Text by Ljiljana Maletin Vojvodić //
WHY READING IS DECREASING
The results of PISA testing show that every third student in Serbia is functionally illiterate and unable to apply what they have learned in practice. We don’t need statistics to conclude that young people generally don’t read books, they have a limited vocabulary, many have never entered a library, the structure of their sentences resembles that of the English language, and in SMS and Viber exchanges, they use abbreviations.
So, why is Instagram full of pictures of books and reviews about them? If independent and antiquarian bookstores are closing, if reading is decreasing due to social media, why are these platforms flooded with book quotes and photographs?
It sounds absurd, but it seems that Instagram and Tik Tok, in fact, made books desirable again. Or have they just announced the end of a world we knew, where books became „a point of socialization (We all love Murakami!), and no longer an intimate encounter between the author and their reader,“ as Dubravka Ugrešić noted in one of her interviews.
Of course, the question arises about what kind of books are actually present on Instagram. Is it Instagram-worthy only for so-called light reading — literature for teenagers, romance novels, or crime stories?
The fact is that the novels (and the novel remains a privileged literary genre) of the most acclaimed domestic and regional authors cannot be compared in sales with the circulation of light fictional literature. However, there are also writers for whom we can say that the quality of their work is not inversely proportional to their popularity, as well as their presence in both print and online media, even as a hashtag.
Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume „My Struggle“ is an international bestseller, and a similar situation can be seen with novels by, for example, Michel Houellebecq or Haruki Murakami. Their books achieve significant circulation, are translated into many languages, and are not trashy literature. It is true that all three of them have good marketing, and they are backed by significant publishing houses.
Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle © LJMV
BOOK AS A STATUS SYMBOL
Although it may sometimes seem that books appear on Instagram only to serve as decoration next to a cup of coffee, whether we accept it or not, Bookstagrammers, Booktubers, Instagram authors, and Book bloggers are part of the modern literary discourse. In which, again, a coherent system is missing.
So, what is #bookstagram actually?
The Instagram hashtag for book-related photos (#bookstagram) is said to date back to 2014. It gave rise to Bookstagram accounts dedicated to books, where book enthusiasts (or those for whom digital marketing is a job) promote reading, specific books, or authors, post excerpts, quotes, and comments, recommend what should be read next, organize giveaways, write reviews, and create short video clips. In addition to Bookstagram profiles on Instagram, the Booktube community and literary podcasts (some of which are truly of high quality) are also significant. With the emergence of TikTok, there is also BookTok – short speeches about books (30 seconds to 2 minutes) that motivate reading, encourage book purchases and more.
It is clear that circulation, the number of comments, and likes are not indicators of the literary value of a work. But why do authors and readers pay attention to them?
Among Bookstagrammers and BookTikTokers, there is a special category of influencers. Mentioning them may cause some to scoff, but they are a proven marketing shortcut to popularity. Authors, publishing houses, and even professional marketing agencies use their services because influencers have a ready market – followers who follow their recommendations.
Some influencers work independently, while others work for publishing houses, but in essence, their posts function as small ads – advertisements that increase popularity, and visibility in the virtual and public space, and stimulate sales. However, this does not necessarily mean that these books are actually being read.
LITERARY CRITICISM VS. BOOKSTAGRAM
The emphasized dilemmas bring us back to the beginning of the text. How is it that if relevant literary criticism exists today only in a few media outlets, as well as in a handful of literary magazines (which, even if they are of high quality, are read by very few), so many people write about books? Most often in superlatives, descriptively, fragmentarily, with book photos accompanied by a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, with a pet, at the beach, from an exotic destination…
In whose recommendation can a reader trust today: the literary-critical-publishing discourse or the community of Bookstagrammers and TikTokers? What more precisely interprets recent artistic practice: the lack of grounded analytical-interpretative criticism or the abundance of Bookstagram and BookTok posts? How can a good book rightfully earn its place between these two extremes?
What happens to authors whose literature is not „Instagrammable“? Whose sensibilities do not approve of aggressive marketing, those who are not plugged in, connected, self-assured, extroverted, and who do not navigate well in the online space or in the public literary life?
Whether we like it or not, whether we want to or not, almost everyone creates Facebook and Instagram profiles. Many respected writers do it too. They use Facebook or Instagram accounts as their advertising space, communicate with readers, publish news about their books, reviews, photos, and diary entries, and comment on social and literary events.
In their desire to become „IN“ and „bookstagrammable,“ some authors appear tragically comic in their linguistic and visual marketing aggressiveness. However, it seems that few people notice it. Because, who today is bothered by exhibitionism, photos, and posts – praises and self-recommendations?
Literature, just like life, has become a serious race for a „like.“
In „A Witches’ Brunch“ Dubravka Ugrešić problematizes the appearance of a new, modern type – multitasking writers („multitasking enthusiasts with high literary ambitions“) who „talk about themselves and their books with astonishing self-confidence.“ Everything that these networked, eloquent, integrated, articulate, communicative, self-determined, multitasking writers say, we could, just as Ugrešić writes, „sign without any hesitation,“ that we „are not held back by caution.“ Maybe that’s because, as the writer ironically and humorously points out, „if someone really gets on their nerves, they will resort to mobbing strategies, just like teenagers in popular teenage series, or local politicians.“
Just as many literary critics (as well as writers and bloggers, after all) will resort to strategies of exclusion, isolation, and silence, even if you don’t get on their nerves.
Tourists at the Louvre, in front of the Mona Lisa. Paris © LJMV
ADVANTAGES OF BOOKSTAGRAM
It’s good that people write about books and talk about them. It’s important that literature has moved beyond the usual interpretative clichés. It matters that there are readers who often read with more attention than those for whom interpreting literature is a job. It is important that books are mostly read by women who promote women writers, female characters, and, in a sense, women’s themes. It’s significant that social media erode the rigid literary hierarchy – giving unknown authors a chance to emerge from the anonymity in which the literary establishment placed them.
DISADVANTAGES OF BOOKSTAGRAM
The reception of a literary work is just one aspect of its complexity. The value of a book is not the same as a subjective, impressionistic reading experience. The interpretation of a literary work involves first reading and experiencing the text, then interpreting the work in its synchronous and diachronic aspects, within the context of literary tradition and broader recent production.
Criticism does not mean mere fault-finding, but it does not necessarily imply liking, especially not pandering to the author, the internet community, the publisher, or any interest group (which does exist in, so to speak, traditional criticism as well).
Moreover, it’s not clear whether online book reviews are just a passing trend.
Literature is much more than the popularization of an author or (online) socialization. The most influential bookstagrammers – influencers – have the power to turn a poorly written book into a bestseller. They often publish paid texts sponsored by publishers, and marketing agencies, and are overly market-oriented. Many of them hide their identities, hyperbolically support each other (sometimes more than paying attention to the authors and their works), and recommend books they haven’t read or don’t intend to read.
In Bookstagram posts, there are a whole series of clichés and questions like: „Should I read this book?“ Almost all of them have a similar manner of writing posts, and they are mainly differentiated by the choice of accompanying visual content.
MOMA PS1 bookstore © LJMV
In the end, the dilemma remains: in a time of fake news, populism, dilettantism, and the dominance of aggressive discourse in the public space, is online literary marketing the greatest sin? Or are bad writers with successful online campaigns just another proof that we no longer care about anything and that literature, like the race for awards and positions in cultural institutions and publishing houses, has turned into a chase for comments, followers, and likes, leaving those who have something to write and say often marginalized?