Colleen Hoover: the author for a Sad Girl Summer?

By Jessica Donaldson

A quick scan of the ‘Gals Who Read’ page on Facebook, an international group for sharing book recommendations, yields vast numbers of posts either praising or criticising Colleen Hoover. One page admin even announced that “CoHo Daily Dish Post is BACK !!!”, a daily post that would allow the group’s members to discuss and dissect Hoover’s work. Indeed, she is by far the most discussed author on the page, overshadowing most other recommendations. ‘BookTok’, TikTok’s answer to book recommendations, continues to recommend her novels. And, as one of my (many) wanders into the Durham Waterstones has yielded, bookshops repeatedly place her books in their recommended sections.

Before 2021, I had never heard of Hoover. Neither had many others. However, It Ends With Us and Ugly Love, two of her most popular novels, were published in 2016 and 2014 respectively. It Ends With Us became a #1 New York Times Bestseller at the start of this year, so — why the delayed popularity? How has Hoover gone from being a largely unknown author to a social media sensation?

With the rise of Hoover came the rise of TikTok. As TikTok grew over the last few years, BookTok has grown with it. So has a desire for emotionally devastating books. A hunger for novels to provoke tears and connections with the characters grew: Hoover’s books provided the emotional tragedy that many were looking for. It wasn’t just her that experienced the delayed popularity heralded by BookTok – Madeline Miller’s 2011 Song of Achilles, seen by many on TikTok (and my mum when she recommended it to me) as an undeniable tearjerker, and E. Lockhart’s 2014 We Were Liars experienced similar renaissances. A quick scan down the “CoHo” hashtag on TikTok reveals recommendations centring around how “emotionally damaging” each book was. This market for sadness has undeniably contributed to the growth of Hoover’s novels — each focuses on some tragic theme, ranging from domestic abuse to broken relationships, Hoover leaves no trauma unturned.

Ranging from domestic abuse to broken relationships, Hoover leaves no trauma unturned.

But do her novels truly live up to the hype? Personally, I don’t think so. Granted, I haven’t managed to make it through the whole collection of her work — I got tired around the third book I picked up. They are by no means badly written novels — simply constructed perhaps, but they aren’t bad books. For me, the treatment of sensitive issues in the books lets them down. Her books have attracted accusations of “trauma porn” and, though they don’t fully meet the definition — Hoover’s novels don’t always revolve around marginalised peoples, which usual definitions suggest is key, they certainly feed into suggestions of exploitation of trauma and difficult experiences.

Take It Ends with Us. Revolving around domestic abuse, the novel again is not inherently badly written — Hoover brings her own experience of her parents’ relationship to the novel, and the value of this should not be negated. It is, however, a simplified version of such issues and, at times, bordering on a romanticisation. It often feels like Hoover features certain details to solely provoke an emotional reaction, a visceral heartbreak. Without a trigger warning, these issues are presented without any prior warning.

Such simplification of complex issues for the sake of the reader’s reaction is a theme throughout Hoover’s work. Books with similar ‘BookTok’ popularity, such as We Were Liars, echo such issues: shocking events are used for the sake of generating an emotional reaction. I don’t think this trend of sad books like Hoover’s is necessary a bad thing. I love a sad book as much as the next person, and lockdown resulted in me turning towards similar novels myself. But emotion for emotion’s sake? Not so much. 

Image: Siora Photography via Unsplash

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