Picture yourself in this scenario: you hear about a book (maybe you see it on prominent display at a bookstore, or it’s topping the bestseller lists, or Reese Witherspoon picks it for her book club). You think, “that sounds like something I’d enjoy”. You join the waitlist at the library and you’re 95 people deep. Then, months later, you finally get to read the book and you think to yourself, “…that’s it?” (Infomercial voice) Has this ever happened to you? If so, you may have found yourself the victim of hype. Don’t worry, it’s a place we all find ourselves now and again—and some of us (cough me) find ourselves there repeatedly, all year long!
This post was, of course, inspired by my current read, which is The Midnight Library by Matt Haig—a book that has such a long waitlist at VPL that I’m only reading it now because I got a copy of it for Christmas. At the time of writing this, the book was sold out online at Indigo, no doubt helped by Dolly Parton mentioning that she’s reading it in a New York Times interview from December. The book also has a 4.22 rating on Goodreads, which, on scale of one to five stars, is quite good. I’m headed towards the end of the book, and I have to say: it’s…fine. Like, it’s not bad by any means. But nor is it particularly good? It’s just…fine.
Falling prey to the hype machine is something most avid readers will experience periodically; there’s really no way around it. Hype is a double-edged sword: an excellent word-of-mouth promo tool, but also a bullseye for backlash. When I say “hype”, I don’t mean your friend who fell in love with a book and insists that you read it; I mean the cultural circus that surrounds a book sometimes well before it’s even released to the general public. It’s something that’s built up from the bottom; sometimes a book is a sleeper hit that no one predicted, but most of the time, a book is highly visible on purpose. If a publishing house thinks they have a title that the public will eat up, they really throw their back into that promo. So by the time it reaches our eyes and ears, the hype will have snowballed into something unignorable, forcing that book into your line of vision—you might not even know what the book is about, but you’ve heard it’s supposed to be good! Again, I’m not claiming this as a strictly good or bad thing. One could argue that, with the unprecedented volume of books available, hype can be a lightning rod for readers looking for a little guidance. It shortens the search process. “Here’s a book we think you’ll like”, it says—and truly, don’t we all love to hear that?
But hype also has the downside of setting expectations sky-high, sometimes to the detriment of the book. If the hype around The Midnight Library hadn’t been so cacophonous before I picked it up, would my reaction to it be different? Possibly. It’s almost unfair to the book, which didn’t ask to be held to such high standards! All the early buildup also has the added benefit of making you feel crazy. When everyone and their mother is raving over something, and it’s not hitting you the same way, you think, “what are they seeing that I’m not seeing? Am I missing something? Am I the one who’s wrong?!” (For a non-book example, this happened to me with The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. People whose opinion I trust proclaimed it to be one of the best shows of 2020, and when I finally watched I thought “….this? Surely we watched different shows?!”).
That brings me to the social engine behind the hype, which breeds in places like Instagram (“bookstagram”), YouTube (“booktube”), and especially Goodreads. Here you’ll find people giving books 5-star ratings months before they even come out, simply because the premise sounds good, or the author is popular, giving the unpublished book a misleadingly high rating. I honestly could not count the number of books I’ve added to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list based on a wildly high star rating, only to sheepishly remove them when I DNF (Did Not Finish) them at 50 pages. It’s always an extra bummer when it was a title I was super excited about, too. I have tried again and again to take people’s opinions with a grain of salt, and yet like a fool, I continually make the same mistake.
But there’s a reason why we continue to fall for hype, even after all that. Because it’s actually not that simple! Sometimes, a book will be hyped to the moon and back, and it will—in your opinion, at least—live up to that hype. Plenty of my favourite books from recent years were either products of mass promo, or word-of-mouth hits (some examples off the cuff: The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, as I yelled about late last year, Circe, Normal People—which Heather wrote about—Queenie). The exorbitantly high expectations did not set me up for reading failure in these cases. Why is that? I get the sense that books—and, really, all media—are highly, highly subjective. What works for one reader may not work for another, for an infinite variety of reasons. My little trick for myself (my toxic trait) is to read the bad reviews. I find that if someone reviews a book negatively, and is able to articulate why, that is more helpful to me than a raving “SDJHLFJD SO GOOD!!!” review which is what most of social media is. Sometimes a singled out negative quality actually helps me decide if I will like a book (like, too angsty? Too dark? Sign me up). The negative reviews counteract the hype, bringing it down to a more realistic level.
What’s your opinion on book hype? Have you ever fallen for hype only to be disappointed? Have you ever had the opposite happen, where a super hyped book became one of your favourites?