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The Pitfalls of BookTok’s Love of YA

"Throne of Glass" series by Sarah J. Maas.
"Throne of Glass" series by Sarah J. Maas. By Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
By Sophia N. Downs, Crimson Staff Writer

The media giant TikTok has proliferated more than just dances. A bookish subculture on the platform called “BookTok” has amassed more than 110.7 billion views on the platform. Viewers who dive into BookTok will find numerous book recommendations, reviews, reactions, and an entire world of book-obsessed content flooding their feeds.

However, BookTok is known too often to recommend the same few authors over and over again. Within Young Adult reading, the likes of Holly Black, Colleen Hoover, Sally Rooney, and especially Sarah J. Maas endlessly appear in feeds around the globe.

Sarah J. Maas is the author of three bestselling series: Throne of Glass (ToG), A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR), and Crescent City. The hashtag #ACOTAR alone boasts 5.2 billion views — an incredible amount of traffic for Booktok. Her novels have inspired tattoos — including those sported by well known influencers Brooklyn and Bailey — as well as plenty of merchandise and countless amounts of fanfiction. In fact, these books will soon make the jump to the big screen: A TV series is in the works.

Maas is not a new author. Her debut novel was first released when she was only sixteen on the website FictionPress, before being formally published 10 years later in 2012. But, in part due to TikTok, her works have re-entered the mainstream with renewed vigor, a trend seen with other authors as well.

Her books are binge-worthy. They feature fast-paced plots, vivid world building, and lovable characters. Yet, her books also contain mature content unsuitable for many younger viewers of TikTok, both in terms of violence, language, and sexual content, often referred to as smut. Yet, as one TikTok user writes, “BookTok has an obsession with smut.”

Although the “extremely raunchy, sexually explicit” nature of many of her books could easily push them into the genre of adult novels, Maas’s books are marketed as Young Adult (YA). In an article covering her 2019 Comic Con appearance, Tor.com reported that Maas herself is surprised that her novels have been labeled in this way, seeing as there is a “three day sex marathon” in one of her books. But despite this, “she agreed to publish ACOTAR as YA as long as her editor wouldn’t censor any of the sexual content.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Book publishers experimented with a category titled “New Adult” that would create a home for the borderline books — think “A Darker Shade of Magic” by VE Schwab. But ultimately, the label didn’t stick, and the series went back to their YA labeling.

The books have performed incredibly well, finding places on a variety of YA bestsellers lists and even being popular enough to gain a fresh set of covers earlier this year. But it can be questioned whether or not marketing these books as YA is appropriate for publishers and booksellers to do.

In a 2019 interview with Tor.com, Maas noted that her introduction to sex and sexuality came through reading, which is potentially the case for many who read her books today. However, Maas’s books include not only depictions of consensual sexual encounters, but also violent, graphic depictions of rape and sexual abuse. While much of this violence is condemned — such as the relationship between Feyre and Tamlin in the ACOTAR series — some relationships leave more ambiguous morals — like Celaena being pushed to her breaking point by Rowan in “Heir of Fire” — that may be difficult for younger readers to sort through.

Maas’s descriptions of sex do not depict the experience of sex realistically either. Unlike some other coming of age novels, Maas’s books describe sex in earth-shattering, dramatic language.

It is important to note that Maas’s books are clearly in the fantasy genre and never claim to be “realistic fiction” and thus are granted far more leeway in terms of fantastical representations of sex. Nonetheless, one wonders what the impact of showcasing these unrealistic sexual scenarios has on young minds who may be first exploring ideas of sex and sexuality through literature, as Maas herself did.

As said by Maddie Ames of the Daily Nebraskan, “I walked into the Barnes & Noble, my seventh grade student I.D. hanging from my backpack, and I purchased “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas with a crumpled $20 bill. There was no sign or notice that the book I was about to read during P.E. in junior high was filled to the brim with sexual nuances and pure smut.”

With the proliferation of these books on TikTok, younger and younger audiences are gaining access to potentially explicit content. Publishing companies further contribute to this access by marketing these novels, those of Maas and those of other authors, as young adult. With the boom in books brought on by social media, the marketing of books is worth some serious contemplation.

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