend to be white. Fortunately, the nature of TikTok is such that it’s fairly easy to find BookTok sub-communities that can act as affinity groups, but those groups don’t have to be limited to a single identity. Diversity and inclusion of all underrepresented identities should be normalized across the mainstream of BookTok, not just the fringes.
All things considered, however, BookTok should be seen as a welcome addition to the social media landscape. Historically, trends led by or comprised primarily of young women have been relegated to perceptions of mere “women’s fashion,” in which their merit is constantly questioned. Is BookTok perfect? No. Is it a bit awkward to be seen as a student browsing Barnes & Noble’s BookTok section? Maybe a little bit. BookTok, however, has proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with and to be taken seriously as a space for camaraderie, stress-free enjoyment and renewed appreciation for reading for many former bookworms.