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Headline Treatment18

Matteo Pini takes an anthropological approach to a new critical infrastructure

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1. Keeping tabs

On the TikTok subcommunity BookTok, the sticky tab is everything. Pages of users’ physical books are blocked off with annotations, underlining, a rainbow array of sticky notes, highlights and exclamation marks, as if readers are preparing for an aptitude test that will never arrive. Aestheticisation is a bid for the virtual to feel actual, reinforcing the tangibility of the book in a time where most other media lacks a physical component. The book is elevated beyond its objective purpose of being read; it becomes a decorative object and a means of communicating one’s personality, as well as one’s commitment. This drive towards aestheticisation is not limited to the material object itself, but can extend to what a book signifies. Books can be imagined as albums, fragrances or moodboards. Aestheticisation and fetishisation respond to the surpassing of the physical book as an information technology by media such as TikTok itself. As the utility has diminished, social value increases: the cultural capital implied by the appearance of bookishness requires excessive visual reinforcement. 

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2. Down in the dumps

Misery loves company, which may explain the success of extravagant performances of sadness on BookTok. The potential scope for pleasure induced by reading sad books is evidenced by the figure of the solitary, neurasthenic reader, whose ability to be moved by art signals their empathy and emotional intelligence. Yet lacking the real-world implications of “true” sadness, a book’s sadness can only recall past emotions. Its pleasurable aspect is found through this temporal chasm. BookTok challenges this relationship by collapsing the emotional distance between a book’s content and the reader’s real-life experience of it, its emotion rendered literal. Without any distance keeping the reader “safe”, the book’s emotional power is both literalised and militarised: books are “soul-shattering”, “brutal”, thrown across the room like a grenade. Echoing mourning rituals performed at funerals, the untethered expression of pain on BookTok serves a palliative function. Users are able to control and alleviate their emotional burden, sharing it with the community. In the violence, liberation can be found.

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3. Everyone’s a critic

There are internal struggles within BookTok regarding the extent of readers’ responsibility as critics. TikTok is an attention economy, in which information must be persuasive and clearly signalled lest the viewer skips the video. BookTok criticism rewards the representative and the immediate, both in terms of diverse perspectives within fiction, as well as emphasising a book’s content and ideological features over linguistic or stylistic analysis. Through this process, criticism becomes character, with one’s view of a book signalling not just enjoyment but identification with the author’s worldview. The occasional inclusion of canonical works operating outside of these aesthetic and moral frameworks poses a problem. Some BookTok responses to Lolita, while generally positive, are aghast that anyone would want to write Lolita given its subject matter, that the book’s discomfiting, intentional manipulation signals something nefarious about both the author and reader.

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As if anticipating this discomfort, other BookTokkers contend that reading should be a purely recreational act done for pleasure and entertainment, and that the old modes of literary study have no place on the app. Given that the most popular books on BookTok belong to the often-idealistic genres of young adult and romance, deconstructive actions may destabilise what is supposed to be a “pure” experience. Criticism is constructed as a negative process through which the unified, totalised goodness of the artwork is chipped away. This uncertainty surrounding the reader’s critical capacities constructs it as a partial object, both immune and unavoidably vulnerable to the strictures of criticism. When on BookTok, users must be vigilant, aware of their own preferences and critiques while defending the right of the book to exist outside of those structures, lest the puncturing of the book’s pleasure bubble results in a wholesale collapse of the reading experience.

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4. Nothing gold can stay

TikTok is an app that relies on visual communication. As such, a book’s trope becomes its most valued and marketable feature. Illustrative of the bleed of fan fiction into publishing, tropes reduce the plot of a book to a single transformation, communicating a fantasy or wish-fulfilment scenario (“enemies to lovers”, “villain turned nice guy”). Tropes are not limited to fan-fiction-adjacent literature; in the case of “messy millennial woman”, they can also communicate cultural expressions of political movements, in this instance liberal feminism. Wish-fulfilment tropes within literature are not a new development, yet their communication on BookTok is unprecedented, allowing users to define with new-found precision the exact story they want to read. Akin to online pornography, which similarly updates extant media for a search-engine era, tropes guarantee the meeting of readers expectations, collapsing entire narratives into moments of pleasurable transformation. This has a literal analogue in the “spicy” side of BookTok tropes, whose titles hew salacious and suggestive (“stepsiblings”, “stalker”, “student-teacher”). Through the proliferation of tropes, readers are discovering what they want in a book and demanding its central thrust again and again.

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5. Bad romance

Both TikTok and romance fiction have typically been perceived to be lowbrow formats in which the pursuit of escapist pleasures comes at the loss of critical thinking, partly because their content is largely consumed and created by women. In the context of romance, readers may be aware that the enactment of fantasy necessitates its loss: the fantasy can never match its imaginative object. In the context of erotica, BookTokkers may be particularly aware of how recreating fantasies of patriarchal dominance might reinforce their violence in reality. Looking to escape these potentially harmful exchanges, readers may turn towards gay romance, a hugely popular form on the app. Gay male romance allows the reader alignment outside of the heteronormative binary of strong man / weak woman (or its often-hackneyed pornographic inverse), and find her identification with either (often teenage) character. In completely negating the female reader, gay romance affords her more imaginative opportunities for desirous expressions ofmasculinity that come without the baggage of patriarchal violence. Yet, as with TikTok, gay romance also practically guarantees disappointment for its consumers. Once the thrill of its stimulus ceases, the failure for real life to behave in idealised ways can be disappointing, sending the reader back to escape anew.

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6. Unlimited series

In rewarding short, easily digestible bursts of literary production for a mass audience, BookTok is returning the book, or more specifically the novel, to its serialised origins. Serialisation was a result of the innovations in distribution and publishing technology in the mid-1800s, which meant the book could be published in chapters and shared with a larger audience. BookTok is a product of similarly innovative groundwork and restarts the serialisation project with a new technological context. In contrast to the traditional forms of literary authority that confer prestige through yearly prize-giving ceremonies, or canons which take centuries to fossilise, BookTok accelerates the consumption and reception of literature to fit the pace of digital life, the gap between hype and backlash growing ever smaller. It literalises and visualises the market in which books have always existed, albeit one whose infinite scrolls inevitably contemporises everything it covers. In the way the swipe of the thumb echoes the turn of the page, BookTok should also be considered a form of reading itself, and one that should not be considered aberrant or unprecedented. As with all developments in literature, BookTok simply responds to the economic and social conditions that underpin readership practices, and has found a way to thrive. ◉