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Is Colleen Hoover Replacing Good Literature?

Hannah Dane

Creative Writing Editor

Photo via Zoie Karagiannis.

Two steps into Indigo will lead you to the darkest, most depressing side of the modern book world: a table full of Colleen Hoover books. Colleen Hoover is an American author whose novels fall into the genres of Young Adult romance, New Adult romance, and psychological thrillers. In 2022, six of Hoover’s books reached the top ten bestselling list according to Publishers Weekly; It Ends with Us, Verity, It Starts with Us, Ugly Love, Reminders of Him, and November 9 reached first, second, third, fifth, eighth and ninth place, respectively. Though Hoover has amassed an immense following and formed a devoted fan base – the ‘CoHorts’ – her books have been subject to harsh criticism from the literary world. As Hoover’s books continue to outsell numerous classics and renowned authors, can we consider her books to be “good literature”?

Before diving into Hoover’s many shortcomings, a few positive points about her work can be mentioned. No matter one's opinions on the author, Hoover’s rise to fame has sparked a creation of reading communities, from Facebook groups to Instagram accounts and TikTok posts with over 4.5 billion views in total. As television and social media have been increasingly replacing people's reading habits, one could argue that any form of reading is a good thing. As a plethora of “new readers” get into Hoover’s collection, chances are they might also explore other authors and genres, making reading a regular routine. Taste is also subjective. What one might see as a terrible, bland, predictable book could be another’s favourite piece.

Objectively speaking, however, Hoover’s biggest releases are nothing short of highly questionable and disappointing. They share common characteristics: they are dialogue-heavy, fast-paced, and revolving around young adults in tumultuous romantic and sexual situations in the 21st century. Nevertheless, despite their success, are these traits enough to create “good” literary pieces?

Literary scholars throughout the centuries have outlined what “good literature” should be like. Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, written 350 B.C.E., looked at how literature should be structured through six main elements: plot/structure, characterization, diction, spectacle, song, and thought-provoking ideas. Though Hoover’s books contain distinct plot structures and thought-provoking ideas as she tackles topics like marital abuse and sexual assault, diction and “music” are lacking. As Literary critic Laura Miller explained, “The blandness of Hoover’s characters makes them easy for anyone to identify with, and the smooth, featureless quality of her prose makes her novels easy to breeze through in a day or two.” Hoover’s books are hardly prosodic or richly written.

This simplicity, however, could simply be reflective of the masses’ inadequate reading skills. In 2013, Statistics Canada analysed adult literacy levels in the country. As a result, more than one in six adults failed even the most basic reading comprehension test. Almost a decade later, Falice Chin, writer for CBC, reported that “About half the [Canadian] adult population fell short of passing a high school level of assessment, by testing the ability to digest lengthier and more complex texts while processing the information accurately.” Reading a Colleen Hoover book, where the most complex literary reference stems from Finding Nemo, does not require any advanced literacy skill, so it sells.

Putting aside the undeniably bizarre elements Hoover has added to her books – like Lily Blossom Bloom, the name of the main character of It Ends with Us, who works as (you guessed it) a florist, using Ellen DeGeneres (of all people) as a guiding figure in that same novel, or the main characters of Ugly Love laughing at their newborn son’s “big balls” – another main problem critics have with her stories is the use of “trauma porn” to lure readers in. “Trauma Porn” is a term used to describe harsh, traumatic situations portrayed for the consumer’s entertainment. As I scroll through Hoover’s 5-star Goodreads reviews, an overwhelming amount of positive responses revolve around the visceral reactions Hoover’s books incite in their audience: “This is the most moving book that I've read in a LONG time” (@candace, 43), “I didn't expect this book to impact me so hard” (@Angela).

Through tragic, sometimes violent scenes, readers are presented with scenarios that cause pain for the characters and the audience, only to be comforted by a well-wrapped happy ending. Sophie Lambert, managing director at the literary agency C&W explained this need for “trauma porn” in literature: "Post-pandemic, there are certain themes and types of genres that have really excelled. People want escape and hope and wonder and love." The yo-yo of emotions keeps people on their toes, crashing them down and then offering immense consolation when every problem is miraculously resolved, without having to invest time and energy into a more intricately written novel. It does not matter whether the book is “good” or not; if it gets its readers to feel something, Hoover fans will love it.

Reading in any form can be an enriching and entertaining pastime. Picking up a Colleen Hoover book for a quick, stirring story is not a shameful crime, but maybe we need to be more careful about what we dub a literary masterpiece (I beg).

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