When 24-year-old Zoe Jackson scrolls her for-you-page, there are books all the way down. As a BookTok creator, Jackson spends much of her time on TikTok watching videos and recommendations surrounding the best books out there, from newly published novels to classic tomes. But while the average reader might stop scrolling when they recognize a book cover from high school English or a college course — like Catcher In The Rye, The Brothers Karamazov, or Infinite Jest, Jackson usually keeps it moving in an effort to avoid one of BookTok’s biggest icks: bro-lit.
As the name implies, bro-lit is literature championed by bros, but it’s also meant to describe books popular with men who only consume specific classic literature and think they should be praised for it. While it’s been a meme on TikTok for years, an influx of men attempting to gain large followings on TikTok has led to an escalation in the war on bro-lit. In this space, these new creators aren’t just seen as an annoyance. They’re an immediate warning sign that dudes are trying to infiltrate a largely feminist and queer corner of the internet — and these creators aren’t having it.
Jackson tells Rolling Stone that BookTok has always prioritized literature that differed from the average high school or college classroom. But she notes that much of the pushback against bro-lit comes from frustration with men who want to profit from BookTok — without doing any of the work to engage with it.
“You see [memes] like, ‘If he says his favorite book is [Catcher In The Rye], then run,’” Jackson says. “So it’s always been a joke. But now I feel like people are more upset and talking about it because it seems like every time a conventionally attractive man comes on BookTok and talks about those sorts of books, [they’re not] bringing anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.”
Michael Perkins is a TikTok creator who makes content about books, movies, and TV shows. But he tells Rolling Stone the current understanding of lit-bros isn’t specific to TikTok’s Book community. There can be film-bros, skater-bros, even art-bros — it’s simply a term for people who think their taste is the only one that matters. Perkins has never been called a lit-bro online, even though he loves The Brothers Karamazov, because he believes the meme is really used to call out bad attitudes on BookTok.
“BookTok is a very female-dominated space,” Perkins tells Rolling Stone. “So, you almost feel like a guest there, in a way. Ninety percent of my audience is women. Most of the creators that I follow are women. So there’s a certain level of respect, giving everything a fair chance. Sometimes people when they first start [BookTok], rag on the things that are popular, or put down certain books or people who like certain books. And I don’t think that’s very nice.”
It’s not that BookTok hates classical literature. Creator Lauren Hower tells Rolling Stone that the bro-lit theme has much more to do with the reader than the book itself, and is a lighthearted way for women to make fun of men who are condescending or annoying.
“These books are labeled as ‘bro-lit; novels because ‘bros’ tend to find these unlikeable characters incredibly relatable while being unable to acknowledge or even recognize that these characters are intentionally deplorable, thereby misreading the books entirely,” Hower says. “It really is just a harmless way that women poke fun at the books favored by pretentious artsy college boys. If you’ve ever had a pea coat-wearing liberal arts student talk at you about the genius that is David Foster Wallace then you’d call Infinite Jest bro-lit too.”
Hower adds that while she probably wouldn’t let a person’s favorite book immediately halt a date, she has established red flags that would make her think twice about interacting.
“Books like Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and the vast majority of Haruki Murakami’s published works, are books that I don’t immediately consider red flags but if you tell me those are your favorite books then I’m going to have some questions,” Hower says. “What’s more important to me than anything is how somebody interprets a book. So if a man tells me that Lolita is his ‘favorite romance’ I’m outta there and also he should be put on a watch list.”
Jackson notes that bro-lit often exalts classic literature written by white men while ignoring the large swath of available classics that are written by women or people of color. So while it’s a long enduring joke, the bro-lit meme also points out biases around what defines a quality classic.
“Classical literature is great,” Jackson says. “But if you’re only talking about these people, and you haven’t read any James Baldwin or Jane Austen, then you’re just interested in the books because they’re written by straight white men.”
Evan Ludwig joined BookTok after he noted a gap in male creators talking about less famous books. And while he agrees that he’s met his fair share of lit-bros in the wild, it’s in online spaces where he thinks they really thrive.
“I think the social media platforms like BookTok and Bookstagram allow that persona to shine through,” Ludwig says. “Because a lot of these people will become almost troll-like in the comments. I get a lot of comments on books that I feature by women authors, particularly on books written by Black women. There’s always a white male, one of those lit-bros, saying ‘This is not real literature.’ And it would throw me for a loop.”
So while the bro-lit meme has become a way to poke fun at the online trope, it does mean that some great books have gotten a bad rap. Ludwig says some of his favorite books are written by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, but he feels like he can’t make videos about them because viewers might take him for a lit-bro.
“A lot of people would just automatically assume since I’m a guy talking about [these books] I must think it’s the best literature in the world and I know better than they do,” Ludwig says. “And that’s not the case. Good literature is good literature. Unfortunately, these bros have ruined a lot of the dialogue surrounding certain classics.”
If the bro-lit description feels a bit too familiar, there’s still hope. Jackson, Hower, Ludwig, and Perkins note that BookTok’s community thrives on its ongoing system of education and recommendations. There’s a wide variety of creators who highlight older favorites and any number of the hundreds of books that are published every week. Feeling a bit called out by the bro-lit meme? There’s an easy fix. Go read a book — one different than you’re used to.