Picture this: you’re at home, isolated from the rest of the world. The days are bleeding into one another. You don’t know what to do with yourself. Suddenly, you remember how you used to love reading as a kid. How you’d finish one book almost every week. How you’d save a portion of your allowance to buy the newest YA book that’s about to be turned into a movie. You want to go back to that time, a time when you could open up a book and travel to the most magical of places. But how?
Like many of us, you spend a lot of your time scrolling through Tiktok when you come across the hashtag #booktok. You find people showcasing their latest book hauls. People share recommendations based on zodiac signs or book tropes (maybe you’re a sucker for enemies to lovers). People crying and gushing over books that emotionally wrecked them. It’s amazing.
happy #netflixsexeducation S3 release day!! i heard maeve gets into american contemp feminism this season 👀🤝 #booktok #booktokph #maevewiley #bookrecommendations #feministnonfiction #feministbooks #booksbywomen #bookrecs
“I was in a four-year reading slump,” shared 18-year-old Klai (@mypatrochilles). “Booktok showed up and made me love reading again.”
From writing reviews to making video concepts, booktok has helped people tune into their creative side. “Ever since I’ve been adapting these essays I’ve written into video format, it’s like breathing a new life into them,” said Andrea, a 21-year-old behavioral science student from the University of the Philippines Manila (@girlbossinred). “People are starting to engage with my ideas in a way that they haven’t before.”
Doing videos for a large audience has even boosted the confidence of 25-year-old Joe, an event associate (@mcjoeeenalds). “I have low self-esteem and self-confidence but Booktok really became an outlet for my creativity. I get to meet people who have the same mind as me and we become friends.”
And some are able to take a break from the stresses of life. “Booktok was my escape,” said 21-year-old Alex, a student from the University of Santo Tomas (@__alex.reads). “I gained friends and I get to meet people from different backgrounds.”
Booktok has become a safe space for all kinds of readers.
The Rise of Smuttok
Tiktok (If you know where to look) is also a platform for meaningful conversation. People are becoming more open about mental health, race, gender, sexuality, slowly eliminating the notion that these issues are taboo.
This influence is noticeable in the rise of the “spicy” side of booktok, lovingly named smuttok. Romance readers are even rating books based on their “spicy-ness” levels (translation: how hot the sex scenes are). But, smuttok isn’t just about sex.
“I find it empowering,” shared Alex. “It empowers people to be more comfortable. It normalizes things that we don’t to talk about.”
These “spicy” books have opened people’s eyes to other important issues related to sex. “It’s hard to assert your sexual identity and sexual agency, or find a medium for sexual exploration especially if you’re a young woman or a young LGBT person,” said Andrea. “Spicy books are a great outlet for subverting what the culture expects of you. The sexuality of women and LGBT people are often invisible or pathologized but here we are reading things like that.”
People of different ages are able to consume content that has been long considered “forbidden.” However, others have advised that creators must still be conscious of the messages they’re communicating to their audiences. “I think teenagers like me are more likely to engage with such media,” observed Klai.
“Sexuality is something that should be taught at a younger age. In the Philippines, we’re very conservative about topics like this. Of course, we should still be mindful of what we post and we have to ask ourselves if we’re stepping out of line, making other people uncomfortable.”
We may not get information about sex and relationships from our parents (awkward) or from teachers (Philippine sex education still demonizes sex). However, that doesn’t mean we should look to fiction for answers. “It’s not really informative. At the end of the day, these are novels for leisure, they’re not textbooks,” said Andrea.
The romance genre is often unfairly seen as glib, thoughtless, superficial, and unintelligent, stereotypes that are associated with the women who read them. And, the world (mostly men) has a tendency to hate on things that a lot of women like (it’s a classic case of misogyny). Nevertheless, smuttok has given people a platform to unabashedly discuss their desires.
Diving deeper into the world of booktok, it’s apparent that the community, while warm and welcoming, is not without its flaws.
One downside is that a lot of the books are pretty mainstream
“I think the Tiktok algorithm has something to do with this. Most of the books that Tiktok blows up are straight and white because the majority of the audience is straight and white. I’m a queer person so Tiktok brings diverse books to my FYP because I’m the target audience for that type of media,” stated Klai.
You end up seeing a lot of books by the same popular authors like Madeleine Miller, Sarah J. Maas, Holly Black, Colleen Hoover, Penelope Douglas, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with liking their books but there are more books (and authors) out there.
For Donna, a 31-year-old marketing manager (@sirenareader), the lack of diversity can be attributed to the fact that POC/queer writers don’t get the same support as their white and straight counterparts.
“The publishing industry is biased towards white authors. It’s a business that offers money and support to things they believe would sell.” The 2020 Rethinking Diversity in Publishing Report backs this statement. One respondent even admitted that “books that are dealing with issues [like race] are just harder for us to publish.”
To counter this problem, booktokers urge others to step outside of their reading comfort zones. “If you want a diverse community, you have to diversify your reading tastes. Bookworms must challenge their tastes. It’s a way to grow more as a reader,” stated Joe. It’s not just the authors and publishers who shape the community, it’s the content creators and audience too.
29-year-old Bryan (@bryanhoardsbooks) has made it his lifelong mission to introduce people to diverse reads. “When I do recommendations, there are books that people have not heard of. . .not only supporting BIPOC authors but also pushing the local [Filipino] literary scene.”
He also described how people within the community help each other discover new books, books that represent different experiences, books they never knew they could love.
Booktok also has a complicated relationship with problematic authors
“Problematic can be a blanket statement, you can refract it into something you want it to mean. So, it’s really a case-to-case basis,” Andrea pointed out.
Donna personally believes that people can’t be separated from their work. “Whatever art form they make, is part of who they are. . . [And] listening to the marginalized community is important, they’re the ones that will tell you why it is harmful,” said Donna.
“If an author addresses the concerns moving forward, and you can see the change, you can see them being better, I’m more inclined to give them a chance.” She cited Sarah J. Maas and Jay Kristoff as examples of problematic authors.
In relation to this, Bryan quoted his fellow booktoker, Collins (@mxreeselatonio), a trans individual, who stated that “we shouldn’t give traction to these authors who harm minority people, because if we give traction, it gives people the feeling that whatever they do is okay when it’s actually on the flip side.”
For Joe, canceling people doesn’t solve any problems. “Problematic authors should be discussed [and] educated if need be.” He also believes that those who found comfort in the works of authors who became problematic should be given the space to grieve. He mentioned Harry Potter, a book series he loved as a child, whose author is a vocal transphobe. Sometimes, he said, it’s okay to separate the book from the author.
There are ways to read problematic works without supporting the authors. Booktokers advise their audience to refrain from buying new copies. Go for second-hand (or pirated versions shhh) instead.
People are allowed to read whatever they want. As Bryan said, “It all boils down to personal preference.” However, it helps to be more critical of the content you consume. “What you read represents who you are, it’s you but in book format,” declared Alex.
For Aspiring Booktokers
Imperfect as it may be, the booktok community is a space that’s full of possibilities. Booktokers are constantly encouraging more people to join the conversation. But, it can be daunting so here’s some advice for all you aspiring content creators:
“Keep it fun, remember why you’re there, you’re there because you love reading and you want to meet people who also love reading. Always be open to different books. I used to be very adamant that I’ll only read non-fiction, but now some of my favorite books are fiction. Things I got encouraged to read because of booktok.” – Andrea
“Enjoy the content that you’re publishing. You can do book recommendations, book reviews, book sales, it will really boost your following. One of the things I really like about booktok, especially in this pandemic, is the feeling that I’m not alone. So, create relatable content.” – Joe
“Create the content you want to create. Rant about the books you want to rant about. Make sure you do research, make sure you know the content you’re commenting on. Don’t mind the views or the likes. If the algorithm is bad to you, let it be bad.” – Alex
“Just be yourself. Talk about what you want. Don’t mind the thoughts that say “paano kung controversial ito?” Just share what you want to share. People will welcome you [naman]” – Klai
“First, never shy away from interacting. Whatever you do for as long as you read, you’re welcome in this community, it doesn’t matter if you’re starting or if you’ve read lots of books in the past, we’re on the same level. Second, give credit where credit is due. Lastly, there’s no other you in the world, there’s just you, just be you.” – Bryan
“Don’t be scared to join in. Try the easy things. You don’t have to be [techie] about it. What’s important is that you love reading and you love books. If you’re scared of saying the wrong thing or making mistakes, everyone does, it’s just a matter of apologizing and doing the right thing. So, enjoy it and learn from the community too.” – Donna