Upon publication, Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, received widespread critical acclaim. However, the novel wasn’t a bestseller, selling only a few thousand copies when released. So when her second novel, A Little Life, was published, no one expected the book to become one of the most buzzed-about titles of 2015. Especially given the nature of the book, with a relentlessly bleak plot focused on both childhood and adult abuse, laden with trauma and graphic depictions of self-harm. At around 800 pages long, it seemed unlikely to be a blockbuster.
Yet A Little Life was a sleeper hit. First came the - hugely positive - reviews (‘I’d give A Little Life all of the awards’, said Jeff Chu at Vox). Then slowly, through both booksellers’ and readers’ word-of-mouth recommendations, A Little Life began to gather momentum, especially on social media.
On Twitter, readers shared their thoughts, detailing how deeply the book had affected them. On Instagram, fans posted pictures of themselves holding up the book in front of their own face, the grimacing face on the cover replacing their own. On TikTok, people uploaded video diaries of themselves reading the book, concluding with their heartbroken and tearful reactions once finished.
To market the novel, Yanagihara self-funded a run of tote bags, with the now iconic print of Jude&JB&Willem&Malcolm emblazoned on the side. She created an Instagram account dedicated to the book, teaming up with a photo editor at Condé Nast Traveler. Here, they shared pictures of the real-life Lispenard Street, and reposted fans’ selfies and images of merchandise out in the wild. It was a time when publishing and books weren’t front and centre on social media, and her marketing initiatives paid off, capturing a zeitgeist that readers clamoured to be a part of.
Next, came the award nominations. In July of 2015, A Little Life was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and went on to make the shortlist. It was shortlisted for numerous other prizes that year, winning the Kirkus Prize in Fiction.
Slowly, the novel began to take on a life of its own. It made its way into the hands of celebrities, with Victoria Beckham recommending it in an interview with Elle (‘It’s so great’) and Anthony Porowski wearing an A Little Life t-shirt on Netflix show Queer Eye (‘I immediately fell in love with the book’, he told Vulture). Kaia Gerber referenced the book in a Vogue interview and Dua Lipa uploaded selfies of herself reading it on the beach.
More merchandise popped up on Etsy, and beyond. Memes of the book were shared on every platform. Fan art of Jude and Willem became a mainstay on Tumblr. Obsessed readers even got tattoos of the chapter titles.
But while the book defied all expectations, it also sparked debate from both readers and reviewers. The novel currently has 60k reviews on book community website Good Reads, with many readers giving it just one star: Why? ‘The long and short of it is that this book is nothing but misery porn, on purpose… Fuck. This. Book’, reads one such review which echoes the sentiment of many others, with over 3,000 likes.
Critic Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books, one of few negative reviews, said that ‘the abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one’, which caused Yanagihara’s editor to leap to her defence in an open letter in a follow-up edition of the publication. ‘What I do object to … is his implication that my author has somehow, to use his word, “duped” its readers into feeling the emotions of pity and terror and sadness and compassion,’ he stated.
Yanagihara has also been criticised for writing about gay men as a straight woman (the #ownvoice movement), yet this is something the author ardently defends. ‘It’s very dangerous. I have the right to write about whatever I want. The only thing a reader can judge is whether I have done so well or not’, she recently told the Guardian.
Even now, eight years after publication, the debate around A Little Life rages on. But so does its fandom, which has reached unprecedented cult-like levels. Currently, the hashtag #ALittleLife has now been viewed on TikTok 93 million times and its dedicated Instagram account has 51k followers. And the novel itself has sold over 2.5 million copies. For a divisive book that wasn’t expected to be a hit, those are pretty impressive numbers.