Beware of romanticised abuse in best-selling writer Colleen Hoover’s young-adult books

Colleen Hoover is best known for novels It Ends With Us, November 9, Ugly Love and Verity. PHOTO: COLLEENHOOVER/INSTAGRAM

SINGAPORE – She has sold more than 20 million books and frequently tops bestsellers list, including The Straits Times’ and The New York Times’ fiction lists with her titles such as Ugly Love, It Ends With Us and November 9.

Most notably, It Ends With Us has been on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 81 weeks and taken the top spot on The Straits Times’ list for 27 weeks.

But romance author Colleen Hoover, 43, has faced controversy for her stories, which critics say romanticises abuse.

The formerly self-published American author has more than 20 books that feature abuse, or toxic men, at the centre of their plot lines. In most stories, such behaviour is overlooked and depicted as romantic or desirable.

In February 2022, Hoover faced further controversy when a Twitter user named @theonottlovebot alleged that Hoover’s then 21-year-old son sexually harassed her when she was 16. While Hoover has not publicly acknowledged these claims, she did deny the allegations in her private Facebook group in November, according to a Distractify report.

Unlike the genre of dark romance, where readers expect all sorts of terrible behaviour, Hoover’s books are marketed as romance without trigger warnings for the scenarios they depict.

This is problematic because her books are often read by female audiences and wrongly marketed as young adult novels. Readers in their early teens are reading and posting about her works on TikTok, likely without their parents’ knowledge about the material in these books.

Popular YouTuber Hannah Azerang, 25, discussed the problems in Hoover’s books as she read five of the author’s most popular works in a video (str.sg/wFZb).

Another YouTuber, Caleb Joseph, 22, also released a video discussing his traumatic experience reading November 9 when he was 16 and subsequent experiences with other Hoover books (str.sg/wFZE). He admitted to being overly harsh at times in his previous criticisms, but cited gaslighting from Hoover fans as one of the problems he sees with support for her books.

Screenshots have also been shared by other readers online showing examples of questionable and uncomfortable scenes in Hoover’s books.

Her tropes often include extensive character trauma, emotional, mental and physical abuse, questionable consent and, in a few cases, almost-but-not-quite incest. Many times, her male characters exhibit misogynistic behaviour that gets excused because of their attractive appearance or sexual prowess.

Dr Chee Tji Tjian, 44, consultant psychiatrist at the National University Hospital (NUH), specialises in child and adolescent psychiatry. He says: “I don’t think a lot of young people who watch (or consume) such content get too affected by them because of their upbringing. They are able to see what is reality and what is fiction. The harm comes when this negative behaviour is culturally accepted or glorified.”

Which is precisely the problem. These books are marketed as acceptable, aspirational romances. Young women recommend them to one another while declaring that these abusive male characters top their “book boyfriend” lists. Countless TikTok videos show young girls crying over how romantic the stories are, all while largely neglecting to mention the amount of abuse involved.

However, these issues can open a door for conversations between parents and children about relationships and sex.

Dr Chee says: “My advice would be to be ready to listen and respond. Always be approachable and honest, and never be patronising. Create an environment where the young people feel free to be able to speak.”

Not only should healthy relationships be modelled at home, parents should also empower their children to say no to material that makes them uncomfortable. Having the confidence to self-censor could help young teens who do not feel ready to read mature material.

Dr Chee cautions against shutting down early conversations about romance as it could make children less open about dating, romance and sex later in life.

“As the young person gets a bit older, the conversation has to be a lot of listening and some talking. The talking part is being open-minded, giving factual advice and being aware that parents might have gone through a completely different experience than their adolescents.”

Parents who want to know what their children are reading can use websites such as Trigger Warning Database (triggerwarningdatabase.com) and Book Trigger Warnings (booktriggerwarnings.com) to see if the book contains appropriate content.

Without dictating what a person can read, perhaps the best thing is to leave room for open discussions and mindful conversations about topics that can negatively affect readers.

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