By Annabelle Ioannou
Internet fiction is often considered inferior to traditionally published literature. The recent emergence of 'BookTok' appears to traverse the boundary between these two mediums, enticing its users to engage in pastime distinct from the screen they received recommendations on - but does this crossover also carry drawbacks?
I've always been a bookworm, so much so that my early school reports were peppered with pleas to stop reading under my desk when we were meant to be practising fractions. As a pre-teen, despite the fact that I liked Sherlock and 2010s musicals as much as the next socially awkward twelve-year-old, I harboured a faint superiority complex about my book-to-social media ratio - though perhaps with the former interest, that was par for the course. The only crossover between the digital and literary spheres in my life came in the form of fanfiction, which although I read frequently, I still considered mostly divorced from the 'real' books on my shelves. Although I'd occasionally come across a masterpiece surpassing the franchise that inspired it, I was also aware of general distinctions between the two mediums. For every story that could win a Pulitzer if the names were switched out, there seemed to be dozen depicting near-identical love squares between all the members of One Direction. Some fanfic writers went through multiple drafts and employed beta readers to edit their work, but unlike traditional publishing there was no requirement for this kind of quality control. As access to the internet grew, almost anyone with a WiFi connection was able to share their ideas. I know that fanfiction acted as a strong starting point for many writers, and a recent article by Fuentes & Ulloa published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences describes how it can provide community as well as immersive escapism. Despite these benefits, my conceptions of light-hearted guilty pleasured and intellectual stimulation remained largely separate. So today, when I venture in Waterstones and see a section decorated with the same icon that appears next to Instagram on my homescreen, I can't help but feel a sense of disconnect. Since the lockdown in early 2020, there has been a reading renaissance among young people, due in part to "BookTok." The term is relatively self-explanatory - referring to videos on the social media app TikTok dedicated to discussing books, in which creators review and promote their favourites. The popularity of the hobby has grown exponentially; market research company The NPD Group reported in May 2021 that American sales of YA fiction had increased 68% from the previous year. This is understandable considering that, according to Oberlo, the majority of the app's users are aged between sixteen and twenty-four, and several YA titles can be counted upon to appear when scrolling the BookTok hashtag: Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, and It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover to name a few. As with any online phenomena, controversy has formed around both the fiction on display, and how it's discussed. A common counterpoint to these arguments is that the pastime is 'just for fun' and shouldn't be judged too harshly, but are there elements of the critique that ring true? The apparent relationship between fanfiction and BookTok isn't exactly linear, especially as the former is continually being written and published online. However, there are elements of internet fanworks that have seemingly carried over into discussion of mainstream novels. On many fanfiction websites, stories can be filtered via a tagging system, which describes both the characters included and elements of plot, specifically the relationships therein. Romance can be categorised as 'fake dating', 'enemies to lovers', 'slow burn', etc. These tropes, defined by TV Tropes as 'storytelling shorthand; the audience will recognise and understand easily,' are now also used as markers on TikTok. The tags serve a practical purpose, as restrictions on video length and the desire of creators to capture their audiences' attention ensure a reliance on eye-catching phrases and buzzwords. Aided by the app's personalised algorithm, users often know what they like and want more. But rather than highlighting what makes them unique, this tactic usually advertised generalised and unoriginal aspects of a book's plot, utilising familiar terms which tie them to pre-existing works. This crossover can be illustrated most explicitly by a case where not only specific terminology was adopted, but an entire fanwork was selected for publication. Following its amassment of over 544 million views on Wattpad, Anna Todd's After was released in print and the love-interest role initially given to Harry Styles was rechristened. The franchise went on to be adapted into a film series, which has seven instalments in production as of 2023. It seems very likely that the work was thus acquired because of its popularity (itself a product of the initial boyband ties) as it was heavily denounced for the quality of its writing. Sara Dobie Bauer, a reviewer for SheKnows, said that the story was unoriginal, while Kelly Faircloth of Jezebel called it 'sloppy fan fiction.' Todd's editor, Adam Wilson, confirmed in an interview with Cosmopolitan that she did not reread her work before planning the next chapter, and though the grammar and sentence structure have been refined, there does not appear to be much difference between the two versions. Some critics also raised concerns about the book's originality, with Margaret Bates on the blog site Medium terming it a 'copy of a copy', as some plot elements also appear in Fifty Shades of Grey - itself originally penned as a Twilight fanfiction called 'Master of the Universe'. There are questions to be asked about the ethics of this method, not only in utilising archetypes that are already established, but profiting from a fictionalised version of a real celebrity (fans of the internet work are unlikely to see a brand new character in the barely disguised Hardin Scott). Fanfiction is built on an understanding that the author doesn't own the official IP, with most users assuring this fact outright, but books like After blur the line by piggybacking from previous success while technically remaining original. While this is far from illegal - and, indeed, it could be argued that all writers are inspired by outside sources - it has uncomfortable implications about the present nature of literary renown. If this is the dominant way that writing is being discussed, there may be a danger of nuanced stories being reduced to simple clichés and only certain ones being able to garner fame. Furthermore, if novels are continually being published because of their links to a previous franchise or favoured cliché, some publishing circles risk becoming, in a sense, less meritocratic. Authors have always had to strike a balance between marketability and personal vision, but the increasing focus on tropes could make it more difficult to succeed on the grounds of creativity alone. For example, although the enemies to lovers romance plot has been around since Austen's Emma, its snowballing virality could pressure writers to stay inside its confines and mimic what is already successful, dampening any unique impact they would otherwise have on the genre. As a consequence, more diverse or imaginative works may even be turned down by publishing houses. While cringeworthy dialogue or underdeveloped characters aren't necessarily harmful to consumers, they shouldn't be glossed over purely because of their attachment to a profitable trope. Additionally, considering literature in these reductive terms can draw attention away from harmful dynamics being presented. This is most evident in the romance genre, which has been disparaged for its inclusion of misogynistic ideals, specifically in heterosexual pairings marketed towards straight and bisexual women. Though these novels are also overwhelmingly written by this demographic, they are still able to perpetuate troubling norms - after all, misogynistic social constructions can be internalised by anyone. Protagonists may embody the damsel in distress, or see other female characters solely as their competition without this mindset being challenged. Perhaps the most nefarious prompter of backlash, however, is the characterisation of the love interest. Along with its unoriginality and poor pacing, one of the most frequent criticisms of After is Harry's - sorry, Hardin's - dubious behaviour. The article from Jezebel mentioned above comments on his erratic temperament and the unequal responsibility that the narrative places on the female protagonist, describing his actions as 'at best like a prick, at worst like an abusive boyfriend in the making.' In some ways we anticipate fanfiction to have these issues, as aside from not having to be edited or approved by a sensitivity reader, they are often written by young people coming to terms with their own sexuality, and therefore not deft enough to capture a nuanced portrait of a relationshop. Teenage authors may be caught up in the mystique of an angsty guitarist, only they can understand this without recognising the pitfalls this entails. Despite this explanation neatly applting to adapted fanworks, similar discourse has arisen surrounding more mainstream romance writers. As of August 2022, NPD Bookscan reported that Colleen Hoover, author of BookTok staples It Ends With Us and November 9, had sold 7.3 million print copies that year compared to 5 million copies of the Bible. Her novels have been the butt of jokes for their lack of character development and use of clichés (a favourite being the protagonist of It Ends With Us owning a flower shop while coincidentally being named Lily Blossom Bloom), but more recently Hoover has faced pushback for her handling of sensitive subjects. It Ends With Us does have an anti-abuse message, as the story concludes with the protagonist escaping her violent marriage. However, it has been argued - notably by Jennie Young for Ms. Magazine in 2022 - that otherwise subjective qualities of the writing like its chipper and simplistic tone fail to fully separate her husband's cruel nature from the romantic veneer he first presents. It has also been posited that Lily's eventual love interest exhibits a saviour complex throughout the book, implying that the happy conclusion could only be reached with the help of a man. Kelly Schwint writes for The Fordham Observer that 'Hoover uses violence for its shock value, rather than addressing it with any real substance,' reminiscent of fanfiction's outlandish plot twists encouraging readers to return for the next instalment. Lack of tact in a novel's content can be exacerbated by how it is categorised, both on social media and its own marketing campaign. Oftentimes novels like It Ends With Us are advertised as straightforward romance in bookshops as well as online, when in actuality much of the content deals with these darker themes. BookTok creators sometimes recommend an author's entire bibliography, though only some of the instalments are suitable for younger readers. It seems that a mixture of circumstances - attitudes that have gone mostly unchecked by society at large, potentially bypassing of care in order to fit into a market, and creators applying reductive descriptors in order to increase engagement - serve to normalise harmful relationships to the detriment of young consumers. A counterpoint to this argument is that it singles out contemporary YA, while many classics contain bigoted elements that readers may prefer to avoid. While this is certainly true, these works are typically with in an educational setting using an awareness that such attitudes are not acceptable, with readers being encouraged to critically assess the themes encountered. Although problematic ideas are common in previous literature and will likely pervade future literature, online assertions that reading is 'not that deep' will prevent any analytic engagement with the texts that tangibly influence how readers view the world. It's not entirely clear who should be blamed for all this - TikTok creators, authors, parents, the publishing industry at large - or if any one group should be blamed at all. Pre-existing debates within literature, such as promoting harmful concepts and books being published for quality vs profit, seem to be exacerbated by the mode of BookTok's content. The reliance on buzzwords which migrated over from fanfic sites is an easy habit to fall into, and the algorithm is notably at fault. If a burgeoning BookToker is aware that an Ali Hazelwood novel is currently popular, it would make sense for them to feature it in a video, which only adds to its popularity. More so than fanfiction websites (where authors are often unconcerned with follower counts and works can be increasingly filtered instead of buried in a single hashtag), it can be difficult to break out of these narrow influences. Despite the community's admirable focus on diversity, the most popular authors such as Colleen Hoover and Sarah J Maas are overwhelmingly white, and their casts of characters usually reflect this. Tyler McCall's article 'BookTok's Racial Bias' in The Cut comments that most social media algorithms are inherently racist (according to analysis by Vox, largely because they adopt biases from what people have already posted about online), and that speaking about trending novels like Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses is a 'surefire way to go viral'. White creators are themselves more likely to be favoured by the algorithm, and due to their own implicit biases may not realise the importance of promoting marginalised authors. Due to the limits on video length and comment characters, as well as the insistence that both TikTok and the books it advertises are used purely for enjoyment, there is not always the opportunity to discuss the more insidious issues with both mediums. Overall, this argument cannot be concluded as simplistically as terming fanfiction bad and traditional literature good, as there are evident merits and downsides not limited to either one. The online sphere continually allows users to meet like-minded individuals in numerous areas, and more people to become interested or re-interested in reading. However, the emergence of BookTok, including the focus on tropes seemingly influenced by fanwork lexicon, can both water down the nuances of existing works, and potentially impact what is made popular in the future. It is therefore important to branch out and take the app's most recurrent recommendations with a pinch of salt. Reading for pleasure and thinking critically do not have to be mutually exclusive. While you aren't obligated to annotate or write essays about books, considering what an author is conveying and the methods they employ to do so are beneficial not only intellectually but also in your everyday social life. It's impossible to erase problematic social implications from literature overnight, but this awareness could improve things for the next generation of audiences. The notion of taste in fiction may be subjective, but individuals should be able to further develoip that taste outside of BookTok's often narrow sphere, without necessarily being shamed by others for sometimes venturing within it. After all, claiming to enjoy reading doesn't mean you either become a waistcoated Kafka enthusiast or a fan of boy-band members with questionable morals. Surely, we don't need to categorise our own complex tastes according to these overused tropes and stereotypes.