There are the novels that the literary world acclaims and there are the novels that people actually read. Sometimes — perhaps with decreasing frequency — they are one and the same. But apart from momentary blips when a bestseller and a critical darling line up (Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, Ocean Vuong), they usually diverge. Every era has its authors whose novels are at best overlooked and at worst despised by literary connoisseurs and still dominate bestseller lists. These books succeed not only in spite of the critics but almost as if to make them sad.
Thus EL James, whose gray-shaded erotica in the 2010s gave readers edgy princess stories. Jacob’s books came out of fan fiction she wrote based on the Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer’s own romance hits from a few years back. Meyer, in turn, offered a chaste variation on Anne Rice’s versatile bloodsuckers. And back in Rice’s heyday of the 1980s and ’90s, mass-market copies of her “Interview with the Vampire” occupied the same spin racks as other critically acclaimed authors of the ’70s and ’80s: Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins. Big best sellers, all of them.
With rare exceptions, these books are written by women, for women. This type of commercial novel, sometimes slapped with the nasty label “women’s fiction”, includes all genres from domestic thriller to romance, with the exception of spy novels, hard crime and chest-pounding Tom Clancy-style thrillers.
And for the last few years, these books have been written by Colleen Hoover.
Only in 2022, Hoover’s novels sold 14.3 million copies and in total, more than 24 million copies to date. Time magazine named Hoover one of the most influential people of 2023. Like several other successful novelists of the 21st century, she began her career by self-publishing. But Hoover’s innovation was to capitalize on the nascent world of BookTok, a literary community on TikTok where legions of her followers (self-proclaimed “Cohorts”) shower emojis on her posts and generate their own videos extolling the weepy pleasures of her fiction, vastly expanding the audience for “It Ends With Us” and “It Starts With Us” and the other 22 novels that make up the work of Hoover. As Hoover himself explained his popularity in an interview in The Times: “It’s not me. The readers check what’s selling now.”
But why? What is it about Hoover’s stories — which reside mostly in romance, but also include a thriller and a ghost story — that appeal to women?
There was only one way to find the answer and I didn’t have to look far. Almost every bookstore contains a designated Colleen Hoover table, display case, or section, filled with obscure but pleasant titles, like “All Your Perfects” and “Ugly Love.” I sloshed three of them in one week. I found myself carrying them from room to room, slipping in what would start as “just a few pages” but then stretch into hours.
Hoover’s books come off like a TMI Facebook confessional, rubbernecking you from the first sentence. Certain patterns quickly emerge. Poor white strivers with trauma in their pasts and the cards stacked against them (impossible parents, failed romances, family abuse) typically move away from home and then work their way toward career success, emotional recovery, enchanting love and superlative sex.
Other Hooverian devices are also becoming familiar. Characters often have names so obscure they hardly seem like real names (Ryle, Lowen, Chastin, Atlas, Crew) but might end up climbing the baby name list – now you know why – in a few years. Chapters end in italicized cliffhangers: “Until he discovered the one thing that meant more to him than me.”
Parents often die within the first few pages. Mother’s methamphetamine overdose in “Heart Bones”. The funeral of an abusive father in “It Ends With Us”. Death of a long-suffering mother from cancer in “Verity”. The adult child then enters the real world.
There’s a Taylor Swifty intimacy to Hoover’s stories, which often take the form of diaries or simply read that way. (“I immediately want to cry again, so I force myself off the bed. I focus on the hollowness in my stomach while I use the bathroom…”) Every emotion trembles at the surface. (“I was. taken. From. He. Addict to him.”
Emotions tend to be described rather than evoked. (“My mind begins to spin with worry, sadness, fear.”) All feelings are big feelings. (“I’m crying so hard, I don’t even make a sound.”) Passions reverberate with the intensity of I-hate-you-but-I-love-you exchanged during a couple’s first big mobile fight. (“I wonder what color his eyes are. No. I don’t wonder. I don’t care.”)
Although Hoover’s settings range across America from Boston to New York to Texas to Vermont, the only contextual references pertain to pop culture, social media, and the occasional local attraction. Politics is confined to the frightening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and even when Hoover’s striving heroines find themselves among the haves, their hearts remain forever with the have-nots. In these novels, what matters more than anything else is hardship: Hardship is everywhere, women have to suffer, women can recover, and those who go through all this have the ability to find themselves/love/happiness. The reader cannot help but feel that the heroine/Hoover is speaking to me/for me/as me.
Fiction of this kind reflects a tension in the culture that has changed from a fascination with the other – the rich, the powerful, the exclusive – to a more internal preoccupation with the self and the desire to see oneself reflected in the stories one consumes. As with TikTok testimonies of teenage mental health challenges and group chat confessions, it’s about “relatability” and the willingness to bare all. Even celebrities have to bare it all. Confession trumps mystery.
The popular women’s fiction of the ’80s, when the glitz and glamor of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” ruled prime-time television, offers a sharp contrast. In bestsellers of that period, the settings flew from Monte Carlo to Capri to Rodeo Drive, inhabited by the rich, famous and destined. Heroines could have been peeled off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine: that of Judit Krantz Princess Marguerite Aleksandrovna Valensky, aka Daisy, or Jackie Collins’s Lucky Santangelo (“gambler and lover, a woman who ruled her empire and pursued her man with the mighty Santangelo force”).
In the novels of Sidney Sheldon, to which I graduated in early adolescence after gazing in the fictional attics of VC Andrews, heroines radiated ambition. With just a bit of perfect sex, grit and naturally superlative beauty, even the up-and-comers soon walked the corridors of power to success in a male-dominated world. I loved those books. To echo a Times review of Sheldon’s work, “While this may be literary junk, it’s hard to put down once you start.”
I’ve never shed a tear reading Sheldon, but that wasn’t the point. The point was exuberant voyeurism, the literary equivalent of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The lives of the heroines were nothing like mine nor were they meant to be. That’s what made them so absurdly funny.
Colleen Hoover paints on a more intimate canvas. Her stories are not about achieving world power on a grand scale, but about finding power within. Through the personal growth and interpersonal relationships of her characters, Hoover offers readers an emotional road map to recovery from impostor syndrome, domestic abuse, betrayal, victimization. It’s a very different kind of achievement.
In a country where economic inequalities can seem insurmountable and systems of power increasingly distant, this may be the best her struggling heroines – and readers – can hope for. Hoover offers a fantasy that feels attainable. You too could achieve self-realization. You too could achieve Oprah healing, no matter how much suffering it takes to get you there. For readers invested in characters who are like themselves — if perhaps prettier and with more exciting sex lives — the emotional payoff can still feel hard-earned. And, just maybe, the story could happen to them.