How a tragic 2015 novel became an internet sensation
A little life, a book first published in March 2015, is suddenly unmissable. You’ve probably seen the must-have black-and-white cover image of a man (crying? In the middle of an orgasm?) popping up on Best-Of lists or celebrity endorsements (from Antoni Porowski of Queer Eye , Dua Lipa, to Kaia Gerber). But when I succumbed to the hype and picked up my copy recently, the cashier put his hand on the cover, looked me in the eye, and said, “Are you ready for this?” Really?”
The book’s list of trigger warnings includes, but is not limited to: child abuse, drug abuse, rape, suicide, and graphic depictions of self-harm. Reviews on Amazon show the range of responses from readers who submitted to the 700-plus-page novel: “great book if you want to torture yourself.” I loved every second. “Masterpiece, but stay away from him, he’ll make you cry like the time your first dog died, be warned.” “To call this novel ‘sad’ is a huge understatement.” “A little life. 5 stars. Not for everybody.”
Not for everyone, but it still sells like crazy. Over a million and a half copies in English alone, in fact, since its release in 2015. The author, Hanya Yanagihara, editor-in-chief of T Magazine, has become short for intellectual cool. More recently, Drake put a shoe on Yanagihara’s latest book, In Paradise, released in January 2022, while showing off its stack of books.
People are drawn to this book and continue to recommend it, even though the content is known to be difficult even at the best of times. (Insert your own COVID-related anxieties or nuclear paranoia here.) So the question becomes: why does this book, riddled with dark and continuously traumatized-seeming content, still attract readers?
The short answer is the best answer: he’s a social media star in his own right.
Search it on YouTube and you’ll find videos of book-tubers (the name of the community that read and review books on the platform) sobbing, well, just about anything. On Book-Tok (the same community on Tik Tok), there are videos of people’s real-time reactions to the book, and it’s recommended as a book to read to cause a “good, bad cry”, or as a “flag red,” language similar to a new yorker review that said this book will “drive you crazy, consume you, and take over your life.”
A little life was a Man Booker Prize finalist and a National Book Award finalist, and enjoyed waves of popularity on various social media platforms thanks to the ‘challenge’ aspect of his reading. From The Guardian in 2016, the writer said that “people shared their intensely emotional responses [On Twitter]… they called it ‘shattering’, ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘traumatic’. But many also say it’s the best book they’ve ever read. In one New Yorker interview with Yanagihara in 2022, the interviewer notes that “it is always easy to find readers who talk online, with uncanny delight, about the emotional devastation that reading A little life brought on them. The book exploded in popularity on Tik Tok during COVID, with the tag #alittlelife seen over 87 million times.
The world of A little life East endlessly dark. It follows four friends after they graduate from college, living in New York, dating, having sex, and growing up. It also contains, as previously stated, a million and one warnings of content for incidents of trauma characters experience throughout their lives. Our main character Jude is disabled and a survivor of abuse, while another protagonist, JB, is addicted to methamphetamine. There are cases of domestic violence and child sexual abuse is discussed throughout the book. The content is sometimes enough to make you flinch (or in the case of content creators, sob on camera), but the novel is filled with undeniably beautiful prose. Of all the dark content included in the novel, Yanagihara’s writings on grief were the parts of the novel that I thought about late at night.
Positive reviews from critics and tubers and smokers say the reason they got into the book and stayed there through the graphic content is because of the living world created by Yanagihara. The characters feel fully formed and their struggles and trajectories feel human: their successes, their failures, and how they view themselves and the world. They feel like people you might know, or have known, or maybe they feel like you, if dialed up to 1000.
But there’s a clearer reason why this book continues to be recommended, as Book-Tuber Olivia-Savannah of the “Olivia’s Catastrophe” channel explains. A 10-year veteran of the Book-Internet, she posted a “Rant Review” of A little life in July 2021. She explained that the sense of mystique built around the book was what drew her to it. “It’s a big book,” she laughs, “There’s such a sense of accomplishment once you’ve read a big book. It’s nice, especially online, to create content around something important that you take the time to dig into and stuff like that. She decided to start the book when she saw other content about it on YouTube and Tik Tok. “There’s also something about when a book hits a level of popularity, you want to know what people are talking about,” she explains. “You want to get involved. I feel like a lot of people I know have tried or read, A Little Life. You want to be in the ‘in-circle’.
Olivia-Savannah was disappointed and frustrated to finish the book. She’s not alone: The book may be wildly popular, but it has its fair share of negative reviews on topics from the melodramatic and sometimes overly excessive graphic elements included in the novel, to harsher reviews on the Yanagiahara’s approach to topics like race, LGBT+. portrayal, and the questionable disabled portrayal throughout the book (Jude, the disabled protagonist, often says himself and is called “deformed”, and has suicidal thoughts because of his disability, a narrative against which the disabled community is actively beaten.)
“I consume a lot of stories about people with disabilities because I was a caregiver and there is someone in my life who is very important to me who is disabled.” Olivia-Savannah explains, “There’s such a big difference between a disabled story written by someone who is disabled themselves versus someone who’s just outside the community watching and doesn’t have perhaps no ties to the disabled community. I can’t talk to the author, of course, because I don’t know who she knows in her life, but in terms of the storytelling that you see a lot with disabled books, I feel like it was quite repetitive. You watch how these books always end, and you can take the ending at face value and say, Oh, that’s sad. Or you can look into the larger perspective of the number of times we see history. Where does it always end? But should the end always be the?”
Olivia-Savannah doesn’t think anyone should read the book, but they should be aware of the darkness of the content. “I would say if you have your own triggers, definitely check the content warnings. There are quite a few,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from reading the book, but I would say as you read it, think about the implications of this book. And maybe also read stories that are on the side voices, or after, or before.
Several things may be true: The depiction of characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT+ characters in the book is far from perfect and deserves criticism. This book should not be seen as the be-all and end-all of stories about disability or homosexuality. Yanagihara’s prose is also devastatingly beautiful and feels deeply human.
Of course, the question of why humans love tragedy has been floating around ever since we were able to ask it. But the psychological reason is simple: the purpose of sad books is that we want to feel something about them. A study from Erasmus University found that the most common reason for reading sad books given by respondents was that “sad books can better respond to the need for empathy with characters than more cheerful books… readers can more easily identify with fictional characters in sad or difficult situations.”
Jude experiences the worst of the worst throughout the book, but all the characters suffer in a personal way. As we read the book, we feel for each character as if we know them, a testament to Yanagihara’s craft. The moral of the book is that Jude might never be healed by his relationships (in fact, Yanagihara wrote to him never to be “cured” of his trauma, controversial as that makes the tale), but we see the love he has for others, that others have for him. It reminds us that while we don’t see the impact we have on others, it’s still there.
Perhaps the book remains popular because this tragedy of not seeing your own impact feels so human and hasn’t been truer than in the past couple of years as the book has started to gain popularity again. It can feel good to have your tragedy contained within the pages of a novel rather than your real life for once, to feel the catharsis of other people even if those other people are fictional. As life adapted to COVID and we weren’t able to access our social groups as we wanted, you could instead be part of the A little life group, and get your catharsis and shared experience through the act of submitting yourself to a brick of a novel everyone said not to read. I absolutely felt the pull of the book as I worked through every trauma and heartbreak. It didn’t destroy me like Tik Tok said it would, but it sure made me think, and I really felt proud when I was able to conquer a book that I had seen so many people shed tears.
But really, don’t read it. Unless…
This article was published in the Inside hook newsletter. Register now.