September 28, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Charlotte Maley
Anyone who’s been to a bookstore–chain style or small business–in the last two years, has undoubtedly seen the cover of a book written by Colleen Hoover. Her books are always present at the bestsellers section located at many storefronts, and not without cause. Hoover, who is the best-selling smut writer of all time, wrote six of the ten bestselling books of 2022, and sold more copies than the Bible. Although not described as good novels by any reputable art publications, the author whose career only just started over the pandemic due to an eager TikTok following has completely dominated the market. As she racks up fans and even more printed copies, Hoover’s work begins to shine a light on what the contemporary literary and particularly feminine audience wants in their novels.
“Smut,” the infamous romance sub-genre, has long been considered a woman’s choice of pornography. What comes to many people’s minds when they picture these types of books are long, drawn-out epics featuring explicit sex scenes through the lens of a female writer. Often, these books have unremarkable covers and even less suggestive titles. Hoover’s three best-selling novels, for example, are titled “It Ends With Us,” “It Starts With Us,” and “Verity,” and they all have front pages filled with pink flowers or misty candlesticks. Little would an unassuming onlooker know, these books are filled with dramatic scenes of violent sex and fetishized physical abuse, or that the average buyer is a young woman.
“It Ends With Us,” which is Hoover’s most famous novel, and number one bestseller on almost every sales platform, is about a young woman named Lily Bloom who falls in love with a handsome neurosurgeon after starting her own business. Like many smut novels written through a female lens, the plot includes fan favorite tropes such as the leading lady being the only exception to an otherwise uncaring and arrogant man. The novel, in short, is a passionate and emotionally potent love story between a “normal” girl and a stalker love interest. In a culture permeated by hookup culture, where indifference and non-commitment is practiced, young women seem to be yearning for the other side of the extreme. But why?
Why many women are so attracted to these types of novels is an easy enough question to answer. Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California San Diego, explained in a Huffington Post article that, “When you read, you project yourself into the world that the story describes.” It’s no different when one is reading porn. In an age where people have never reported higher rates of loneliness, and heterosexual men in America are more likely to watch porn via the internet than to have active sex lives, it seems that young women have turned to smut as their saving grace. With more copies sold than the infamous author Stephen King, Hoover is basically the most successful porn writer of all time.
In case any reader is wondering if, perhaps, Hoover’s success is an outlier, and not indicative of an epidemic of smut fandoms, let it be known that seven of the top eight Amazon bestsellers of 2022 were romance novels, with Hoover filling the first three slots. At Barnes and Noble, 11 of the top 20 current bestsellers would be classified as romance or, more accurately, “smut.” Additionally, the largest American bookselling corporation added a completely new section to its stores and website entitled #BookTok. Wedged between popular fiction and just released aisles of their stores is a shelf dedicated to books that have become popular under the heavily trafficked TikTok hashtag. By searching up #BookTok, anyone can be taken to a screen where an infinite number of influencers recommend and review books. Disproportionally, these books are not only in the romance genre, but are X-Rated as well.
In addition to the popularity that the smut genre at large has received, it should be noted that neither Hoover nor her novels have had explicit praise from any popular sources or accredited institutions. In fact, few reputable sources, such as the New York Times, will even touch it outside of opinion pieces that try and convince the reader how trashy Hoover’s novels really are. I specifically remember a friend telling me that she and her mom tried out Hoover’s hit sensation, “Verity,” over the summer after incessant recommendations from friends, but both agreed that it was quite possibly the worst book that they’ve ever read. It’s clear that attention to literary skill is no longer what drives the market. However, what pushes sales through the roof is the bold ability to write borderline offensive sexual content. The world of contemporary literature is marked, undoubtedly, by abandoning the gift of lyricism for the audacity of some writers to put on paper what most people would never dare. The commodity, as we can see through Hoover’s triumph, is the willingness to disguise porn as literature.
What does it mean when women drive the writing economy? But even more importantly, what does it mean when women want what Colleen Hoover is selling? When smut sells better than any trending self-help book or Pulitzer Prize winning piece, it reflects the needs of the audience. It says that what people want more than advice on how to work productively or think philosophically is to imagine that they’re hooking up with someone conventionally handsome. Colleen Hoover has faced a lot of controversy over her considerably tasteless plots and triggering material, but no one can say that she didn’t give the new ruling class of literary markets what they wanted.