The Deep Dive

Colleen Hoover: The Most Mystifying Bookish Phenomenon of All Time

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Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

When, years ago, I taught freshman composition, I struggled to break my excellent, eager students from their five-paragraph secondary education. They were well-drilled: claim, evidence, evidence, evidence, conclusion. And, if you know what you think and you already have the evidence to “prove” it, this can work.

But usually, it results in boring, safe, and otherwise generally uninteresting thinking. It is comforting to have a formula, but like all formulas, it does not readily lend itself to discovery. Instead, what I was taught to teach was an interrogative method. In this mode, the essay asks a question and then does its best to answer it. Answering the question is not the metric of success, but how thoughtful, well-evidenced, and articulate was the attempt to answer. The very best essays I found came to something like the following conclusion: “you know, I think I now understand what a better question is.” It is in this spirit that I am writing now. And here is my question: “why does the Colleen Hoover phenomenon feel so damn weird?” My hope is to answer, or reframe, the question for myself, and in doing so provide you with something I tried so hard to get my students to do more than a decade ago.

Before getting to the “so damn” adverbial phrase, I think it’s worth stating this: all bookish phenomena are strange. The publishing industry is so mature and the history of writing so long, that it takes something genuinely unusual to become a phenomenon. If publishing phenomena were not by their nature strange, meaning unpredictable and unmanufacturable, we would have them all the time, see them coming a mile away, and probably as a result have fewer books out there.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover

Consider a handful of the most significant breakouts of the last 30 years: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the Harry Potter franchise, The Da Vinci Code, 50 Shades of Grey, Rupi Kaur, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Twilight Saga.

Taken individually, each one is an extremely unlikely candidate to make cultural waves. None, save perhaps Gone Girl, was a critical favorite. If you squint, the only real commonality is that the kind of people who think about books regularly dismiss them all at some stage, from acquisition to mainstream acceptance.

So rather than being surprised that an out-of-nowhere hit doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would be a hit, we should, somewhat counter-intuitively, expect it. In fact, it seems being weird is a necessary condition of being a runaway best-seller.

I know this. I have thought about it a lot. And yet still I am having trouble getting my head around Colleen Hoover. And this, I think, is because not only is her success strange, but it is also differently strange.

I have made notes to myself over the last couple of years as this has unfolded about this different strangeness, and I think I can outline the X things that make Hoover stand out even from this group of outliers.

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