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‘But Is There Spice?’ TikTok’s Obsession with Literary Pornography

Social media like TikTok and Instagram are changing the way books are being written and sold.
Social media like TikTok and Instagram are changing the way books are being written and sold. By Michael Hu
By Kiesse K. Nanor, Contributing Writer

In 2014, Amazon held the crown in the book industry, holding 64% of online print book sales and 67% of e-book sales. Now, ten years later, the book industry has a new king: TikTok. What initially started as a dancing platform born out of the now-extinct Musical.ly has skyrocketed to the top of the global social media scene, boasting over one million users worldwide. Much of TikTok’s user base ranges from ages 12-27, with Gen Z making up 44.7% of the app’s user base.

As TikTok’s popularity has grown, so has its scope. One of TikTok’s niches has dedicated itself to reviewing and recommending books. “BookTok,” as it has been aptly coined, is a growing community on the app, with some influencers rediscovering classic literature, and others showing off their color-coded, meticulously arranged home libraries. But the most prevalent, and perhaps most concerning, subsection of BookTok is most interested in spicier literature.

Despite the diversity of BookTok’s participants, all too often the hashtag is dominated by sexually explicit books with dark overtones. The sub-hashtag “#smut” has garnered over 450,000 posts, each brimming with shocking recommendations and honest reactions.

Pornographic material in digital spaces is nothing new — websites like Wattpad and Tumblr — which introduced a ban on visual “adult content” in December of 2018 — have long provided adolescents with access to sexually explicit content like smut for decades. But with the rise of BookTok, books full of explicit content are now being regularly consumed by teenage readers. Colleen Hoover and Jennifer Armentrout, two of BookTok’s top authors, publish their books under both the genres “Young Adult” and “New Adult.” Though the “New Adult” genre is aimed primarily at readers older than 18 and often accordingly contains explicit sexual content, BookTok often exposes younger readers to this content. Because BookTok often recommends books by posting quotes from their most graphic scenes, readers outside the target age groups frequently engage with explicit snippets of these books.

Though it might be said that BookTok’s open and honest engagement with sexual content serves as an educational resource, younger readers might gain unrealistic expectations for their own sexual experiences without sufficient explanation of how fictionalized sexual trysts differ from real sex. This issue is not completely dissimilar from the misconceptions of regular consumers of other forms of pornography.

Despite the prevalence of young users on the app, “BookTokers” unabashedly share their love for smut in both their posts and comment sections. A quick scroll through the hashtag reveals posts with suggestive hooks and taglines. It is often hard to find a BookTok recommendation without a comment section flooded with questions of whether or not the book is “spicy.” BookTok’s apparent obsession with smut marks an increased reliance on sexually explicit content to keep readers entertained, cementing erotica as a driving force in the book industry. With iconic bookstores like Barnes & Noble dedicating entire display sections to BookTok recommendations, the question of how best TikTok can take on a role as a forum for serious literary critique is becoming increasingly salient.

Another problem with BookTok’s influence on readers’ tastes is the questionable relationship dynamics that the titles it lauds normalize. Hoover’s novel “It Ends With Us,” which is one of the most popular fiction books on the app, charts the love story of Lily, who, traumatized by witnessing her father abuse her mother, enters into an abusive relationship of her own — the entire story centers around this new destructive relationship. Readers are meant to invest themselves wholly in Lily’s romantic relationship with Ryle, who is painted as a secondary protagonist, so the fact that her relationship is being consumed by young readers just beginning to form their own conceptions of romantic love is troubling, to say the least.

BookTok also romanticizes questionable relationship dynamics in the ways that it promotes books to new readers. In their recommendation posts, BookTok influencers will usually provide a snippet of plot summary, but all too often this sneak peek at the book’s contents romanticizes and glamorizes toxic and abusive behavior, including possessiveness, stalking, and abuse of power.

Though older readers might be able to recognize the toxicity of the protagonists’ relationship, younger readers might not be able to do so in a text that is explicitly marketed as a romance novel. Studies from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that schools are placing less and less emphasis on the importance of critical thinking in literature; this decline in young teenagers’ ability to critically engage with the content, when coupled with teens’ increasing exposure to books dealing with explicit consumption, is concerning.

Despite its many flaws, BookTok has its pros. In an age where libraries are being forced to adapt to changing technologies, BookTok provides readers with an online space where they can engage in discourse, meet like-minded individuals, and swap recommendations. Moreover, TikTok’s algorithm, which tailors itself to each individual user’s likes and interests, might encourage those who briefly stumbled across BookTok to pick up a reading habit themselves. Despite these benefits, the propagation of sexually explicit content and glamorized abuse is reaching younger and younger audiences as BookTok — and TikTok — grows. BookTok’s increasing influence in the sale and production of literature in the digital age is worth real consideration, and BookTokers themselves must seriously reflect on the potential impact of their posts.

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