Oct 19th, 2023, 09:00 AM

The Problem with Colleen Hoover

By Lilly Mildenberger
Source: Lilly Mildenberger
How BookTok's most popular author is also its most problematic one.

We all love to read, don’t we? Especially now that we have the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips at all times, who wouldn’t want to sit down and crack open a book? We also all know that saying, "sex sells," and what's not selling as much recently? Books. But with this said, one community we can count on to never get bored of reading and buying books is that of erotic novel enthusiasts. 

Erotica, contemporarily referred to as smut, is a literary genre that has intrigued and captivated readers for centuries. It holds a unique allure and leads readers on a tantalizing journey through desire and passion. These novels can delve into realistic or deeply fantastical plots, exploring sensuality unabashedly, and leaving readers craving for more. Erotica particularly finds popularity through women-centric communities, as many describe erotica as a way to explore sexuality and live vicariously through the novel’s protagonist, which may be easier than cracking open a laptop and watching content mostly catered to men. 

In recent decades, authors and readers alike have turned to social media as a place to discuss new novels, give reviews and criticism, and share their collective love of reading. Erotica enthusiasts are no exception. One particular author who has gained enormous amounts of attention, particularly on  TikTok, is novelist, Colleen Hoover. 

Colleen Hoover is an American author whose erotic novels or smut have garnered her huge popularity in recent years. Particularly over the platform TikTok’s ‘BookTok’ community for avid readers. Her books have received thousands of reviews, critiques, and overall coverage. Hoover’s personal account has garnered 1.4 million followers, and just one search for #ColleenHoover presents you with multiple videos with upwards of 4 million views. As of 2022, Hoover has sold more than 14.3 million copies copies, her most successful being It Ends with Us, a story about romance with themes of domestic violence. 

Now hold on, I just said she writes erotic novels. So if you’re partially or utterly unfamiliar with Hoover, this may seem a little… well, weird. Writing about sexual fantasy and domestic violence doesn’t seem to be an intuitive creative choice but we’ll dive deeper into that later. 

It Ends with Us unfolds the life of Lily Bloom, a young woman sharing her story of entanglement in an abusive relationship and eventually finding the strength to liberate herself. Alongside her personal battle, she reflects on her difficult upbringing in a home marked by abuse. Hoover has explicitly mentioned that the central relationship in the novel is inspired by her own parents' experiences. Although this book is considered by many to be a gut-wrenching, impactful novel, it has not made Hoover immune to controversy. 

In the past year, Hoover has begun to receive backlash and has been ‘called out’ by the online communities that skyrocketed her popularity. There seems to be a split in the online conversations surrounding the author. Some of her fans glorify her work as well-written and entertaining, but her non-fan readers consider it to be like “junk food reading.” As TikTok user, @kd, articulated in a comment on a video explaining her controversy:

“I call her books 'junk food books.' [T]hey are great when I don't have time to get into a heavy plot w[ith] many characters. I can read in any headspace.”

Hoover's supporters express how her writing has gotten them back into reading and has inspired them to explore more novels, but others criticize not only the themes of her work and her writing style but also the way she has been attempting to profit off of serious issues and the ‘suffering of women.'

Controversy arose in January of 2023, when she announced the planned release of an It Ends with Us coloring book. Many disliked the idea of putting a book with such intense and serious themes into a child-associated format of a coloring book. Hoover apologized for this “tone-deaf” idea, and the book was canceled. Since then, plans for an It Ends with Us movie with Blake Lively as the protagonist have been revealed.

href="https://www.tiktok.com/music/original-sound-7187512111097039662?refer=embed">♬ original sound - Dani Reads Books 📕 ✨

Hoover has also received general criticism that her novels encourage and label emotionally manipulative and toxic relationships as romantic. Critic, Whitney Atkinson pointed out Hoover’s pattern of creating female protagonists who endure “disturbing behavior from their partners”. Not only do some of her novels include themes of domestic abuse but also scenes of physical overpowering and intense emotional manipulation. 

So, is this really a problem? Do Hoover’s books really cause people to change the ways they think about love? Are they helpful for those who have experienced these kinds of situations in coping with their own experiences? 

If I were to give my unqualified opinion, I do not think Hoover’s books are by nature problematic, but it is a problem when these types of books fall into the wrong hands. Although BookTok is filled with mature, educated, and adult readers, it is also filled with children, or teens more specifically. I remember how influenced I was through literature as a teen, and I'm sure many can express similar sentiments.

The popularity and ease of reading Hoover’s writing style and novels may cause harm, particularly when young readers become part of the audience. Just like exposure to sex can be harmful if done in an unhealthy way, the same goes for exposure to sex through literature. Growing up, we read many books in the classroom that portrayed much more harmful ideas about women, abuse, and sex. The key difference in these instances is that we had discussions about these books and didn’t read them as entertainment or 'junk food' books. 

I believe that including sex in novels that deal with serious topics such as domestic violence, is a way for readers to see how emotional and romantic connections can be strengthened through sex. This can also be a factor that increases the difficulty many victims face when choosing to leave their abusive partners. Including sex can demonstrate its effects on emotional connection and dependency, and readers may be able to better conceptualize this struggle or relate to the protagonist. The problem lies when individuals can’t or don’t consume this content as critical readers. If it’s not for you, you don’t have to read it. But if someone reads November 9th as the first book they’ve picked up in years, I consider that a win. I don’t think limiting women’s fantasies to be rational or completely healthy is a productive route for the erotica community. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like the way Hoover packages up her books with serious themes as 'reading for the masses', and I do have a problem about making a coloring book detailing domestic abuse. You can either choose not to read them because they are poorly written or have toxic themes, or you can consciously consume this literature and understand that not every book is for every person.