Has Liberalism Ruined Books Too?

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

By Gwen Farrell5 min read
Pexels/Beyzanur K.

If you, too, are a fan of gobbling up TikTok’s most popular reads, you might be thrown when you inevitably get to the requisite politically correct part of the novel. Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s heroine? Gay. Achilles, from Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles? Also gay. People might criticize classic writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen for writing about whiteness and privilege, but is being inundated with wokeness to the point of nausea really all that better?

The readers of today have collectively decided that anything published before 2020 is too racist, too anti-LGBT, too white, etc., to be worthy of any real ontological value. The politics that govern our news channels and social media feeds have invaded our bookshelves, especially our fiction, and what’s more, BookTok and the publishing industry have recognized a cash cow when they see one. Call it what you will, political correctness or wokeness, but it’s time to look at our literature and ask, has liberalism ruined books too?

A Toxic Industry for Both Writers and Readers

The publishing industry as a monolith has always retained a certain elitism and grandiosity. Former and current employees have taken social media followers behind the doors of the business, and it’s not pretty – elitism, nepotism, and “moving units” over the interests of readers is the name of the game. Employees cite low pay (in high cost cities, no less), grueling hours, and fantastical demands of higher-ups as their biggest qualms about working in traditional publishing. 

These concerns could really be characteristic of any field, were it not for the fact that authors with contracts are getting six-figure book deals while interns are paid nothing, and five-year veterans are paid $30,000 less than the national average income, making them ill-equipped to live in high cost of living locales like New York City and Los Angeles.

Furthermore, famed writers, most notably the queen of the short story form Joyce Carol Oates, have publicly called out the lack of diversity in publishing. Oates tweeted that her connections in publishing report that editors across the board are refusing to even read submissions by “young white male writers, no matter how good.” This observation resulted in an explosive amount of backlash against Oates, with replies even alleging that her connections were “lying” about the bias.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and one poet's journey to publication clearly demonstrates this bias in the politically correct world of publishing. Michael Derrick Hudson received 40 rejections of his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” when he submitted it under his own name. But the poem was subsequently published (along with an accompanying anthology of his work) after he adopted the name Yi-Fen Chou. Once Hudson’s deception was revealed, the guest editor who included his original poem in a literary journal, himself an acclaimed author, admitted, “I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.”

But the publishing industry doesn’t just want books that will sell well – they also want material that will garner critical acclaim, bringing both the author and their specific brand further prestige. But what happens when the awards system has also been compromised by a certain agenda?

Each fall, the National Book Foundation announces its 25 finalists in the genres of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, young adult literature, and translated literature. This year’s finalists haven’t been announced yet, but the picks from 2022 reveal what kind of political criteria has to be met in order to be noticed for a National Book Award. In the field of fiction, one book focused on “queer Latinx” identity and another on “a queer immigrant grappling with the oppressive demands of capitalism.” In the field of nonfiction, an account of the research that developed the Covid vaccine and a biography of George Floyd, whose death ignited racial unrest across the country in 2020, were the top choices.

Countless writers have voiced their frustration with not being able to break into the traditional publishing world, so much so that self-publishing and other independent, alternative means have become more popular. But the messaging from the mainstream industry is clear: If you want an offer, your material needs to be slanted a certain way.

BookTok Is Shaping a Generation

The publishing industry remains an elite ivory tower that only a select few will be able to scale, but there is one outside source that is shaking things up: BookTok.

We’ve talked about BookTok, or the book-obsessed niche of TikTok, before – specifically how its online content is creating very real-world controversies. But BookTok has immense power because its reach is so vast and diverse, and booksellers and publishers alike are beginning to tap into that influence. 

But there’s a common theme with both BookTok and its long-form, YouTube counterpart, BookTube. The books that are being recommended definitely slant a certain way, and that’s probably because BookTok’s audience and its users lean more toward Gen Z. It also helps that publishers have figured out how to make influencers out of the TikTokers, namely through the ARC process.

An ARC is what’s known in the publishing world as an advanced reader copy, or a copy that is sent out to a select few before the book is actually released. On BookTok specifically, numbers are what matters, meaning if you have millions of followers (more eyes on your videos and your recommendations), publishers will be more likely to send you an ARC in exchange for a recorded review of the book on the user’s profile. It’s essentially the same premise as an influencer being sent a PR package of pre-released makeup to review before that product is actually launched. 

Because TikTok is TikTok, these reviews definitely adhere more toward quantity over quality. When you’re trying to make it as an influencer, even in the world of books, you need more views and more exposure to make money. It’s this amalgamation of factors, combined with the fact that Gen Z is definitely more left-leaning and progressive than previous generations, that have led to specific titles and genres dominating the reviews and recommendations found on BookTok.

For lack of a better word, the overarching theme in BookTok’s most viral recommendations is political correctness. Most BookTok users would probably say instead that diversity is the common denominator, but themes like sexuality and domestic abuse, tropes like difficult upbringings in small, conservative towns, and racially charged characters and plots are all present. Smut, or spicy literature (ranging from soft core to the overtly pornographic), is also popular, and crosses between different genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror thrillers.

One extremely popular title is The Song of Achilles by classical professor Madeline Miller. In this retelling of the Trojan War, Patroclus and Achilles develop a romantic relationship, and their romance is the driving force for much of the novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction a year following its publication. Another choice that took BokTok by storm is Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which was recently adapted into a film on Amazon Prime. This novel follows a romance between the Prince of England, Henry, and the son of the U.S. president, Alex Claremont-Diaz. The novel, which blurs the lines between adult and young adult fiction, contains graphic descriptions of oral sex. McQuiston, who grew up in Louisiana, identifies as both non-binary and queer and has publicly talked about “queer religious trauma” and writing fiction as a way to cope with a repressed, conservative Evangelical upbringing.

It’s also worth noting that when these books inevitably receive the film or limited series treatment, they’re further twisted to accommodate the popular trends of our time. Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty was published over a decade ago, but was turned into a TV show following its renewed interest and subsequent popularity on BookTok. Only now, Jeremiah Fisher is bisexual, and the Fisher brothers have a non-binary cousin – two details that were never included in the original text but are no doubt important now only because of the current year. Neither of these details mattered in 2009, so will they matter when we re-watch the show 10 years from now?

It’s not enough for fiction to take place in far-flung, exotic settings, or have fully-formed characters. Those environments must be oppressive and traditional, and those characters must be a “diverse” cast of sexually ambiguous, multi-racial people. Perhaps we’re failing to remember that there was diversity in literature pre-2023, before we ever started intentionally branding it as Diversity and injecting it haphazardly into literature. Powerful themes existed in fiction before today – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird all come to mind. Hardship, trauma, racism, and expressions of sexuality can all co-exist in pieces of fiction without feeling pandering and forced. But some of us can’t help but look at the most popular novels of today, with their characters and hackneyed partisan plot lines, and ask, what purpose does it really serve? Is it for fully-formed, dynamic, and dimensional characters, or a way for the author to use their fiction as an op-ed?

Does Good Fiction Exist Anymore?

It remains unclear whether or not BookTok is influencing the publishing industry or the other way around. Whichever you believe, it’s evident that there are millions of dollars at stake. It’s also evident that having recognized the success that heavily politicized pieces of literature are accruing, traditional publishing will only continue to produce similarly-slanted material.

You can’t throw a proverbial rock without hitting diversity in media, TV shows, movies, and now, literature. Literature was once the pinnacle of free, independent thought, but if the top picks of our culture’s most avid readers are to be trusted, readers have an epidemic of narcissistic, left-leaning Mary Sues on our hands. 

Our 24-hour news cycle, no matter which channel you watch, covers the popular topics of today, like the pandemic and racism, on a continuous loop. It seems safe to say that in turning to literature, especially when it comes to fiction, we’re looking to escape, not be given a self-referential lecture. The issue isn’t that these characters exist, but that their identity in many cases seems to serve no actual purpose.

There’s no denying that many of these writers are gifted in their own right. It’s also true that many writers feel called to incorporate aspects of their personal life, like their hardships, upbringing, and values, into their material. But in the majority of cases, their characters, plots, and themes on the topics of today feel much more performative than genuine, and even the best, most talented writing can’t erase that literary sin.

Closing Thoughts

Traditional publishing might be more elite, less diverse, and more close-minded than ever, but the good thing is that if you don’t want indulgently woke themes in your novels, you don’t have to have them. The burgeoning world of independent and self-published works means that you’re sure to find a story – that’s well-written, no less – that appeals to you. And better yet, the majority of these writers are on TikTok, and they need individuals to read their work. It just goes to show that you don’t need to be an influencer to get an advanced reader copy of a new novel which might be a hit – you just need to value creativity and good, quality writing.

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