Last week, a post on Vulture.com was making the rounds in the Bookstagram community, and you may have seen it. I’m linking it here, but it honestly doesn’t deserve any extra clicks, so let me refresh your memory:
Over the past several years, we book lovers have endured quite a bit. First there were the rainbow-hued shelves, (dis)organized by color, aesthetically pleasing but mayhem for anyone desperately hunting for one of Meg Wolitzer’s kaleidoscopically spined books. Then came the backlash to that biblio-psychedelia: books shelved spine-in, with the Scandi modern sensibility reigning supreme across a field of tawny pages, unbroken in their neutral uniformity and utterly useless as texts that one might, you know, pick up and read. (I once encountered a woman in Domino magazine who covered all her books with kraft paper and then elegantly scrawled the titles on the sides. God bless the childless.)
Well, that’s definitely a solid opening paragraph that doesn’t make the author sound condescending and bitter at all. Hillary Kelly then goes on to detail some of the specific Bookstagram trends which irk her for varying reasons, from the flat lays she describes as “cozy little scenes of domesticity that bear no resemblance to real-life moments,” (duh, that’s why it’s art, Hillary. You can take a picture of your book on your kitchen table next to last night’s pizza crusts if you want, but nobody wants to see that) to the cozy bed pictures with the “camera pointed directly down at tousled sheets, a book flipped over as if set down for just a moment, a cup of steaming coffee set to one side, wool-sock-clad feet in the frame but not a hint of pants.”
Her argument essentially boils down to this: the books feel like an afterthought in these pictures to her. Sometimes you can’t see the cover. Perhaps the bookstagrammer doesn’t even bother to tell you what book it is. (For shame!) And it all leads her to this terrifying conclusion: these bookstagrammers, these people who devote hours of their time on a regular basis to taking these photos, these people who curate a social media account devoted solely to their love of books… these people totally aren’t reading. Obviously, they’re faking it for attention on Instagram!
Because they aren’t really books, you see, they’re suggestions of books, hints of how utterly devoted the Instagrammer is to her literary pursuits. I can’t pick just one book, the photos scream, and instead I shall lay myself prostrate across their textured pages to meld my body with their words, for I am a person of the mind! They’re just another object, shorn of meaning and sometimes of binding, rearranged to show that their possessors’ lives are prettier, more whimsical, more creative than yours. These people are beautiful literary hermits, dammit, Brontë sisters wandering the wild moors of the inside of your iPhone, seekers of beauty and truth and a shit ton of unearned likes.
Okay, it should go without saying that this is asinine. I’m not one for angry rants on here (I save those for my husband because he’s sort of obligated to care about them) and I was more than willing to let this one go with an eye-roll and a snort. That is, until I started seeing some posts from people in the book blogging community whose feelings seem to be genuinely hurt by this article. Let me tell you this: Hillary Kelly does not deserve that amount of space in your brain. It is not warranted.
First of all, can we talk about how gendered this is? Sure, these types of photos are very popular with female Instagrammers (although the book blogging community seems to skew towards women in general, so I don’t think that’s saying much) but Kelly’s exclusive use of female pronouns throughout her diatribe feels rather telling. While Kelly is mad about the “long and storied history of people using books as props,” I’m far more concerned about the long and storied history of people knocking anything that seems to be more popular with women, no matter how harmless. And no, Kelly is not immune from being called out on this just because she’s a woman. Girl, you’ve internalized some toxic stuff and you need to get it sorted.
Side note: James Trevino was the first Instagrammer I saw using this photo technique. I’m not saying he necessarily invented it, but he certainly helped to popularize it. I was seeing his photos all over online before I ever made an Instagram account. Now that a bunch of women have jumped on the bandwagon, it’s suddenly super problematic and a sign of some deep character flaw? Okay. #himtoo
Furthermore, it seems ridiculously asinine to complain that content on a website that is highly focused on image has a lot of photos that are carefully curated for a specific image. Do people post book reviews and have discussions on Instagram? Sure, to an extent, but the structure of the website does not make it the best place for that. The focus is, of course, on the photos. That’s a product of the website, not a sign of a character flaw in the people participating. When people log onto a website that primarily serves the purpose of hosting photos… they want to see pretty photos. (Shocking!) If you want to read some in-depth book reviews, I’m over here on WordPress, girl.
But all these issues aside, I just have to ask this: who exactly is being harmed by these photos? What truly bothers me about this is that the book blogging community is one of the only places you’ll find online that tends to be very positive and uplifting. Is there sometimes drama? Sure, because humans are involved so it’s inevitable, but book bloggers are, for the most part, just super excited to share their love of books with the world. We want to talk about our favorites and count down the days to highly anticipated releases. We want to connect with people who are like-minded. So why someone would want to take a shot at one of the most overwhelmingly positive and supporting communities online is beyond me.
Hillary Kelly, from start to finish, your op-ed sounds like the rantings of a bitter blogger who’s upset about the fact that their flatlay didn’t get enough likes on Instagram. It’s pretentious, judgmental, and smug. You have made assumptions about the intelligence and authenticity of people based purely on the style of photos they like to take. And you’ve targeted a group of (mainly) female readers over how they choose to express their love of literature. It’s gross, unnecessary, and the epitome of Not A Good Look.
In conclusion, here’s a little photo I took just for you, Hillary. So sorry you can’t see any of the covers so you can decide if I have good enough taste to be taken seriously.