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21 August 2023updated 22 Aug 2023 3:01pm

Colleen Hoover’s tales of love and trauma

Aided by an online fanbase, the author has sold over 20 million novels. What makes these formulaic books so marketable?

By Amelia Tait

Once you learn about Colleen Hoover, you see her everywhere you go. Step inside a WHSmith or Waterstones and you can’t leave without knowing her name, which echoes on book cover after book cover like a mantra. The Texan author has written 26 fiction books and sold an estimated 20 million copies globally (4.2 million in the UK). Five of her books have dominated the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list all year – scan the chart, and you may feel you’re reading her bibliography. Her 2016 novel It Ends With Us has been a bestseller for 119 consecutive weeks and is being made into a film starring Blake Lively.

How did Hoover’s books outsell the Bible last year? Her success is often credited to “BookTok”, a digital space on the video-sharing app TikTok that is dedicated to literature. Videos with the hashtag #ColleenHoover have amassed 4.4 billion views, and often show women filming themselves reading, crying or highlighting the author’s work. Hoover would never have reached this level of fame without the internet – her first books were self-published and it was bloggers who propelled her sales. But if we examine Hoover solely through the lens of social media, we miss the obvious question: what’s inside her books? 

Over the summer I read the five Hoover novels that continue to rule the US charts: 2014’s Ugly Love, 2016’s Too Late, 2018’s Verity, and duology It Ends With Us and It Starts With Us, the latter of which was published in 2022. I expected commercial fiction that, if not literary, was compelling: full of plot twists or explicit sex scenes. Yet her early work is a slog, repetitively reminding us of the characters’ motivations like a children’s book. Only her more recent novels qualify as “page-turning”.

I found that Hoover has been incorrectly categorised as a romance novelist – she’s more at home in the nebulous category of “new adult” literature: books written for people aged 18-30, which are as easy to read as young adult fiction but with more grown-up themes (Hoover has spoken about being “contracted” to specifically write college-aged characters, due to the popularity of new adult fiction). Hoover spans genres – from melodramatic thrillers to erotic romances – but there are formulas that unite all of her books.

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In Hoover’s novels, women sharing names with London landmarks (Tate, Sloan) fall in love with men with vocal chords made of food (butter, honey). The men are emotionally unavailable for mysterious or tragic reasons (the baby they had with their stepsister died in a car accident; their catatonic wife is in the bedroom upstairs; they are an undercover agent busting “the largest campus drug ring in collegiate history”). Hoover’s female protagonists meet their love interests within the first five pages of each book, and have few thoughts beyond the men that consume them.

All good love stories leave readers thinking, “I wish that was me”, and Hoover is not ashamed of brazen wish fulfilment. “Your mind is incredible. If I could f*** it, I would,” says the love interest in Verity. In Ugly Love, a teenage girl asks a teenage boy if he’s a virgin. He replies: “No, but now that I’ve met you, I kind of wish I was.”

The men in these novels are deeply unconvincing. A hardened drug dealer calls tears “wet shit” and nicknames his lawyer “Pansy Paul”. A teenage boy speaks like a poet and falls in love with a girl’s nod.

The writing is flat: “I open a cabinet, grab a cup, then pour myself some juice.” The prose improves with Verity; a thriller about a ghostwriter who moves in with a paralysed author and her husband and is tasked with completing the author’s books. If I were to recommend any Hoover novel, it would be this one, if not for the reasons she intended. It’s a very camp novel full of inadvertently enjoyable theatrics – jump scares involving the is-she-isn’t-she paralysed author popping up in places she shouldn’t. Numerous lines made me laugh when they weren’t supposed to (“Even after you tried to choke me to death and crash my car into a tree, I can’t find it in myself to hate you”) – but it is gripping.

Though Hoover is often called a romance novelist, in these bestsellers sex is far more dominant than love. Her characters lust after one another but rarely seem to connect emotionally, instead relying on shorthand romantic gestures (mostly, men seem to like tilting women’s chins). In Too Late flirtation takes the form of a game of making up nonsense sentences such as, “Walrus tusks cloud my vision like chocolate pudding.”

Hoover’s sex scenes subscribe to a predictable – yet jarring – formula: characters sleep together after harrowing scenes. In Ugly Love, a newborn dies in a car crash and one page later, the love interest, “slips his hand beneath my skirt and begins to pull down my underwear”. In Too Late, a woman’s hands shake violently because her rapist has just been released from jail. Also a page later, her boyfriend’s “hands cup my ass beneath his oversized T-shirt I’m wearing. He slides his fingers beneath the edges of my panties.” In Hoover’s novels, trauma bonding is the best aphrodisiac.

Sex saves people in Hoover’s work – men and women heal each other in the bedroom. But men are always the protectors, and her books are profoundly sexually conservative. Hoover hasn’t spoken publicly about her politics – on Facebook, she describes herself as “embarrassed at [her] lack of political knowledge”. Still, it is striking that each of Hoover’s young protagonists ends up pregnant. It is always unplanned – but never, ever unwanted. Teenagers don’t even discuss the possibility of an abortion, and when a rape victim briefly considers it, she concludes: “It’s an innocent baby.”

Colleen Hoover was a 32-year-old social worker and mother-of-three living in a trailer in the small city of Sulphur Springs, Texas, when she self-published her first novel Slammed in 2012. By the end of the year, she’d hit the New York Times bestseller list and forged a deal with Simon & Schuster. Hoover, 43, knows the power of digital word of mouth; in 2014, her fans bombarded her publisher with memes until it printed a physical version of one of her eBooks. For a decade she has engaged with her fans (“CoHorts”) via a Facebook group which has 200,000 members.

In 2021 TikTok users started to rave about It Ends With Us, half a decade after its release. “This is the book that completely f***** me up,” said one. By the time the novel went viral, Hoover already had a backlist of titles “ready to go,” said Molly Crawford, Hoover’s UK editor at Simon & Schuster. Though Too Late was first shared on the fan-fiction site Wattpad in 2013, it was released in paperback in June by Sphere, an imprint of Hachette (Hoover now has multiple publishers). Crawford joined Simon & Schuster in January 2021 – she quickly noticed Hoover’s “sales were building at a level that we needed to really pay attention to”. A TikTok taskforce was built and Crawford wrote a document explaining the app for the company. Simon & Schuster UK created a marketing campaign to build on the online buzz and two weeks later, It Ends With Us hit the Sunday Times bestseller list.

In the UK, It Ends With Us has now sold 1.13 million copies in paperback. The book is a realistic account of domestic violence, and is Hoover’s best work. Twenty-something Lily Bloom falls in love with a neurosurgeon who becomes abusive; she slowly finds the courage to leave. Hoover is writing from experience – her father physically abused her mother – and in an author’s note says the novel is “for women like her”.

Some have condemned the book for glorifying toxic relationships – Cosmopolitan claims it looks at abuse with “rose-coloured glasses”. I wonder if this outrage arises from Hoover being wrongly categorised as a romance novelist: Sharon Ibbotson of the Romantic Novelists’ Association said, “I don’t believe she’s a romantic writer.” Nonetheless, the book has a pink cover and is popular with teenagers. Crawford said the “book is for adults. As an adult, you can read that book and understand that the character is not a good character.” On Facebook Hoover said she is “not the appropriate person to educate children on sexual activity”.

Yet regardless of their literary merit, it’s deeply misguided to claim that these books “glorify abuse” by portraying it. Whether they are dramas or romances, these are novels and not instruction manuals.

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Hoover’s success lies in her blend of fantasy and atrocity. She’s not the first novelist to do it, but perhaps she did it at the right time. Hoover made five of her eBooks free in the spring of 2020. “I watch trends in romance,” Ibbotson told me, “I’ve had more readers in the last year and a half ask for more books like Colleen Hoover is writing than, say, cupcakes and romances by the beach.” She ventured that readers may seek out fiction that reflects the darkness they see in the world around them.

Hoover’s most recent book, It Starts With Us, was published in October 2022. It is fine. But when I put it down, I was at a loss to explain her explosive popularity. On her Twitter bio Hoover writes, “I don’t get it either.”

Hoover’s books sell because they offer an opportunity for collective experience in a fractured cultural landscape. One TikTok video, with more than five million likes, features a girl on a tram holding up her copy of Ugly Love to a window and trying to get the attention of a girl reading Ugly Love on the pavement. TikTok videos that mention “reading Colleen Hoover at school” have a collective 8.8 million views. Buying a Hoover book means buying into a community and an identity. The writing is secondary.

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect