I've noticed that wildly popular adult romance novelist Colleen Hoover has been getting a lot of backlash lately, mainly for a good number of books following a certain trope- abusive/aggressive behavior in men and submission/being a doormat in women. Since I have some VERY strong opinions and have read a good deal of her books by now, I figured I'd throw in my two cents.
Full disclaimer: there will be spoilers for multiple Colleen Hoover books in this post. I'll do my best to warn you right before I say something super spoiler-y.
Opening Statement/ It Ends With Us summary
I read It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover at the beginning of August of 2022. You can read my review of it here.
It Ends With Us is arguably Hoover's most popular book, but also her most controversial. I thought it was brilliantly written and an important story for women to read to know that they aren't alone. It follows the story of a young woman, Lily, and her relationship with a man named Ryle, who (spoilers from this point forward)
starts out as the perfect boyfriend but over time, begins to exhibit increasingly abusive behaviors including but not limited to shoving Lily when she laughs at him and biting her when he gets angry. Lily, who watched her father abuse her mother for years, makes excuses for him, staying until she can't anymore.
Things come to a head when Ryle pushes her down a flight of stairs in a fit of rage after realizing that Lily has the phone number of a man from Lily's past, Atlas.
Atlas, who experienced Ryle's possessive and aggressive behaviors in public when the couple went out to eat at his restaurant, gives Lily his phone number and tells her to call him if she ever needs his help. After the flight-of-stairs incident sent Lily to the emergency room, she goes to stay with Atlas for a few days before leaving Ryle. Ryle got her pregnant though, which keeps her connected to him and is an ongoing issue throughout the remainder of the novel and the sequel (It Starts With Us).
A lot of people have the opinion that many of Colleen Hoover's books, primarily It Ends With Us, romanticize abuse. The common refrain is that Hoover’s writing isn’t just bad (which is absolutely subjective and could take up a whole other post) but that it’s harmful to her young fans. This sentiment is echoed in countless comments, blogs, Youtube videos, and tweets, all saying that fiction, especially fiction read by younger audiences, can have a large effect on how people perceive topics like consent and healthy relationships. While Hoover is not a YA novelist, she has cultivated a base that is largely made up of young people because of TikTok, and she should be catering her writing to that audience.
*John Mulaney voice)* Well, we don't have time to unpack ALL of that..."
Except it's the weekend, baby, and I do have time :)
Let's Break That Down
There are a few key points in the above paragraph that I'd like to address.
Let's get the easiest one out of the way first.
Point One: Colleen Hoover's writing is bad.
I disagree, but that's not really the point I'm trying to make. Writing is subjective. I happened to hate the wildly popular romance novel, The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood. I didn't get more than a few chapters in because the writing simply wasn't my cup of tea. I've found that of the authors that I've read a wide range of their books over the last two years, I read all of CoHo's books in under 48 hours. Is that because it's a romance novel? Maybe. Is it because the writing is good enough to have me hooked? Yes. I've only disliked one of Hoover's books so far (we'll talk about that later), but I still read it in a day and a half.
The bookish community is kind of like Taylor Swift fans- people are die-hard fans of their favorite authors and have a tendency to virtually burn readers who criticize them at the stake- concurrently, readers who dislike an author go after their fans in really nasty ways. There's also the weird argument I've noticed in the BookTok community that people who read romance novels are somehow bad feminists, bad people, etc. Again, I could write an entire post about that statement (and I probably will!) but for now, let's leave the subjectiveness of "good" and "bad" writing out of this from now on.
Point Two: Because Colleen Hoover has a largely young adult audience, the tropes in many of her novels can be harmful to impressionable readers.
For the purpose of this post, I'm going to go ahead and say that when people say "young audience", they mean people ranging from 13-18 years old. We're not talking about eight-year-olds here. While Colleen Hoover does have a young adult audience, her books are not labeled as young adult fiction. It's adult fiction and that's made clear pretty early on in all of her books- the characters drink and have sex and swear and do adult things. That being said, because her books have become wildly popular due to TikTok, an app that hosts a fairly young group of people, young adults (again, high school aged kids) are going to pick up her books and read them. I turn 23 this year, and when I think about the things I read for pleasure in high school, they're pretty much on par with Colleen Hoover's work, which I've discovered fairly recently. Characters having sex, swearing, and yes, experiencing abusive relationships were popular in the books I read when I was 13-18 years old. Did any of those books influence my relationships, no matter how healthy or unhealthy they turned out to be? No. I'm able to live outside books (except for the one I'm writing.) I understand that some people, primarily parents, may have an issue with teenage girls reading books about domestic abuse. I get that. But parents, that's a really good time to have a talk with your girls about consent and what red flags look like. If your girls are older than thirteen, you should have that talk anyway because I can tell you from experience, once you hit high school, the number of people in romantic relationships skyrockets.
In It Ends With Us, I actually think Colleen Hoover does a really good job of displaying that Ryle's behavior is NOT healthy, and she provides a model of what a respectful, healthy relationship looks like through Atlas. She also provides stream-of-consciousness of Lily's thoughts- weighing what she's willing to tolerate and when the relationship models the one her mother was in, the shame she feels about not having left sooner. I don't think that's promoting domestic abuse- I think that's a very real look at what so many women go through.
There is another popular line going around that books like IEWU give young men a model of how to act in a relationship (Ryle) and that it's dangerous to put those ideas in their heads. Parents, this is another time to sit down with your sons and talk about how to be good men. Try starting with "Hey, Brad, remember that consent is a noise she makes, not a feeling you feel." Go from there. It, much like the consent talk with your daughters, is a potentially uncomfortable but ABSOLUTELY VITAL conversation.
Are teenage boys impressionable when it comes to men like Andrew Tate and Donald Trump normalizing misogyny and abuse? Yes. But that's not the fault of this author, especially when that's not the message she's sending. And I think that the message she's sending to women is far more important than the one she may be inadvertently sending to men (who, if we're honest, is a very small percentage of her readership).
This brings me to my next point.
Point Three: It Ends With Us romanticizes abuse.
Is it romanticizing abuse to write a book that features an abusive relationship? Should we take all books where a man puts his hands on a woman off of bookshelves, primarily young adult ones? Because I actually think that would be far more harmful to young audiences than reading an accurate depiction of a relationship that features domestic violence. Teen girls having no knowledge of what unhealthy relationships look like from the very beginning, either because their parents never talked to them about it or because they never saw it depicted in books (or other media) is extremely dangerous. I learned red flags through books. I learned what I wanted from a partner through books because books were what I clung to as I struggled to navigate my teenage years.
To say that It Ends With Us romanticizes abuse because Lily took several months to reach her breaking point is to victim blame women and ask them why they didn't leave sooner. In IEWU (shortening it from now on lol), Ryle isn't consistently a bad partner. He's actually very sweet to Lily a lot of the time. It's in moments of anger that he snaps and puts his hands on her.
This is realistic too.
The majority of abusers have a "good" side that is around far more often than the bad side. Not all of them. But enough of them. The idea that women who don't leave at the first sign of abuse are weak is utterly ridiculous and I won't hear it. Not in my house.
Point Four: Because of her young audience, CoHo should be catering her writing to them.
The claim that it's Colleen Hoover's fault that she's cultivated a YA audience is strange to me, as well as the claim that she should cater her writing to this younger audience. She writes adult fiction- again, which is made very clear from the beginning- and has absolutely cornered the market; why would she change her writing when she's struck gold because people are mad that she writes adult fiction? As a writer who also writes adult fiction, this opinion is particularly frustrating. First of all, authors should write what they want to read. To tell any author that they should change their writing for their audience is stupid, quite frankly. My book is VERY different from CoHo's in a number of ways, but it's narrated by 30-year-old men. They fuck and fight and drink and swear because they're 30-year-old men and they can do what they want because they're adults. My book also prominently features a young woman who has been kidnapped and physically abused; I don't think that I'm sending a message that the way a man treated her was okay by telling her story. Kids should not pick up my book; it's not kid's fiction. Like CoHo, this is evident in my book from page one.
Nine-year-olds shouldn't be picking up CoHo books- but if they do, that's not her fault: SHE DOESN'T WRITE KID LIT. AND SHE MAKES THAT CLEAR.
And again, people who think that 14-year-old girls have never heard the word "fuck" or know what sex is are kidding themselves. High School Sex Ed teaches us very little, but we do our own research to fill in the gaps- it's not hard, and it's necessary.
What I DON'T Like About Colleen Hoover
Now that I've debunked a lot of popular claims about Colleen Hoover and backed them with my opinion in her defense, I'll share the things I've disliked about her.
The IEWU Coloring Book Controversy
In doing research for this post, I saw that one of the latest sources of backlash is that she announced that she would be releasing an It Ends With Us coloring book. I don't know what was going to be in the coloring book- considering that Lily owns a flower shop in the book, I'd hope that it would be mostly flowers. Only 24 hours after the coloring book’s publication was announced, it was canceled due to pushback from both her fans and critics. I have to agree with that one; putting a popular and motivational quote on a tee shirt or a bookmark is one thing but releasing a lighthearted coloring book based on a book that is largely about domestic violence is pretty tactless and - forgive the pun - off color. I don't know how much of the coloring book was CoHo's idea and how much it was her marketing team's, but either way- it wasn't right.
Other Titles of Hers
Of Colleen Hoover's books, I have read:
It Ends With Us
It Starts With Us
All Your Perfects
I enjoyed most of these- admittedly, they all tend to have the same basic framework - man and woman meet, fall in love, there are problems and they eventually end up together anyway. But that's honestly no different from nearly all of Jodi Picoult's books ending in some sort of court case. If you've found a story you love writing, it's not a bad thing to stick to that outline, especially if all of your books are different and send a different message. I particularly enjoyed All Your Perfects, which you'll hear my full review of in the "Books I Read In January" post coming up this Monday. It heavily featured infertility issues and I felt seen, which is a wonderful feeling.
Then I read Ugly Love. And man...it just didn't hit with me. It was heavy on the friends-with-benefits trope, which isn't inherently bad if you like that kind of thing, but I thought both people had such unlikable qualities that I had a hard time muscling through it. Miles, the male protagonist, had HELLA issues and led the female protagonist, Tate, on repeatedly for months- and she let him. She fell in love with him almost immediately, and despite his frequent reminders not to expect a future with him, continues to seek him out because the sex is good. As his ridiculous (though in some ways valid) issues surrounding commitment and love become more and more apparent, Tate turns into a doormat and lets him take everything out on her. At one point, he has a breakdown and they're having sex (because that's a good idea) and he keeps crying another girl's name. And Tate, though heartbroken, just tells him to keep going. It was WILD.
If I were an "impressionable teenager" reading Ugly Love, I'm pretty sure I'd have had the same reaction that I did a week ago- that was to be consistently annoyed with everyone involved. I highly doubt I would have used that relationship as a model for how I wanted to date.
The moral of this very VERY long story is that the claim that a book featuring abuse inherently normalizes or romanticizes abuse is unfounded. And if you don't like it...just don't read it. If books offend you simply by existing, then you should probably go to therapy.
Thank you for coming to my hours-long TED Talk,