Posted By Smple Staff

It’s Lit: The Subversive Power Of BookTok

If the internet was a city, TikTok is a funhouse of trick mirrors and trap doors. It reflects your interests back to you until you are forced deeper and deeper into its content. A maze of memes, if you will. However, traverse its labyrinthine corridors for long enough, you will come across a quiet corner of this funhouse. It’s gloomily lit, and, in accordance with the dark academia lore from which sprung, it has a gothic arch, a winged armchair and some trailing ivy. Inexplicably, ‘Heathcliff’ by Kate Bush is playing. Like all great reading nooks, it has been curated for your reading (and viewing) pleasure. Take a seat, dust off a book - you have entered the hallowed halls of BookTok. 

‘Hallowed’ is the appropriate term, as BookTok has been almost unanimously lauded, (see picture below), as the last ‘wholesome’ place on the internet, giving it a somewhat sacred status amongst fandoms. But it’s not just the wholesome power that makes BookTok so fascinating. BookTok took off around the same time as the pandemic, at least partly driven by people being confined to their homes and their bookcases for entertainment. Two years on, it is now in the running to become ‘book club 2.0’ for Gen Y and Z. For many users it performs an important social function, providing a space to find friends with similar interests and hobbies. The majority of its users are women, preoccupied with women’s issues. Consequently, the videos from BookTok are tiny artefacts that can map the development of populist feminism and demonstrate how terms such as ‘the female gaze’ can enter and inform mainstream debates. 

Hot take: BookTok is wholesome.

1) Capitalism: the commercial power of BookTok

A 2014 book titled ‘We Were Liars’ by E. Lockhart recorded modest sales upon release. Yet in the Summer of 2021, it was placed on the New York Times Best Seller List, all because it went viral on BookTok. To put it in perspective, the book's publisher, Bonnier, revealed that it sold four times more copies in 2021 than it had in the previous seven combined. An almost identical story is seen in the reemergence of ‘The Song of Achilles’, a title released in 2012, which entered the New York Times Best Seller List nine years later.

Not only did both of these books receive critical acclaim on their first release, but they also won some of the publishing industry’s most prestigious prizes. In 2012, ‘The Song of Achilles’ won the Orange Prize for fiction, but it took BookTok’s golden touch to push it to the bestseller lists. Again, in an industry that evolves at a glacial pace, the significance of this should not be under emphasised. An internet fandom has more sway over the market than multiple, well-established literary critics. 

While there are books such as ‘The Song of Achilles’ that receive the stamp of approval from critics and BookTok, many popular titles on BookTok do not. One of the most popular genres on BookTok is Romance, a genre that is consistently overlooked in the literary establishment. Yet, on BookTok Romance titles ranging from the middle-of-the-road to the bizarre enjoy uncomplicated popularity. The cultural significance of ‘Kissing the Coronavirus’ has yet to be settled,  but many prefer to read and move on. Novelty and a lack of elitism are both held in high regard in the BookTok community. Reading is supposed to be fun, after all.

Full TikTok from caitsbooks.
The BookToker, caitsbooks asks ‘will we ever be free?’ while promising a review of the latest instalment of ‘Kissing Coronavirus’ series.

It should be remembered that these are female writers, writing for female readers, on the topic of female pleasure. In the grand scheme of the literary canon, this is a relatively new development. More importantly, they are doing it profitably, and at a large scale, as seen in the phenomenon of sexy blue aliens being pushed into Amazon’s bestseller list

BookTok represents the successful circumvention of the traditional gatekeepers of literary success - critics and traditional marketing. Books that would have been overlooked, are now given their time in the sun. The numerous biases of the literary establishment are wide-ranging, but in this case, we can focus exclusively on the male bias. In 2014 and 2018, investigations done by Vida, a charity dedicated to bringing transparency to the literary arts, found that within literary criticism there is a “dangerous lens” of male bias. Vida’s study revealed that only half of publications such as the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and Granta, achieved gender equality, with the New York Review of Books halving its coverage of female voices. 

This is a shame for numerous reasons, not least because women read more than men in all genres, except for history and biography. Even though TikTok is a relatively new medium, this imbalance between male critics and female readers is somewhat redressed in BookTok.

2) #written by a man: the subversion of stereotypes

So even as female voices are under-represented, male authors and critics can be seen to take up the majority of space within the literary world. This hasn’t gone unnoticed within the BookTok community. The vernacular of its users indicates an awareness of this historical bias, perhaps even a hyper-awareness. ‘Written by a man’ was a topic of discussion that started on Reddit, and then spread to Tumblr, BookTok and Twitter. It acts as a shorthand for a type of female character that is over-sexualised - or even fetishized within a novel. These characters are often one dimensional, existing purely to forward the plot or character development of the (often male) protagonist. To borrow a phrase from cinema, they act as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This flawed character-writing can be seen in the work of both well-established and lesser-known authors. BookTokers are quick to mock characters who are clearly ‘written by a man’, most notably satirising the fascination of some male authors with woman’s breasts.

Full post by Reddit user u/slekrons.

Not even Stephen King can escape scrutiny.

One reader of ‘Carrie’, by Stephen King questions what purpose descriptions of Carrie’s breasts play within the novel, arguing that the passage is gratuitous.

Full video by melinprint.
‘Melinprint’ tries to work out how breasts can look startled.

The tag ‘written by a man’ also leaves room for further statements about intersectionality, with one TikTok user highlighting the prevalence of orientalism within fictional characters ‘written by a man’. 

Full video by sharonyhl.
A Beckettian drama: Sharanyhl is horrified after being sentenced to only read books with female Asian leads, written by white men.

But aside from satirising, what role does BookTok play in subverting these literary stereotypes? To put it simply, books with over-sexualised, one-dimensional characters often get blasted on BookTok, if they are mentioned at all. Books which fulfil the BookToker's desire for three-dimensional, complex characters often receive praise specifically for this quality. 

While BookTok is a relatively new resource in terms of market research, some people have already pointed out the correlation between what is popular on BookTok and what publishers and agents are looking to commission. For example, Pulsar, a ‘social insights’ company, highlights that BookTok “helps further elevate fanfic, short stories and other such unpublished work into the mainstream [...] As a result, new authors, new creators, and new ways of interacting with a deeply familiar topic are disseminated throughout culture, from TikTok to Twitter and beyond.” What this ultimately demonstrates, is that BookTok can not only inform, but also drive trends within publishing. 

3) Counterculture: the female gaze

Not only does BookTok drive market trends, but it also pushes academic discussions into the mainstream. A prime example of this would be the popularisation of the phrase ‘the female gaze’. This phrase has a long history. It can be traced back to the film critic Laura Mulvey, who pointed out in the 1970s the common shots and framing devices within film that corresponded with a heterosexual, masculine gaze. She argued that this gaze tended to sexualise women for the male viewer. The ‘female gaze’, on the other hand, is still being defined. Often mentioned in relation to the ‘male gaze’, some commentators debate whether it actually exists, while others say it is the subversion of the ‘male gaze’. 

An example of this academic phrase entering the mainstream is The Hawkeye Initiative, a Tumblr profile which seeks to draw attention to the way female superheroes are posed in contrast to their male counterparts. The founders of The Hawkeye Initiative seek to “illustrate how deformed, hyper-sexualized, and impossibly contorted women are commonly illustrated in comics, books, and video games”. Thus, they simply pose male superheroes like their female counterparts to draw attention to how over-sexualised their presentation is.

The original promotional poster for The Avengers.
The same poster, with a twist. From

As with many discourses that take place online, there is a continual semantic drift in the way terms are used. The ‘female gaze’ in the above pictures completely inverts ‘the male gaze’, and over-sexualizes the male characters, while changing the Black Widow’s stance to a provocative one. In the ever-changing meme-scape of TikTok, where short content is prioritised over longer formats, the phrase the female gaze can be seen to go through semantic shifts, as BookTokers take pre-existing conversations about the ‘female gaze’ and use them in new contexts, thus shifting its meaning. 

It's not hard to apply this cinematic theory to literature. Like the tag characters that are ‘written by a man’, much of the discussion surrounding the male and female gaze centres around whether the female characters are written well. What makes BookTok different from The Hawkeye Initiative is the amount of reach it has. #thefemalegaze has over 11 million views on TikTok, while The Hawkeye Initiative has been dormant for the last six months, and its largest reported following is 10,000

While the continual use of the ‘female gaze’ and related terms within the BookTok community helped demystify the previous academic discourses, TikTok’s algorithm can also be credited for popularizing the concept. After a user has watched a series of videos of ‘pov written by a man’ the TikTok algorithm is suggesting other BookTok trends to you. Enter, ‘pov: men hate you’ (192 million views) and its less popular sibling, ‘pov: men hate you and you hate men’. Aside from the absurdism these phrases initially present, they can also act as a series of touchstones in the conversation about the portrayal of women in popular fiction. It is no surprise that under the tag ‘pov: you hate men’, the first few videos are basically reading lists made up of books, that, while not overtly rebelling against all the books referenced in the ‘pov written by a man’ genre, definitely supply you with some alternatives. 

Outline’ by Rachel Cusk, ‘The Idiot’ by Elif Batuman and ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid are some notable examples that are continually recommended and discussed on BookTok. Notably, these lists are often featured within bookstores, and on sites like Goodreads. Thus, the discussion on BookTok flows outwards and permeates wider culture. In one Goodreads reading list, the titles span from ‘Frankenstein’, by Mary Shelley, first published in 1815, to ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’ by Florence Given, first published in 2020. In effect, BookTok is creating an alternative literary canon, one that prioritises female voices.

Full video by paigereadspages
BookToker paigereadspages provides a helpful reading list for the tag ‘pov: you hate men and they hate you <3’

Tables with a selection of titles popular on BookTok are not uncommon in bookstores such as Waterstones.

Taking a holistic view, BookTok is very significant in that it provides a microcosm of capitalism, internet culture, and countercultural concepts such as the female gaze. More importantly, it shows how these elements interact. The Midas touch of BookTok is inevitably going to have a lasting effect on the way books are written and marketed. While prizes and book marketing remain limited by traditional media, BookTok is unfettered. 

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