Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

How social media has “fast fashion-ized” the publishing industry

By AYDEN MIN | March 9, 2024

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Min argues that modern literature is preoccupied with trends that minimize the value that can be gained from reading substantial books — like the classics.  

There are reasons why we’ve all read the classics in high school that seem to get annually recycled in English curriculums nationwide. Timeless themes of human compassion and conflict, dynamic character development and carefully crafted motifs remain a source of inspiration and recurring analysis for readers. Stories by Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Brontë have been at the center of academia for so long that we tend to forget that many were indeed once the “popular fiction” works of their time. Yet, these key components vital to what we call truly “classic” literature are dwindling in the modern publishing industry, where rising consumerism and mass production are leading to the imminent decline of the creation of future classics. 

Throughout history, the political context and society’s ebb and flow highly influenced what was being written, what gained traction and what became what we now consider “classics.” However, modern young adult (YA) fiction seems to be driven by the increasingly intense, yet fleeting, popularity of trends that spread on social media, with the rise of BookTok exemplifying how social media marketing has altered the publishing industry. We’ve all seen the “coquette,” “mob wife,” “dark academia,” “coastal granddaughter,” “black swan/white swan” and “old money” trends that seem to run the algorithm every week. Not only do these “aesthetics” influence the fashion world and popular culture, but they also devalue the fundamentals of classic literature, and instead, appeal to our commercialized demand for the “next big thing.” 

The desire to stay relevant and popular in order to appeal to a generation raised on the rapid use of social media has led to TikTok marketing centered around book scenes and dialogue that are disconnected from context but intended to grab the attention of the next possible reader. The focus on writing quotes and scenes to appeal to this form of marketing, rather than on creating a text with literary value, has rendered many modern works disposable. 

We can use Austen as a contrasting example: Her clever building of dialogue has been heralded as one of her best literary skills, as she uses it indirectly yet intentionally to develop her characters, rather than by bluntly spelling out their changes. The legacies of modern fiction are almost nonexistent, in comparison to that of classics which, due to their substantial and timeless themes, almost always have value in being revisited. 

Even more interesting is the minimization of established classics to the point where a book or character’s complexity is severely compromised and narrowed down to a certain narrative. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and its corresponding film rose in popularity last year, inspiring the (arguably toxic) “sigma male” mentality that flooded the internet for weeks. Though American Psycho is considered a modern classic due to its themes of human greed, corporate materialism and complex identity, the tendency for social media to make things more digestible and relatable has greatly transformed common conceptions about this piece. 

Sylvia Plath’s writing has also been a target of this phenomenon, where The Bell Jar’s layered narrative and plethora of figurative language have been reduced to the “sad girl” aesthetic, with the Fig Tree Analogy (also taken out of context) running Pinterest boards. These classics have undeniably shaped the realm of modern writing, but with the mass generalization of these works, future generations’s understanding of valuable literature becomes jeopardized. 

So, what are people actually reading? A lot of books are either never read or never finished, despite the fact that Americans are buying more books than in the past. Many of the books being bought are in the YA genre. Authors of YA fiction tend to advertise their books as part of a trilogy or larger universe, making it easier for readers to buy all of the related copies in massive purchases and authors to produce more works for their audience.  

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the ways of fast fashion run very similar to this pattern of consumption. Trends are printed in droves, offering an abundance of similar or related plotlines to millions of potential buyers. These works are then bought for the sake of keeping up with trends, rather than genuine interest or value in the characters or storyline. The dependency on popular archetypes seen in works of authors like Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry arguably diminishes the creativity and originality that would birth a modern classic, even though it may result in immense sales. Furthermore, the mass consumerism of paperbacks contributes to our already significant carbon footprint, which is another testament to the fast-fashion transformation of the publishing industry. 

Ultimately, people will read what they find intriguing and won’t read what they don’t, but the preservation of literature and art is something that may very well be lost to the abyss without conscious efforts to uphold what we already have. Modern fiction has indeed produced works that may become classics in the near future, like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. However, our ability to consider situations critically and read between the lines rides on our understanding of complex themes found in classic works of literature — not the simplistic stockpiles of instant gratification that line the biggest shelves of local bookstores. 

Ayden Min is a freshman studying International Studies from Los Angeles, CA. 


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