How Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Blew Up BookTok (And Why That’s Not a Good Thing)

Books Features Hanya Yanagihara
How Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Blew Up BookTok (And Why That’s Not a Good Thing)

When you really take the time to look into it online, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is not necessarily as widely loved as its bestseller status, Man Booker Prize nomination, and striking TikTok popularity might indicate. In fact, its widespread success indicates that the idea of writing a best-seller is coming to mean less and less these days. 

I entered the A Little Life world after hearing friends rave about it, knowing the title as a well-respected piece of literature that had a significant reign over the TikTok trending category, and wrongfully expected it to blow my mind. I should have remembered that a book that is successful on BookTok is not always a book that might be not actually worthwhile as a piece of literature, but simply as something easily digestible and marketable to the general public. 

These thoughts are not utterly new, as I’ve seen a lot of discourse online, including an extremely well-articulated point by Andrea Long Chu, who wrote a piece in Vulture around the metaphor that A Little Life’s writing is similar to the mental disorder Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Many others outside of the TikTok realm were astounded by Yanagihara’s inability for the profound and serious fixation on torturing her characters. 

Its hype feels eerily reminiscent of the talk I’ve heard surrounding other popular, largely relevant-through-BookTok novels, like Normal People by Sally Rooney or The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. To try to describe what feels so wrong about these novels feels blunt and hurtful, a criticism aimed at authors who were only trying to write entertaining novels and stories that would stick with people. But they’re all consistent in one thing: they remind me of the same kind of stories I used to read at age 12 or 13 on Wattpad. (Wattpad is a self-publishing platform mainly used for fanfiction, and largely known for its clumsily written stories that once engaged teenagers’ attention spans, sometimes for its heavy-handed infliction of trauma amongst characters.) 

While Normal People’s story was valuable and an interesting exploration of how we often misunderstand each other in relationships,  the way that emotional patterns transform themselves throughout a relationship, and how we each truly live in our own realities, which are distinct from the insecurities we develop through living. It was truly magical as a TV show adaptation, but its writing was, again, astoundingly unimpressive. Though, the story thrived because it was digestible. A Little Life’s success has been similar. 

The novel itself is a slowly-paced 800 pages, consistently dimming itself into an ending that feels like it has already achieved its peak and out-run itself after the reader earns their way through the beginning details of the story. Folnlowing four men through a lifetime of friendship, addiction, and ambition, Yanagihara coerces her audience to delude themselves into believing her story will go somewhere aside from repeatedly bathing its main character Jude St. Francis in the same pain and trauma he spawned with on page one. (I mean spawn very literally, the author puts very little effort into making Jude into someone worth caring about or giving his journey or the friendship we are meant to grow so invested in any real meaning.)

By the 300-page mark, I became weary that the story would—or could—be anything other than what had already been shown to me. There was no big resolution that made any of it worth it, and maybe that was Yanagihara’s point, though assuming that intentionality didn’t make the reading experience any more bearable. I trudged from there through the rest of the story and to its inevitable, predictable end.  Maybe not every book needs to be so serious or contain some profound throughline, and I may be speaking from a veiled perspective, particularly fond of questioning myself and unpacking moral problems. I love when a book can make me do this, but that isn’t what everyone is always looking for (and that’s totally okay). But A Little Life seems to pose as something it is not. 

A book about trauma written by an author who admittedly didn’t do any research for a character riddled with mental illness and who has voiced widely known off-putting takes on talk therapy—in an Electric Literature interview, she discusses a scenario in which it might be valid for a therapist to allow their patient to kill themselves and admits she doesn’t believe in talk therapy— is not intended for entertainment or written to be un-serious whatsoever. These topics need to be handled with care, and that doesn’t mean that one should simply refrain from writing about traumatizing subjects, but when dealing with these kinds of issues, there should be a greater idea at work.

On Reddit, I saw multiple threads of people who shared very similar complaints about the novel: that we were never given a reason that the main characters were even friends at all or an explanation for why they were so invested in one another. On one hand, I can see how this drives home the point again, that friendship amongst men is sometimes reasonless, and their closeness is achieved through a completely different means (and often, far away from another through a silent agreement to be that way) than friendship between women. The novel might have been more interesting had it explored this struggle through a gender binary lens, as the means through which men tend to their emotional wounds are deeply rooted in this same societal conditioning. 

Yanagihara intends to tell her audience that sometimes people can’t get better. I don’t disagree completely, but this ideal is approached with a lack of nuance that offers a very closed-minded view of the world. Maybe I would’ve felt different if the novel were at least well-written. It’s hard to fall completely for characters or scenarios in a book and suspend one’s disbelief about its subject matter when it simply doesn’t feel like an emotionally engaging story. It needs to truly come from a unique voice and, therefore, perspective. 

The author’s writing turned me off completely, weaving surface-level anecdotes and, quite frankly, poor sentence structure. The story lacked a natural flow and seemed like it never really aimed to get anywhere. At major plot points, it felt like Yanagihara looked to herself and said “Okay– now what? Now what should I do to Jude?” But was driving the point into the ground that Jude is traumatized, proving it to us, even rubbing it in our faces even necessary? At a point, the stories became so boring, unlikely, and drawn out, there was hardly anything substantial to take away from them. I understand what the book was going for—highlighting how men have been given a very limited emotional toolbox and/or space to communicate that allows them to work through their problems. I just think that this was a botched attempt at it.

The question stumping me, that I can’t seem to wrap my head around– how does a book like this blow up?  It’s easily digestible and quite shocking to read. It went viral online for these reasons. But how is this enough? Do books not have to be genuinely thoughtful and nuanced in order to gain such a heightened level of popularity? (Well, I guess every book is good to someone). I can see how it might appeal to young people—Gen Z, etc—who might be reading their first fiction story about sexual trauma. In that case, I could see the book presenting them with new ideas about how trauma affects people, though, that too makes me sad, as it isn’t a very hopeful possibility.  

It just makes me feel so defeated to see children on TikTok becoming rulers of the contemporary fiction market, ones who are not yet equipped with the skills or knowledge to truly judge a book for what it is. I know that a few years ago when I was in my teens, I wasn’t. It says much more about how art and literature have morphed in the modern age than those teenagers who are just having fun online, entertaining themselves. It’s only fair that I forgive them. The market itself has grown into a killer, where without a very specific type of marketing, the most brilliant, profound ideas will often go unheard. I wish we were more aware as a world and more capable of listening.  

In general, A Little Life was too easy to penetrate and unravel, and BookTok’s mob mentality is flimsier– it’s bred into something buzzing very low, containing very little life itself. When looking at it with as much love in my heart as possible, I’d suspect that for reasons we will not know, Hanya Yanagihara is just angry at life. Maybe we all are. So it’s only fair that I forgive her too. 


Brittany Deitch is a Philadelphia college graduate, house show enjoyer, and freelancer for Paste Magazine. Find her work online elsewhere via @brittanydeitch

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