A look at the debate surrounding TikTok’s place in young adult literature.
BY IRIS MARK ’23
Alex Aster, a 26 year old Colombian-American author, has become one of the most popular and controversial names on Booktok, a niche side of TikTok where book lovers share their favorite novels and recommendations. Recently securing a major movie deal with Universal for her latest book, “Lightlark,” Aster’s sudden success has sparked an argument about the role of TikTok in the creation of literature today, especially within the young adult genre.
Beyond TikTok, Goodreads, a popular website where readers can find and rate books they enjoyed, has been a platform for this debate. Several reviews about “Lightlark” cite the book as “farciful fluff” and contrast it to the masterful likes of “Dune” by Frank Herbert, who executed words with “true beauty” rather than the “trite and trope-filled” opening lines one can find in Aster’s novel. This is where the heart of the issue lies: people are concerned that the book was picked up merely due to its success on TikTok rather than for the quality of the writing, which sets a problematic precedent for the future.
Aster’s TikTok videos show her signing books in the largest Barnes and Noble in the world, appearing on the Kelly Clarkson Show, or gathering a following for “Lightlark” by comparing it to the likes of “The Hunger Games.” Capitalizing on social media is not unique to just authors like Aster, but readers accuse her, especially, of appealing to “the algorithm” in order to attract publishers; a large fanbase looks more profitable than good writing.
More than being fluent in the uses of TikTok, Aster’s biggest and most effective tool of gaining popularity is the marketing of her book under specific tropes. Far from the traditional sense of the word, a simple recurring theme or motif, the past couple of years have seen an increase in universally acknowledged tropes connected to some kind of aesthetic appeal usually attributed to a romantic aspect of the book. “Enemies to Lovers” and “Slow-Burn” romance are two very popular tropes, both of which Aster used to describe her latest book.
For readers like senior Lily Garish, co-president of the UAHS Book Club, certain tropes may be appealing but are not the sole reason to read a book.
“I have tropes that I like, and sometimes if I see that [on social media] I’ll be like, ‘yeah, [I might want to read that],’ but I’m not picking a book because it has a certain trope,” Garish said. “I’m picking it for the plot and character development. I’m not like, ‘Oh this book [is labeled as] enemies to lovers, I have to read it.’ [Sometimes] that will pull me in, but I’m not there for the trope.”
Garish’s fellow co-president, senior Mia Ezzie, said she thinks that “a lot of authors on social media just kind of put out stuff that they think will reach their target audience, whether it’s inappropriate or [a fun], happy read.”
She feels that the reading community has changed since TikTok started, because “other authors are starting to see what people like and just put out what they think will do best.”
Ezzie also expressed concern about the content of some tropes, especially because the young adult genre spans anywhere between the ages of 12 and 18.
“I feel like it’s getting more and more inappropriate [because of] social media. It’s definitely more ‘spicy.’ When I was maybe 13 years old, I [was] reading Harry Potter, not Colleen Hoover,” she said. “I feel like TikTok, and the books people are putting out there, aren’t appropriate for the young adult, because [YA] can encompass anyone over 12 or 13. I don’t know as a middle schooler, I would want to be reading, or I would want my kid to be reading, Colleen Hoover books.”
Hoover is another author who, like Aster, rose to popularity over TikTok. Garish also said she had fallen for books before when she was too young to be reading them, and thinks that TikTok has definitely been “a little problematic like that,” in the promotion of tropes that may not be suitable for their audiences.
Although social media poses what some would consider a threat to the quality of young adult books being published, it can still be a platform for the creation of positive online communities for book lovers, where they can rant or rave over their latest reads.
“Personally, I think Booktok has been good for me. There [have] been a few cases where I have found books where I’m like, ‘No, this should not be on the internet or like anywhere,’ [but] most of the time I’ve found really good book recommendations,” Garish said.
Ezzie also believes that during the pandemic lockdown, TikTok was a way for her to find what she wanted to read.
“[TikTok can] definitely be a positive thing because it’s helping promote either new authors or authors that are on the come-up. [I think] it’s definitely helping the business of reading and stuff,” Ezzie said.
As much hate as there was for Aster’s book, her jump to the New York Times Bestseller list did require people reading and loving “Lightlark.” No matter the negative comments or frustration expressed online, the fact remains that TikTok has helped a generation of people become reacquainted with their love of reading. There will always remain an amount of dissent surrounding any book published, but where there is discussion there is also community and engagement.
“I [think you should just] read what you want to read, and who cares what everyone else has to say. I love YA, I will always love YA, even when I’m, like, 62, [so] personally it doesn’t matter to me,” Garish said. “I’ll read what I want to read, and you can make fun of me for it, but I’m still going to read it. I know other people are more, ‘Oh that’s not good on TikTok or that’s not good on Instagram,’ but I don’t care.”