This has been the summer of Colleen Hoover, a recent viral TikTok announced, editing together clips of young women at the beach reading books by the Texas novelist. Furthermore, just a couple of months ago we had a Colleen Hoover spring and before that a Colleen Hoover winter and before that a Colleen Hoover fall. On any given week for more than a year now, the 42-year-old Hoover has had three to six books on Publishers Weekly’s top 10 bestseller list. Currently three of the top five titles on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list are Hoover’s. The most popular of these novels, It Ends With Us, isn’t even new. It was published six years ago. A forthcoming sequel to that novel (or possibly a prequel, it’s not yet clear), It Starts With Us, will be published in October, its perch at the summit of both lists guaranteed.
Observers typically attribute Hoover’s success to BookTok, the segment of TikTok dedicated to authors and readers. And Hoover—known as CoHo to her fans, who call themselves Cohorts—is indeed the queen of BookTok, an adept TikToker herself, as well as the subject of countless videos in which young women appear clutching huge stacks of candy-colored CoHo paperbacks and proceed to rank their favorites among her 24 titles. But while Hoover might just be the ideal author to preside over TikTok, the platform is only the latest online vehicle she had ridden to fame and fortune. She sometimes presents herself as surprised by her own virality, but Hoover has been a savvy self-promoter since 2012, when she distributed free copies of her first, self-published YA novel, Slammed, to influential book bloggers. She was big on BookTube (the YouTube book community) and big on “Bookstagram” well before TikTok came along. Furthermore, her story—social worker and mom transformed into blockbuster author via whatever new technology of the moment is ostensibly revolutionizing the book business (self-publishing, blogging, Instagram, TikTok)—is catnip to traditional news outlets.
But a new technology can’t make readers love a book. It can only persuade people to read it. What is it about Hoover’s work that makes it so popular, so infectiously recommendable? Her novels do seem particularly well-suited to the currently ascendant TikTok because the platform favors big, grabby displays of emotion, as opposed to the tasteful lifestyle curation of Instagram, formerly touted as the hot new way to sell books. CoHo fans on TikTok record themselves sobbing, screaming, gasping in astonishment, and pressing her books to their hearts in winsome displays of adoration. Often, actual words are superfluous to communicating the reader’s response—in fact, they may be more of a hindrance than a help. Above all, BookTok conveys that Hoover’s fiction delivers power jolts of unadulterated feels.
Hoover’s books are more varied than the work of many bestselling novelists. You pretty much know what you’re getting when you grab a James Patterson thriller before boarding a long flight. But Hoover has written YA, romantic comedies, a ghost story, a gothic suspense novel, problem novels exploring such difficult issues as domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and steamy romances like Ugly Love, a novel about an affair between a nurse and an airline pilot that I estimate to be about 70 percent sex scenes. Not all of the Cohorts adore all of her books, but they’ve shown themselves to be willing to follow her into relatively uncharted territory and to appreciate what they find there. (Note to anyone reading further: There will be spoilers.)
Romance of one kind or another plays a role in every Hoover novel, and to judge by her TikTok fans, they speak to an audience with a well-developed awareness of the romance genre’s established—not to say shopworn—tropes. The heroine of 2015’s November 9 is just such a reader, explaining to her love interest what qualities make a kiss “book-worthy” and informing him that she doesn’t like stories featuring “insta-love” (the central couple falls for each other madly on first sight). In It Ends With Us, Hoover presents Ryle, one third of a love triangle involving the heroine Lily, as a classic romance hero. He’s handsome; has a glamorous, remunerative career as a neurosurgeon; is fantastic in bed and gallant outside of it; and can’t stand up straight. (Seriously, for some reason the heroes in romance fiction are constantly leaning on walls and doors, one of the many ways they fail to resemble real-life men.) Deploying all the fictional techniques used to make romance readers swoon over a male character, Hoover sets up Ryle’s reluctance to commit as the main obstacle to Lily and Ryle’s relationship. When they (inevitably) overcome this and he falls for her, Hoover wallops the reader with the romance’s true impediment: Ryle’s violent temper, which for Lily dredges up the nightmare of her own father’s abuse of her mother.
As the novel’s title indicates, the only responsible choice Lily can make is to leave Ryle, despite the fact that she’s pregnant with his daughter. She delivers this decision in a tear-jerking climax during which she asks Ryle what he’d tell their child if she came to him with the same dilemma her mother faces: “Tell me. I need to know what you would say to our daughter if the man she loves with all her heart ever hurts her.” Ryle admits that he’d want her to leave, and everyone (many readers included) collapses into weeping.
Not all abusive husbands would concede so readily, but Ryle is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure who only behaves like a jealous, brutal monster when he “snaps.” This may strike some as implausible—aren’t most abusive men controlling and belittling in minor ways before they become violent? But by making Ryle a handsome prince who only occasionally turns into a fearsome beast, Hoover invests her readers in the romance between him and Lily and the possibility of a happily-ever-after ending in which they work it out. That happy ending is a reader’s primary expectation of the genre, an expectation that mirrors the self-deceiving romanticism that leads some women to return to abusive partners. When Lily pulls the plug (this marriage cannot be saved), she breaks the conventions of the romance novel and makes the reader feel how hard it can be to leave a man who hurts you. (It does help that Lily has an old flame lurking in the background, a master chef who says things like “In the future… if by some miracle you ever find yourself in the position to fall in love again… fall in love with me.”)
The explanation offered for Ryle’s peculiar psychology is a childhood accident in which he shot and killed his brother. That’s another big CoHo theme: trauma, specifically “trauma bonding,” as romance fans refer to fictional couples drawn together when they discover they’re both laboring under past wounds. In the first line of Verity, a writer named Lowen witnesses, from close quarters, a man being hit by a truck on the streets of New York: “I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.” A handsome, kindly bystander helps her to a cafe restroom to clean up, and then they stand around swapping horror stories like battle veterans comparing scars: Her mother has just died, and he recently carried the drowned corpse of his eight-year-old daughter out of a lake. It Ends With Us begins in a similar fashion, with Lily and Ryle meeting on a rooftop and agreeing to exchange “naked truths”: She just buried her abusive dad, and he just saw a five-year-old die on the operating table.
This has led some BookTok critics to shrug off Hoover’s fiction as “trauma porn,” a complaint that is not entirely unfounded. While none of Hoover’s novels approaches the litany of torments depicted in, say, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (another BookTok fave), they do partake of the current vogue for defining personality through suffering and emotional damage. There’s something adolescent about the belief that trauma automatically makes a person interesting or deep, but Hoover’s characterization needs all the help it can get to make her heroes and heroines seem more than generic. Often the only distinguishing traits they possess are their traumas: past abuse, burn scars, the death of a child (or children), a conviction for manslaughter in the accidental death of a former lover, a loveless childhood, and so on.
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. They are built of clichés, which is not necessarily a drawback in romance fiction, where the deployment of familiar devices feels comforting. This also appeals to people who view themselves as nonreaders because they lack the patience for or interest in literary prose. For such readers, C.S. Lewis once wrote, cliché makes reading effortless because:
… it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.
Hoover never, for example, wastes words in conjuring a sense of place or atmosphere. She might set a novel in Boston or San Francisco or upstate New York, settings chosen seemingly at random, and with a minimum of research. There’s no such thing as local color in Hooverland. Hilariously, in It Ends With Us, she has two teenagers in a small Maine town discuss their desire to move to Boston, where the people talk in such a funny way, saying “cah” instead of “car”—as if Mainers don’t pronounce the word similarly, with an even heavier Yankee accent.
In the absence of what feels like tedious verbiage to “unliterary” readers, Hoover supplies angsty love stories, extensive sex scenes, catchy premises, and outrageous plot twists. Plenty of popular fiction relies on these proven winners, but it’s less common to see them all deployed at once. November 9, for example, lifts the premise of the 1939 movie Love Affair (reprised in 1957’s An Affair to Remember, and referenced in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle) of a couple who can’t be together but agree to meet once a year. The hero of that novel, a writer, borrows the self-deprecating wit of a John Green protagonist, and the result is not without charm, as their passionate annual reunions coax the traumatized heroine—an actress whose career has been scuttled by scarring from a house fire—to believe in herself again. Then, just as they’re about to get together for real, she discovers that he was responsible for the fire, which he set at her father’s house (not realizing anyone was inside), because he blamed her father for his mother’s suicide.
The absurdity of this twist is rivaled by that of Verity, a gothic novel heavily influenced by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The heroine, Lowen, agrees to complete the final volumes in a series of bestselling books whose author, the title character, has become catatonic (or paralyzed, it’s not clear). Hired by the author’s dreamy husband, who is mourning the deaths of the couple’s twin daughters, she moves into their creepy rural mansion to go over Verity’s notes. Among the papers, she discovers the manuscript of a memoir revealing that behind the facade of a loving wife and mother, Verity was in truth a sex-crazed sociopath who murdered one of the little girls. Which is handy, because Lowen has fallen in love with Verity’s husband. And then, in the novel’s final twist, she discovers a letter in which Verity claims that the memoir was a fabrication, just a writing exercise—but only after Lowen and the husband have killed Verity, who was only pretending to be paralyzed. Whew!
There are a few abiding mysteries about Hoover’s books: Why, for example, is the airline pilot hero of 2014’s Ugly Love named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon? But I do believe I’ve identified the secret to Hoover’s success: Her books are efficient delivery mechanisms for the maximum dosage of multiple crowd-pleasers: love stories, unabashed smut, trauma plots, tear-jerking soap opera, and wild narrative twists. They are the everything bagels of popular fiction. And as far as her fans are concerned, who could ask for anything more?