This essay was adapted from Chels Upton’s newsletter, The Loose Cravat. Subscribe here.
In 2023, Colleen Hoover stepped in it.
In mid-January, the New York Times bestseller and BookTok darling whose books sold better than the Bible in 2022 announced that she and her publisher, Atria, were issuing a coloring book tie-in for her biggest hit, It Ends With Us.
The negative response was swift and overwhelming, for obvious reasons. It Ends With Us is a book about domestic violence. Hoover detractors who say she romanticizes abuse had a new weapon in their arsenal: How can Hoover pretend she takes the subject matter seriously while creating cutesy, juvenile merchandise? Only 24 hours after the coloring book’s publication was announced, it was canceled due to pushback from both her fans and critics.
I won’t lie to you—in the first wave of Hoover backlash, I felt a little thrill up my spine. Finally, finally, people were seeing what I was seeing: the emperor has no clothes. The author who takes up a disproportionate amount of our time and attention (if BookTok really promotes “the same five books,” as the subsection of the app is often accused of doing, then Hoover has written at least four of them) can finally go on the shelf for a while.
That smug sensation I felt was brief, because, as it often happens, the backlash became less to do with Hoover herself and more to do with the young women who love her.
It Ends With Us
Hoover initially released It Ends With Us in 2016, but thanks to a resurgence in popularity on social media, the book has become something of a lightning rod in recent years. When I first joined BookTok in 2021, it was generally understood that you criticized Hoover at your own risk. Her fans were like Swifties: fierce and loyal defenders who would absolutely flood your comment section with their displeasure if a review were to lean negative. But as much as this superfan phenomenon gets attributed to Hoover’s TikTok stardom, YouTube timestamps prove that this isn’t really the case. In a critical review of It Ends With Us in 2016, YouTuber Bookerly hedged her thoughts with the disclaimer that “I was really hesitant to put up this review, by the way. Really, I’m just afraid of the backlash.”
Even before the tasteless coloring book announcement, something had shifted. Now, when you search the author’s name on both TikTok and YouTube, the top reviews are not just negative, but downright scathing. Bookerly’s early video on It Ends With Us is no longer the “only negative” review on YouTube, as the title claims—it’s buried in Hoover takedowns, some of which have hundreds of thousands of views.
The common refrain is that Hoover’s writing isn’t just bad—it’s harmful to her young fans. This sentiment is echoed in comments, blogs, and tweets ad nauseum. “Fiction, especially fiction read by younger audiences, can have a large effect on how people perceive topics like consent and healthy relationships. While Hoover is not a YA novelist, she has cultivated a base that is largely made up of young people through BookTok,” wrote a blogger explaining the backlash in late December for the geek culture site the Mary Sue. Or, take this paragraph from another blogger’s piece, “Let’s Leave Colleen Hoover Behind in 2023,” for the books-and-culture website Bookstr: “Hoover has curated an audience of young, impressionable minds, and the last thing they need to learn is that abusive relationships are okay and to be expected.”
The Mary Sue also ran a summary of the coloring book debacle that points to three different college newspaper editorials on the topic as evidence that readers largely find that It Ends With Us, and Hoover’s work as a whole, romanticizes abuse. I’m not comfortable critiquing college editorials; I remember my college years as a time when I tried to synthesize my discomfort as a (now former) woman and a queer person and direct it toward an appropriate media target, as if I could eviscerate it so thoroughly that the world that inspired it could no longer hurt me.
But I am comfortable critiquing the Mary Sue, and I think it’s very interesting they lob criticism at Hoover from both sides, citing the college editorials that say she romanticizes abuse, but also linking a popular YouTuber who called It Ends With Us didactic, or obnoxiously moralistic and instructional.
Which is it?
Shock and Didact
It Ends With Us is marketed as a romantic love triangle between a young woman named Lily, her yuppie surgeon love interest, Ryle, and her childhood friend Atlas. This presentation is intentionally misleading—the bulk of the book is about Lily and Ryle’s relationship, which becomes abusive by degrees, slowly enough that when it finally hits you—Oh, this is a book about domestic violence—it’s a legitimate shock. Ryle’s charisma and domineering nature are initially not all that far off from typical characteristics of a specific (read: “alphahole”) type of romance hero, so while the red flags were clear enough, the false promise of genre romance (that this will work out in the end!) framed Ryle’s early behavior, if not in a sympathetic light, at least a wait-and-see one.
It Ends With Us frankly doesn’t work without this deception. The Ryle reveal is the emotional manipulation that gives this book a sense of heft. Without it, it’s simply a didactic story, a paint-by-numbers of how to recognize and respond to abuse. The title It Ends With Us is a nod to the moment when Lily, who had an abusive father, breaks the cycle of abuse by leaving Ryle.
Impressionable Young Girls
Quite a few moral panics of the past few decades, including the Parents Music Resource Center’s drive to label (and therefore censor) lyrics, the Satanic panic of the 1980s (which encompassed everything from Dungeons & Dragons to heavy metal), and the late ’90s uproar over guns in video games all centered around the fear that media was prepping young men for real-world deviancy and violence. But while the panics about young men consuming violent material argue it primes them for aggression, the panics about young women argue that media primes them to be the recipients of abuse.
Over a decade ago, critics of the popular YA series Twilight spent more time lecturing readers about how Edward’s stalking is not romantic, actually, than they did critiquing the more troubling aspects of the series, particularly its racism. In It Ends With Us, after displaying increasingly controlling behavior, Ryle pushes Lily down the stairs. Ergo, according to the popular analysis currently to be found online, young Colleen Hoover fans are more likely to be lulled into complacency, to have romanticized abusive behavior to the point that they see it as a sign of love, not violence, until it’s too late.
When I was in undergrad, my Gender Studies professor brought in an expert to speak about domestic violence. “Why do women stay in abusive relationships?” she asked us, a group of teenagers and twentysomethings who thought we knew everything.
“Because they think it’s love,” my classmate answered confidently, an assertion that was methodically picked apart over the next 45 minutes.
What I learned then, and what has been reaffirmed by studies, is that people largely don’t stay in abusive relationships because they think abusive behavior is romantic. The reasons vary but are largely systemic—without a social safety net, it’s easy to abuse someone not just physically, but financially, essentially trapping them. And cops aren’t a shield from domestic violence—in fact, you’re pretty likely to encounter an abuser in blue by bringing the police into the equation. The assertion about “romanticizing abuse,” which contains inside itself some amount of victim-blaming, is even more aggravating considering that during the act of leaving an abusive relationship—which is the universally approved way to respond to abuse—is when targets of abuse are subjected to the most violence by their abuser. Doing everything “the right way” comes with a substantial risk.
With last week’s announcement that Blake Lively has been cast in the It Ends With Us movie adaptation, another blogger for the Mary Sue elaborated on why they think the book romanticizes abuse, including the idea that “the book also encourages women not to pursue legal action against their abusers, even if it’s to protect their children.” But they also note that Lily is “deterred or talked down” from legal action by friends and loved ones.
It seems like this part of the novel’s plot could be read in two very different ways: one, which the Mary Sue seems to pursue, is that Lily doesn’t react to abuse in the appropriate way, and the book endorses all of her choices, and therefore both deserve condemnation. The other is an exercise in empathy: Hoover wrote an imperfect book on domestic violence, but if we require all of these narratives to be morally unimpeachable, there’s no room to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect victim.
While someone can showcase behaviors that signal their potential to be an abusive partner, it’s impossible to be sure. But even if it was obvious, if you could always be sure, if everyone had the resources to respond to abuse appropriately, this way of thinking still puts the onus on the victim. Consume the right media, absorb the right ideas, and you will be safe from harm. Abusers work to isolate their victims, and in speaking about this book in this way, we carry the message for them: It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to protect you—it’s yours alone.
Welcome to the Dark Side
For a book to be located within the genre of romance, it’s got to center on a love story and include a “happily ever after.” Colleen Hoover is a multi-genre author, and most of her books, including It Ends With Us, do not meet these requirements. But because her audience is primarily young women, and Hoover is touted as a romance BookTok success story, she gets a lot of the same criticism that has been dogging the romance genre for years. If It Ends With Us is both didactic and harmful, if leaving your abuser isn’t enough to escape accusations of “romanticizing abuse,” what do we do with the romance novels where the heroine ends up with her abuser? What do we do with romance novels that, through dual POV, give us the abuser’s perspective?
Dark romance is more of an umbrella term than a subgenre of romance, and encapsulates everything from historical bodice-rippers to mafia and motorcycle-club romance novels. It’s been in use since at least the early ’90s. The historical romance author Mary Jo Putney credits critic Kathe Robin from the Romantic Times with inventing the moniker, saying, “Light romance evokes laughter and sweetness, while dark romance works with more intense emotions.”
A dark romance can involve rape by one of the main characters, physical abuse, childhood trauma, serial killers, or countless other types of bad behavior. A book is tagged as “dark romance” more as a content warning than as a mission statement, but the underlying idea is that this is a romance novel where you cannot expect clear-cut morality.
In the 2020s, the online defense of dark romance largely revolves around the revelation of the personal. On the #darkromance side of TikTok, users share recommendations and salacious screenshots, but you don’t have to scroll for long before coming across an indignant response to finger-wagging moralists, with dark romance TikTokkers saying: I’m a survivor. I’ve been abused. The safety net of a romance novel is how I process my trauma. In a post-xoJane world, it’s so common to publicly unpack trauma, to rip yourself open for internet critics—who never cared about you or your well-being in the first place— that it’s become the first line of defense for readers of dark romance. Dark romance can be healing. See? I’m healing.
After a few years of seeing this, I’ve had enough. I don’t think this type of personal disclosure is necessary to express interest in a romance novel, and if It Ends With Us, which is not a romance novel and contains a character who leaves her abuser, is not didactic enough to escape the accusation of “romanticizing abuse,” where does that leave everyone else?
This is not, by any means, a new conversation. The idea that the primary goal of a romance novel is to be instructional, to set an example for young girls, is rooted in a patronizing and sexist belief that women, particularly young women, are incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality. Second-wave feminists were critical of romance novels just because they focused on love—implying that, if a romance novel heroine desires romantic love above all else, surely the young reader will do the same. We’ve moved beyond that critique, but we seem to be stuck on the idea that a romance novel isn’t just a category of genre fiction, but that it needs to have moral justification to exist, that we can’t extract themes or feelings or ideas, but we need to be taught how to behave by a romance novel.
It’s Not a Romance Novel
The primary betrayal of It Ends With Us, to romance readers, is the marketing. Common wisdom in Romancelandia is that if a book pretends that it’s a romance novel but doesn’t deliver, romance readers will not forget. Hoover’s success is a cold bucket of water on this theory: You can masquerade your book as a romance novel and still be wildly successful.
This has not endeared Hoover to the romance community, myself included. I read It Ends With Us before I was on any type of bookish social media, before I had even heard of Hoover, and the Ryle reveal felt like a personal attack. I’ve been nursing my Hoover-related grudge for years, taking delight in every negative review I came across.
But as someone who loves romance novels, particularly the ones that overlap with elements of horror, I draw a hard line at the claims Hoover is romanticizing abuse. If Hoover’s work, which does not end with the protagonists together, isn’t allowed to depict abuse, you can sure as hell believe detractors don’t think romance novels are allowed to do it either.
This is something I fully believe we, in romance, should care about. We should be taking better care of each other, we should be leaning into empathy, we should not be forcing fans of romantic fiction to disclose personal trauma to justify their tastes. That, to me, is the real harm.
When researching this piece, I spent a lot of time looking at praise and criticism of Hoover online, and my conclusion is that we aren’t giving young women any credit. The Mary Sue asserts that there’s a plethora of YouTubers and TikTokkers who disturbingly describe themselves as “Team Ryle,” but their linked evidence is to one YouTube account called Our Family Nest, which is dedicated to a Michigan family of six and their “online adventures.”
The mother, Candi, is middle-aged, and it’s her review of It Ends With Us that is the Mary Sue’s evidence of impressionable minds being corrupted. In her review, Candi states, “To me, and obviously, I’ve not been involved in an abusive relationship, so cut me some slack here, I’m not speaking from experience … I felt like [Ryle’s] abuse was not the same as Lily’s dad’s abuse … I felt like [Lily’s dad’s] abuse was 100% intentional every time.”
But I’m not convinced that a whole world of Hoover fans is in love with Ryle. The sheer ubiquity of It Ends With Us is sure to garner more than its share of bad takes, and other young Hoover fans online have been clear that they see Ryle as a villain, and the situation itself as complex.
From PolandBananasBOOKS in 2016: “So many times, when a woman is being abused by her husband or her boyfriend, if you’re witnessing it from afar, it’s so easy to blame the victim for not leaving, but it’s more much complicated than that when you’re in that situation.”
From the invisible life of sky’s YouTube review last year: “I feel like Colleen Hoover portrayed Ryle in such an interesting way, because he’s such a villain. He is so charismatic at the beginning of the book, and she wrote him to be very manipulative by using [his] tragic past and making excuses and his gaslighting.”
It Ends With Us, and Hoover herself, surely deserve criticism. The chokehold Hoover has on the publishing industry is more than enough reason to take a microscope to her work. It’s absolutely worthwhile to question whether It Ends With Us deserves the level of ubiquity it’s reached, and the existence of the ill-fated coloring book is a clear indication that Hoover prioritized money above respecting fans. I would just ask that we leave “impressionable young girls” out of it. They deserve a lot more credit than they’re getting.