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10 Backlist Books Getting a “Second Life” on TikTok – Do They Deserve It?

Yes, I am one of the “olds” – aka someone “born in the nineteen hundreds” – lurking on TikTok. I don’t post videos (Instagram is hard enough to keep up with for this millennial), but I do like scrolling through and watching random videos about cats and books, learning how to do my makeup better, adding weird recipes to my bookmarks and never trying them, and living vicariously through the people who can actually afford to buy a house. And while a surprisingly small amount of my TikTok feed is about books (probably because it’s kind of hard to find BookTok accounts that talk about anything other than YA, which I’m not super interested in), there are a lot of books I keep seeing around. Like, anytime I come across a post about books.

I have noticed a trend among the youths of TikTok of reading older books and kind of acting like the made this huge discovery that no one knows about yet (if you’re an old, like me, you might be sitting over here chuckling like the nearly-ancient beings we are). It’s just kind of funny to me. I don’t remember people when I was a teenager bringing out like The Pillars of the Earth or The Secret History and acting like no one else has ever heard of them.

While no one seems to have delved far enough back into the books I was actually reading as a teenager – where is the Meg Cabot and Philippa Gregory and Libba Bray, BookTok??? – they are resurrecting some of the books that you might have read if you were a teenager like five years ago (if that’s you, congratulations, you are young enough to be allowed on the TikToks). So, the books that aren’t old, like me, but ones that are definitely backlist and kind of to the point we’d stopped talking about them a lot.

So, today, I thought I’d take a look at some of these “amazing new discoveries” that I actually read either when they were new, or at least when I was in my mid-twenties (so very long ago – jk, I’ll be thirty-three this month, so not THAT old yet), and see whether or not I think they’re worth being brought back into pop culture in the 2020s of if they should have stayed back where they were.

Here are ten backlist books currently popular on TikTok that I have actually read in the past, and what I think about them being resurrected now:

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I joined TikTok out of sheer boredom in mid-2020, and I have been seeing this book everywhere since pretty much day one. Which is both a little weird, because I read this back when it came out in 2014 and people were talking about it (the first time), and annoying, because I hated this book. (Apparently in 2014, that meant giving it a two-star rating, but I just demoted it to one star because I don’t care what people think anymore and I’m still mad that I read this book.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like a lot of the creators on TikTok who talk about books are younger and mostly talk about young adult books. Which is fine, apparently this is a platform for people who did not live through Y2K. However, the issue I have with them bringing back some these older YA books is that a lot of them were problematic. Granted, we Were Liars is not as bad as some of the other ones (not included here, partly because I refuse to read Colleen Hoover), but it still has issues. This article does a good job of summarizing some of the problems with this book.

I also think this book is just… not good. The writing isn’t great, the characters are all kind of the worst, and I don’t know about you, but I was over the whole “poor little rich kid” thing pretty much immediately. I’m kind of glad that trope seems to be a lot less popular now, and we do not need to bring it back. Also, I feel like this book is kind of the perfect example of how not diverse YA literature was – it’s still not awesome, but it’s a vastly improved than since I was a young adult. There are so, so many other books young people can and should be reading now, and this one should have been left in 2014. Out of all the books I’ve seen on BookTok, this is the one that probably bugs me the most. Though it is not the only one.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Now here’s a book resurgence I can absolutely get behind. The Song of Achilles is already ten years old – I know, because I recently purchased the 10-year anniversary special edition. Which should tell you how much I loved this book. It’s mythology, it’s diverse (at least more than a lot of the TikTok books), it made me cry, and it is actually well-written. BookTok-ers seem to have a thing for both sad books and romance, so it makes sense as to why The Song of Achilles is on this list.

What’s extra crazy about this book is that it actually became a #1 bestseller a full decade after it was first published. And if you know anything about publishing, that is unheard of. Everyone is crediting TikTok with this book’s resurgence, and that seems like the only reasonable explanation, given that this isn’t the only backlist book popular on TikTok that became a recent bestseller. Book sales are up in general, and TikTok seems to be a huge part of that. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that this book in particular outsold it’s first year by something like nine times, which is just insane. Well-deserved, though. This is one of my favorite books, and I’m happy to see it doing well. Hopefully this means we can get more from the author, soon!

Legend by Marie Lu

This is the only other YA book on this list (aka, the only other YA book TikTok seems to be obsessed with that I have actually read). So it might not surprise you that it is also a book I kind of hated back when I first read it – coincidentally, in the same year I read We Were Liars (2014 might be the year that killed YA for me, and these two books might be to blame). I picked up the entire trilogy based on a post I read online that said if you liked Red Rising, you would like Legend. And I was more than a little bit obsessed with Red Rising at the time, and since there were only one book available in 2014, and I needed more, I thought Legend might fill that void until we got more from Pierce Brown.

I am already getting annoyed just discussing this book. I don’t even really remember why, but I remember absolutely hating this book/series. And yes, I rage-read the entire series because I was mad that I’d spent money on them (questionable logic there, but whatever, I was young and stupid and too stubborn to ever DNF a book).

But the fact that I personally didn’t like this book is not the reason seeing it’s current BookTok popularity bugs me. Although I still stand by that there are a lot of better books out now that are more deserving of attention than Legend. What does bother me is that this author is known to be ableist in some of her other works (explanation with links to relevant reviews here). I am happy to see TikTok embracing a diverse author, but when said author contributes to hurtful stereotypes of a different marginalized group, it’s still not okay. The evidence of harmful and hurtful content regarding disability in her other novels predates the popularity of TikTok, so there’s really no excuse to support an author who is already known to be problematic.

This is also kind of an issue I’m realizing I have with BookTok in general – I feel like book bloggers and vloggers seem to be a lot more mindful about what they discuss and support than many of the creators I see on BookTok. Granted, we have more space to discuss various aspects of certain books – including how they are problematic or potentially harmful – but I think BookTok could solve this problem by just featuring other books and not contributing to the support of authors like Marie Lu and Colleen Hoover who create harmful and discriminatory content. Maybe it’s the age gap or the fact that a lot of us old-school bloggers have been around longer and already learned this lesson, but I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Another one of my favorite books, and favorite authors, that is doing exceptionally well on TikTok. BookTok definitely seems to have a type, and it is sad books with romance in them. At least among the adult books they discuss (I haven’t read very many of the YA books I see there all the time, so I can’t really discuss them too much, but they seem to lean towards fantasy/romance – there is a lot of Sarah J. Mass, who we will discuss in a minute, don’t worry).

But I really can’t be mad about Taylor Jenkins Reid gaining popularity on TikTok. I love her books (I’ve read like four or five of them) and she just seems like a genuinely nice person. I have actually met her, and it was one of my favorite author-meeting experiences ever. She’s so nice and down to earth and just a lovely person. So not mad about this one at all. And it also makes sense that this one (and several of her other books) are currently popular since they’re in the process of being adapted into movies or shows.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I loved it when I read it back in 2016. On the other, I can kind of see where people are coming from with it being a little bit problematic. I’m kind of curious to see what I would think about it now, but I will absolutely not be rereading this one because is was really not good for my mental health (though I didn’t recognize it at the time).

Again, I do like to see some authors of color on TikTok (seriously, there are way too few of them), but I just feel a little iffy about this one being recommended. Even though I remember loving it, I will never, ever recommend this book. It is too thoroughly depressing (I hadn’t quite realized I was suffering from depression at that point in my life, but this one seriously put me in an awful funk for months).

So I just feel kind of meh about this one being so popular on TikTok. I think it’s probably a way to make good content that involves watching people sob, which seems to be a thing (I don’t know, I’m too old for this app). But I am just a little hesitant about the idea of influencers promoting a book with so many potential triggers and failing to give content warnings for it a lot of the time. Not sure if it’s that they don’t have space to include content warnings (especially to the extent needed for A Little Life) or that they’re less mindful about these kinds of things, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending this book and encouraging people to read it without a lot of warnings beforehand.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

You know I am one-hundred percent behind this one. Not really much to say about this except I love Jane Austen and I love seeing younger people read her books. This one is definitely my favorite of her novels, so I’m kind of glad this is the most popular of her books on TikTok and not Emma. No hate to everyone who loves Emma, but the characters in that book annoy me so much. It honestly kind of feels like the kind of book TikTok would love, so I’m glad they went with Pride and Prejudice instead.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Here’s another one I have kind of mixed feelings about (coincidentally, I read this the same year I read A Little Life, which tells me I was definitely still in my “I have to read the books everyone else is talking about to be a good blogger” phase). So my initial rating from six years ago was four-stars. I liked this. I thought it was really fun. I hadn’t quite delved back into reading romance (I read a lot in high school – mainly Meg Cabot books – and didn’t read much at all until a few years ago), so I don’t think I had a good frame of reference.

I also wasn’t paying attention that much to problematic elements in books back in 2016. So there was a lot I didn’t notice. For me, this was just a fun romance novel, which I’m sure is how the people talking about it on TikTok see this book. But there are definitely some problematic things in The Hating Game (this review and this one do a great job discussing that). I am not sure what I would think if I reread this now, but I don’t think I would enjoy it quite as much. I kind of hated Sally Thorne’s other book when I read it in 2019, and I don’t think this is an author I’ll be reading again.

While I’m not mad about this one being popular so much, I still don’t think this deserves all the hype it’s getting now. One, there are so many other romance novels we can talk about that are better and less problematic. And I would love to see TikTok using it’s clout for good and sharing more romance novels by diverse authors. Give me Talia Hibbert or Rebekah Weatherspoon, please! If the trend is to talk about books like you’re sharing some hidden gems, why aren’t we talking about underrated books instead of ones for which the hype has died down because it’s been a whole five years?

I know the 2000s are back in style. I can choose not to relive the horror of my teenage years by avoiding butterfly clips like my life depends on it. But can we also not bring back that mindset of not being concerned about things like mental health or problematic tropes or like, lack of consent in books? It is 2022. Us olds already went through this and it sucked. Feel free to discover the low-rise jeans nerve damage firsthand, just leave the romanticizing toxic relationships in the past, please.

If We Were Liars by M. L. Rio

Now here’s a book I was pleasantly surprised to find out was popular on TikTok. I feel like I haven’t personally seen it around a lot, but that doesn’t mean too much since I don’t watch a lot of bookish things on there. Not because I don’t want to. But because I am tired of seeing people rave about Sarah J. Maas and We Were Liars. (Seriously, find some new books to talk about, people!)

Obviously, I do think If We Were Villains deserves it’s newfound hype. It was popular when it came out back in 2017. I actually had an ARC of this one, and I’m pretty sure it’s one I wouldn’t shut up about back then. And I still stand by that, so I’m glad people are talking about this book again. Here’s the thing about this book: it’s very similar to The Secret History, which I think was also pretty popular on TikTok for a while.

But from the beginning, I have always said that If We Were Villains is The Secret History, but better. I think it’s just a better executed mystery, it’s more engaging, and has the added interest of Shakespeare, which you all know I love. Pretty impressive for a debut. And while I do like Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch is one of my favorite books), The Secret History just doesn’t quite hit the same as If We Were Villains.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Say it with me now: “lets all stop promoting problematic authors”. Got it? Cool. But seriously, I’m just kind of very over Sarah J. Maas. I’m tired of seeing her books everywhere. Especially when I know they are really not inclusive at all and many of them have some problematic elements (read about all that here). She creates massive worlds and dozens of characters and like one of them is not white. The lack of diversity of any kind in her fantasy series is seriously concerning, especially in 2022.

And not only that, the evidence I have seen of those very few token diverse characters being represented in harmful ways makes this even worse. (Scroll down in this post for examples of her racism, homophobia, sexism, Islamophobia, and ableism.) Like, it makes me a little angry to see an author who is blatantly and repeatedly perpetuating harmful stereotypes and ideas be so insanely successful when so many authors of color are not even given the chance.

I have actually read four of her books – this trilogy (or the first three books in the series because authors don’t know when to stop anymore) and Throne of Glass. It was a fun little fantasy romp with some steamy bits, but only if you ignore how toxic and, quite frankly, moronic most of the characters are. Also, the writing is not good. Come for me if you want, but I have a master’s degree in English and creative writing, and I’m saying Sarah J. Maas got rich writing mediocre problematic fairy smut. And it’s totally fine if that’s your thing, read all the fairy smut you want, but there has to be something better out there. Maybe with more than one diverse character? And maybe where the diverse characters are not inherently evil or broken? This one is a hard nope from me. We can do so much better. It’s time to move on.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I had to finish off this post with a book that I am not the least bit angry to see getting hype on TikTok. I know not everyone loves this book, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. Gorgeous, atmospheric, wonderful historical fantasy. I will acknowledge that there is less diversity than I would personally like to see in a book published nowadays. But for a book that came out in 2011, it’s really not terrible. (I actually found this great post that does a diversity analysis of The Night Circus, if you’re curious.)

That said, I love to see this book getting attention. I have personally gotten like seven people to read this, just in my actual personal life. And that’s saying a lot because I have basically no friends. TikTok clearly has more power than I do to get people to buy and/or read books, so at least this one is deserving of the support, at least in my opinion.

Overall, I am not impressed with the popular TikTok books (including those I haven’t read, and didn’t include here). Here is my problem with BookTok: it has the power to sell crazy numbers of books. Like, unheard of amounts of books that were published like a decade ago. And, as a whole, it is not using that power for good.

The vast majority of BookTok bestsellers lack diversity and way too many of them promote harmful stereotypes that can and do hurt minority groups. They also perpetuate ideas that feed into harmful relationship ideals, toxic attitudes towards both physical and mental health, and are just generally doing a pretty great job of bringing back the bad parts of early-2000s society.

So it’s kind of disappointing that instead of turning underrated diverse books into bestsellers, BookTok is bringing back older books from the past decade and completely ignoring all the problematic things like we were all doing ten years ago. It’s 2022, the world has changed and so have books. We need to stop putting some of these on the top of the charts. Imagine what BookTok could do if they used their influence to sell books like Lonely Castle in the Mirror or Hench or The Undocumented Americans. Books that celebrate diversity and inclusiveness and also serve as a way to educate ourselves and become more open-minded and accepting and kind. You can read great, fun books and still learn something. I would just really love to see BookTok embracing that perspective instead of what seems to be happening now.

The thing is, we all know that authors of color and diverse books still do not have a fair chance in publishing. But it’s because the publishers see what sells. And what BookTok is causing to sell are not the diverse books people like me want to see more of. They see Sarah J. Maas selling insane numbers and The Song of Achilles far outstripping any book that is based on Eastern mythology, despite being ten years old. BookTok is effectively telling publishers “we want white books and we don’t care if they’re sexist or homophobic anymore”. I don’t think that’s intentional, but that’s just how it works. Influencers kind of have a responsibility to do better, and it seems like a lot of the ones talking about books on TikTok are ignoring that.

I want to see books with disabled characters portrayed accurately as the human beings they are and not as something that is broken and needs to be fixed. I want to read books where the number of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters reflect the real world and are not just token side characters or plotlines. I want stories about diverse people where their diversity is not something that has to be overcome. I want books that teach me about experiences I’m not familiar with and help me be a better person. I think that’s what we need. And I wish BookTok would use their power to promote these books instead of books that can make people feel left out or hurt. I remember that feeling when I was young, and it’s so disappointing to know that BookTok is kind of bringing that back just when we thought things were getting better.

I’d love to hear what you think about this! Are there any BookTok bestsellers you think don’t belong there? What do you think of the spur in book sales because of TikTok? Good or bad? What changes would you like to see?

sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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