Wattpad is an emerging entertainment empire that started as an online self-publishing platform. It claims to reach 90 million users monthly. These are predominantly young women, and they spend more sustained time on the platform than with other social media. Most authors upload their work in weekly serial installments, before engaging with fan feedback as they work toward a story's completion. Writers are usually unpaid, at least until their talent is identified and they can be ushered into the company's paid programs but this happens to just a tiny portion of those who use the platform. It is possible to have an enhanced experience through subscription options or pay-as-you-go "coins," but most readers use Wattpad for free. Most of the company's profits come from advertising, though they are also diversifying revenue streams by brokering deals with other media companies to develop Wattpad content into film and TV or into print books. They also now have their own media production wing and a print publishing division, Wattpad Books.1

Wattpad's operations offer a glimpse of one of publishing's likely futures. They know what content to select for development because they collect data about what is popular on the platform and about what readers engage with, both positively and negatively. Wattpad is distinct from Amazon's self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), in the level of attention that the company pays to this process of content development beyond the platform. It is distinct also in the specificity of its audience and branding: whereas KDP is, like its parent company, more of an "everything store," Wattpad knows that its main audience is young women.2 While certainly ensuring that any taste can be met, it offers predominantly young adult, fan fiction, and romance content, and its promotional language emphasizes a desire to "recognize and reflect diverse voices" within an inclusive and supportive online community of readers and writers. As a brand it takes advantage, in this way, of recent attention to the homogeneity of traditional publishing industry: if the mainstream industry will not accommodate you, Wattpad will.

The first part of this article connects the rise of Wattpad to the feminization of work in the publishing industry meaning, at its most basic, maximization of profits via the expansion of casualized labor and exploitation of unpaid activity by readers and writers. I suggest understanding Wattpad less as a radical break with the rest of mainstream publishing, and more as a source of disruptive innovations that intensify industry-wide tendencies and offer models that other firms, both new and traditional, can adopt, adapt, and advance. At Wattpad, as within the industry at large, feminization of work has been accompanied by the rise of bibliotherapeutic conceptions of writing as a form of care and inclusion. These conceptions extend beyond the Wattpad platform into the fiction that is hosted there and optioned for remediation. This article's second part studies two young adult (YA) novels selected for release via Wattpad Books Daven McQueen's The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones (2020) and Jo Watson's Big Boned (2021) to pinpoint some of the bibliotherapeutic forms that are characteristic for Wattpad fiction, but evident in a more general way across contemporary book cultures in the era of the feminization of publishing work.

These bibliotherapeutic forms have become pervasive and familiar; scholarship by Eva Illouz and Timothy Aubry has informed how I understand them. Illouz studied Oprah's Book Club as something like an alternative to well-funded mental health counseling services. Oprah invited people to use fiction, mainly middlebrow women's fiction, to imagine their own lives as problems to be solved through a process of suffering and overcoming. Aubry's work similarly considers how therapy and fiction can help people script and value their lives and personalities; he treats fiction reading ambivalently, as a practice that encourages people to see their inner selves as uniquely interesting and important, while also helping to offset a deep loneliness that is correlated to this inward term.3 My research builds upon their foundation, by looking at the generalization of therapeutic modes throughout the industry, and by considering the relationship between these forms, the feminization of publishing work, and the more recent rise of discourses of cultural inclusion.

For the purposes of this article, I selected two novels as exemplary cases, but the bibliotherapeutic tendencies I focus on became apparent to me from my reading of a larger collection of Wattpad Books titles. The first tendency treats fiction as a conduit to the therapeutic mirroring process of having one's own experiences seen and acknowledged via reflection in narrative; the second, relatedly, envisions writing as the creation of an inclusive caring community that celebrates deviation from normative identities and values. While Wattpad supports and benefits from this idealization of cultural representation as, in part, a healing experience of being included, it is important that this expansion of possibilities for cultural representation occurs within broader conditions of scarcity conditions that are shaping how writers conceive their work and what needs people bring to their reading experiences.

Part I: Publishing's Feminization, YA Fiction, and the New Bibliotherapy

The feminization of work in publishing is not a recent phenomenon. After World War II, when women with scope to aspire to respectability entered the workforce, many looked to publishing and publishing-adjacent fields. These were perceived as suitable for women due to the gendering of culture and reading. In the 1970s and 1980s, when women entered editorial and marketing departments in growing numbers, publishing had an acceptable aura of decorous gentility, especially appealing to women graduating with university degrees. Women worked for lower wages than men did, and often women only worked until they left to establish families, to be replaced by other low wage employees. By 1982 it was possible to argue based on US industry surveys that "book publishing has changed since 1900 from an exclusive male profession to a business dependent on a work force composed mostly of women."4 Yet this research also showed that women were, as remains true, concentrated especially in entry level jobs, in large conglomerates, and in the less respected publishing niches such as mass-market romance.

In a broader study of gender and labor market segmentation, sociologist Barbara Reskin argues that, in publishing, "declining autonomy and occupational prestige contributed to feminization of the occupation." Before the 1970s, "the cultural image of publishing attracted bright young men and women despite very low wages." Later, though, when publishing was effectively corporatized, it lost a lot of its cultured aura. Men were no longer willing to work for low pay and low cultural capital, and they could compete for better opportunities. "Because women's occupational choices are more limited than men's, editing still attracted them, and the occupation's sex composition shifted accordingly," Reskin concludes.5 There has been a hemorrhaging of men from the industry, especially intense in recent years, which both reflects and perpetuates the declining prestige associated with work across the field.

Groundbreaking research by Katherine Bode on the growing dominance of fiction authored by women in Australia could be replicated elsewhere. Bode argues that growth in women's authorship is inextricable from the "diminishing cultural value of novel writing as a career." She relates this declining value to reductions in government funding and in pay, as well as to the rise of self-publishing, which undercuts "the exclusivity . . . associated with novel writing."6 This helps explain why women's former exclusion from high-ranking positions has been rectified a bit in more recent decades. In part, in industries dominated by women employees it becomes hard to deny women the top jobs; but the industry has also transformed in ways that have deepened and intensified the feminization of the workforce, making women executives now uniquely positioned to head firms because of assumptions about their unique proclivities and areas of expertise.7

Looking at the intersections between digital and literary culture, Simone Murray and Aarthi Vadde have shown that the rise of platform-based publishing models, self-publishing, and expansion of social media's influence are transforming the publishing industry.8 At the same time, as in other creative fields, more and more work in publishing is being done by contingent workers struggling to piece together something like a full-time career. John Thompson has recently described this as the rise of a publishing services marketplace, "a shadow economy [of] discrete services that are offered to authors on an à la carte basis by freelancers and small companies."9 These shifts have entailed a fundamental unsettling of previous ideas about the social purposes of writing and publishing, and the instituting of new dominant sensibilities casting the industry itself as essentially women's work, with characteristic features such as emotional labor in service of others' wellbeing.

An example of gig work that we can consider briefly, relevant to the Wattpad titles discussed below, is the job of "sensitivity reader." Most sensitivity readers work on a contract-to-contract basis to read manuscripts and assess whether they might be perceived as insensitive, whether just slightly culturally ignorant or offensively ill-informed in a way that might be traumatic to a particular group of readers. Sensitivity readers offer advice on how the author might improve their portrayal of the group in question. Readers are hired to look at depictions of neurodivergence, obesity, queer life, and more. One common type of sensitivity reading addresses a text's treatment of race, setting out to inform the author or publisher if a portrayal meets the standards of a reader who shares an experience of racialization with a group being depicted. One of the complaints about the use of sensitivity readers is that, basically, the author benefits from badly paid behind-the-scenes work that is rarely even credited and certainly not rewarded if the book is a hit.10 Their work can serve to shield the author and the publisher from controversy that might result if a portrayal were deemed offensive and attacked online. The publisher can point out that they did their due diligence, appealed to an expert reader, and the manuscript passed their standard.

Meanwhile, sensitivity readers may prefer to get a foot in the door and write their own characters, rather than helping a white writer to develop hers. Given the constraints on doing so, however the overwhelming whiteness of the traditional publishing industry, not least11 work in sensitivity reading may be something that they need to do for now simply as a means of paying their bills while networking within the publishing world. This work of sensitivity reading is thus symptomatic of several of publishing's contemporary tendencies: it is based on a contingent services model where work on a manuscript takes place outside of the firm; production of the manuscript takes place in a context that is profoundly risk-averse, with publishers trying to anticipate and hedge against possible bad press a book might receive; and there is a sense that readers should be subject to a kind of pastoral care protecting them from culturally insensitive representations that are devised by people with no connection to the communities depicted in the book. In fact, in my work interviewing sensitivity readers, many admitted to accepting badly paid gigs because they see themselves as positioned to take on care work to protect vulnerable communities.12 We might note a link here to the tendency to conceive writing itself as one's own self-expression, since exploration of an individual's personal experiences would offset some of the needs that a sensitivity reader might be employed to meet. In fact, closely tied to sensitivity reading is the simultaneous rise of the "own voices" movement, which values the affirming psychic effect for the reader of the experience of seeing oneself reflected in a book. "Own voices" suggests that, in service to these readers, people should write from their own identity positions, and more space should be made for writers from communities targeted for marginalization.

YA fiction is a publishing niche in which sensitivity reading and the "own voices" movement have been particularly apposite. YA fiction makes up a significant portion of the content on the Wattpad platform, and Wattpad chose to focus on YA fiction exclusively when it first launched its print books division, Wattpad Books. YA fiction has been a growing force within the publishing industry for at least the last decade; considering some of the reasons for that success may also help to explain Wattpad's popularity.

There is, first, the fact that young people are now schooled from a young age in the practices of self-cultivation and self-curation online, where an association with the activity of reading offers a particular profile. Distinct from those who only consume television, film, and social media, readers are associated with a range of positive traits: quirky, intelligent, thoughtful, wise, self-aware, emotionally mature. Imagery invoking these traits is often present in social media content related to Wattpad and to YA reading, for instance via #Booktok and #Bookstagram. These hashtags coalesce vibrant online communities and ambient supporting media related to books aimed at young women, even as reading is sold as an alternative to other forms of media saturation. The narrative here is that other media impose quickly and negatively upon you: you "binge" streaming television, and you "doom scroll" social media, whereas with a book you slow down and immerse yourself in something else, a more longstanding and sustaining habit that is conducive to self-care.

It matters, also, that YA fiction is accessible to a wide range of readers, having crossover appeal now even for adult readers. Statistics show that most of those who buy YA are older than the 12-to-18 age range targeted by the technical category, and they are reading the books themselves.13 The cultivation of skills appropriate to reading advanced fiction has become rarer in high schools, while enrollment in university English departments has been declining for some time. Even those who do take advanced literary study will rarely be encouraged to think that "high" literature is the only distinguishing worthwhile type of reading. Instead, the message received from a young age, probably from birth, is that all reading is good for you as an alternative to other media. The term "bibliotherapy" was in fact coined amidst the early age of cinema, in 1916, by Samuel Crothers. In a satirical dialogue with the author, the fictional bibliotherapist imagined that the unique value of reading was its capacity to produce almost any affect to stimulate or subdue, annoy or sooth, in response to basically any modern need or situation.14 The idea that reading is always time well spent is by now quite firmly entrenched, but now minus much pressure of a culture of distinction and taste pushing people into other reading levels.

YA fiction's rise is thus related to what the industry calls "reading down," which results from lack of exposure to the alternative "higher" forms exposure not just to the routine experience of reading difficult work, but to the very idea that doing so is essential if one wants to identify as a reader and cultured person. Another factor in the production of YA's audience, perhaps equally important, is the phenomenon that sociologists have called extended adolescence or delayed adulthood. With people embarking on "slower life strategies," for instance living at home for longer, avoiding secure romantic partnerships and not having children until they are older than was once common, the material in YA fiction remains relevant for people at an older age.15 The production of titles reflects this, even leading even into the more recent innovation of "new adult" (NA) fiction targeting readers entering college, for example, or finding their professional footing, but in prose just as accessible as YA writing.

A final point to make here is that YA fiction, and Wattpad as a conduit to it, serve those seeking accessible bibliotherapy or reading-based supports for that necessary repertoire of affects that add up to persistence in life. Bibliotherapy is a well-established and richly researched clinical practice, defined as a "tool for mental health professionals who may prescribe reading [. . .] in addition to engagement in discussion, an art activity, or writing, in their work with patients for the purpose of reflection, healing, and personal growth."16 I describe Wattpad as a new bibliotherapy to distinguish it from this more professional practice, to emphasize instead the generalization of amateur bibliotherapeutic modes throughout book cultures. These are mediated not by professionals but by media corporations, often offering free content interspersed with advertising, with the ads themselves frequently deploying self-care and self-help messaging. For example, one of Wattpad's major brand partners is the Maybelline cosmetics company: winners of Wattpad writing contests for mental health topics receive Maybelline products; its cosmetics are advertised across Wattpad content; and Maybelline sponsors panels featuring Wattpad authors discussing reading and writing as conduits to good mental health, promoting Wattpad's capacity to "normalize mental health issues and use creativity to facilitate self-care."17

Bibliotherapy is not quite reducible to self-help, although self-help books can certainly be part of a bibliotherapeutic practice. Self-help books, even "fuck self-help" books, usually emphasize a moral lesson toward personal improvement or "self-transformation."18 Bibliotherapy is, to be sure, sometimes envisioned as having similarly transformative effects. Writing in 1949, psychotherapist Sofie Lazarsfeld explained the "fiction test" she developed to use with her clients: when dealing with a difficult patient, she would ask them about fiction they enjoyed reading and then use their identification with particular characters as a means of insight into their problems. They often failed to see what their attraction to certain types of characters said about them. They saw in fiction not their real problems, but their problems "as [they] imagined them."19 Progress in therapy could thus be measured by their ability to better understand their own reading preferences, by grasping what it really was about a character that appealed to them. In contrast, in more recent bibliotherapeutic literature, descriptions of reading for therapy often set out a more straightforward practice of holding one's life up against a representation in fiction, to develop one's own "self-concept" via comparison, in a way intended to be affirming and de-stigmatizing.20 You would see that your own psychic situation, however painful, was not unique. The contrast with self-help is thus a matter of improvement versus affirmation, or self-transformation versus identification with the fictional test subject. Put most simply: self-help is transformative, while bibliotherapy is relatable.

That this is an amateur pedagogy is important also. Lazarsfeld herself pointed out, in 1949, that bibliotherapy would be appealing to those "who have no financial means for consulting experts."21 Leah Price echoes this in her work on the more recent rise of state-backed bibliotherapy, when she reminds us that when people feel mentally unwell, and in need of something they might find in a book, bibliotherapy is a cheap solution within a health care system lacking sufficient resources. Bibliotherapy is just "cost-effective," Price writes, and so much better than the "nothing" that "many sufferers would otherwise get."22 Without the mediation of a professional or a medical institution, readers can go instead to content mediated by corporations, such as Wattpad, where mental health supports are neatly sorted into different categories based on personal need and identification: bullied, sexually assaulted, racialized, queer, and so on. I would add that, where state-regulated institutions are not just cash-strapped but actively hostile, people may face real dangers if they seek professional counsel about their inner lives and intimate experiences via official institutional means.

In sum then, I suggest that far from representing what some critics have seen as "regression" or "infantilization" of the reader,23 the rise of YA fiction reading is a set of consumer practices mediated by corporations, responding to real needs, and cultivating gendered self-care and self-curation after the collapse of status of the "high" literary disposition the same collapse linked to the feminization of work in the industry. The YA category has been expanding as the gender composition of the publishing industry has been shifting. As publishing has lost some of its prestige as a professional calling, and reading has become in a general way associated with care work and wellbeing, content niches which most exhibit these transformations romance and YA, that is, women's and young women's popular fiction have assumed their dominance. Without settling upon a particular causal chain, we can say that this is the variety of tendencies, all reinforcing and mediating each other, that factor into the popularity of YA and Wattpad's special interest in it.

Part II: Bibliotherapeutic Forms

Where do see evidence of some of these transformations in fiction being written today? What conceptions of the writer's work unfold given these myriad interlinked contexts? Here I discuss just two key forms evident in many of the novels that Wattpad has published via its Wattpad Books imprint. These are forms that echo and reinforce how Wattpad positions itself in the market as a corporate brand and as a site of identification for people seeking community and care online. Wattpad Books deploys the company's proprietary "Story DNA" software, marshaling data about engagement with serial segments uploaded to the platform to choose what to option for print publication. All the titles published via Wattpad Books have thus been among the most popular works featured on the platform, which is why I focus my attention there. With help from two research assistants, I read everything published by Wattpad Books, in addition to some works as they were serialized on the Wattpad platform. I found these two forms across nearly all the works we looked at.

To review and expand on my brief opening definitions, the first of these forms is assertion of the value of seeing yourself and your experiences reflected in the experiences of others. This can be present in a particular moment or relationship in the text, but it always serves to echo and emphasize an overarching goal of the work itself the goal of providing readers with a necessary sustaining experience of seeing themselves in the fiction they read and feeling buoyed or strengthened by that. The second, related form (and these are certainly often present in the same work) is the scene of inclusion, in which the usually overlooked or denigrated is presented, or becomes perceivable, as both beautiful and worthy of treatment in artistic expression. This form thus again reinforces Wattpad's own branding as a space of care and inclusion guaranteed by democratized, free, open access to the platform. In this way the Wattpad platform, and the narratives that circulate there, at once valorize inclusion of the threateningly non-normative, and conflate that inclusion with representation in YA fiction fiction that may never have found a home within the mainstream publishing industry, with its preference for stories about people who can be grouped into the normative identities of the majority. Wattpad's choice of works for release as Wattpad Books, in other words, grounds its claim to play a corrective role with the industry as a whole: aided by its panoply of user data, it can celebrate titles that correct the biases that plague publishing's dominant culture.24

The two novels I discuss below recommended themselves to me because they exhibited these forms so clearly. There were additional factors at work as well. First, both are by writers who have strongly identified with the Wattpad brand. They have been featured on Wattpad-sponsored panels and made public statements about their work, which I was able to draw upon for insight into their self-conceptions as writers. Second, both books feature a clear pedagogy. More than telling their stories, they instruct readers in precisely why and how to value these stories, in ways that reverberate beyond their particular instances to form a set of general instructions about what reading and writing should be today.

The first form, the assertion of the power of literature as reflection, is clarified by Daven McQueen's remarkable novel, The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones. The novel depicts a biracial teenager, Ethan, who is sent by his white father to live for a summer in a racist white town in Alabama after getting into a fight at school. It is 1955 and the town is not only segregated but basically entirely white, which Ethan only discovers after he arrives and is thrust into small town daily life when his white uncle makes him work the counter at his soda shop. From here Ethan begins to see that "there was no one here who looked like him" (23) and "he was a deviation from the norm and that was a threat" (68). Over the course of the novel Ethan is targeted by racist bigots. His aunt and uncle handle it all terribly at first. They are apologetic about Ethan's race; Aunt Cara explains to people that her brother was always uncontrollable, and this non-white child is the result. While they are not as violently racist as the other townspeople, they have what Ethan describes as an "easy complicity" with the general mores, accepting "that's just the way it is around here" (36).

Ethan does make a friend however, the titular Juniper Jones, an oddball white girl who decides to help him make his way in the town. They spend the summer getting to know each other, in a classic falling in love plot that allows Ethan a real salve against what he is otherwise facing in daily life. His affection for Juniper is expressed in the terms that Pamela Thurschwell discusses in a recent treatment of apocalyptic teen fiction, where momentary elation is the best one can hope for in a situation of dramatic uncertainty.25 Through knowing Juniper, Ethan can escape affectively, in short bursts, the town's constitutive racism. During one weekend ramble he observes, for instance, "here was Juniper Jones, in her muddy skirt, wearing paint on her cheek like a badge of honor and spinning through the grass with her arms wide enough to embrace the moon. Ethan thought that if the world were to disappear at that very moment, and this was the last sight that he ever saw, he wouldn't mind at all" (107). On another occasion: "All he wanted was to sit with Juniper at the lake and stare so hard into the sun that he could no longer see or think anything at all" (243).

Reality has its way of closing in. As the bond between Juniper and Ethan grows, the novel then asks to be read as an exploration of the nature of allyship in the era of Black Lives Matter and indeed the author, Daven McQueen, has been featured on Wattpad-sponsored panels addressing the work of the writer in the wake of the George Floyd uprising.26 The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones offers the reader a considerable amount of counsel on how, now, to acknowledge white privilege and support your racialized friends. For example, in one scene Juniper's ancient, senile aunt is startled by Ethan's presence and says something horrible to him, and Juniper fails to step in. In fact, Juniper defends her aunt instead: "she's not well! She barely knows what she's saying." Ethan counters wisely that this "doesn't mean you shouldn't try" (153). At first Juniper is too proud to concede his point, and they fight. But she comes around later, asserting that "part of being family is about making each other better people. And I can't make any promises that she'll change. But I'm sure gonna try my best" (173). In a similarly pedagogical vein, the novel laments how it takes Juniper's white-gaze affection for Ethan to encourage his aunt and uncle to reform their thinking. Ethan points out that "It shouldn't have taken Juniper . . . For you to see me as a person" (210).

In turn, after realizing more acutely what Ethan faces, Juniper vows to work to fight against the town's racism and reflects that "there's a lot I can do too, I think. Because people look at me differently than they look at you. I'm safe in my skin, I mean" (208). We might think that what Juniper says about being "safe in her skin" proves untrue, given that she dies tragically before the novel ends. But it is actually her proximity to Ethan's racialization that puts her in harm's way. She drowns after two of Ethan's tormenters try to trap them on a boat in the middle of the lake. And her death seems to matter more to people in the town because she was white.

Amidst all this, the key scene of mirroring comes when Ethan goes with Juniper to visit his mother in a nearby city. Ethan's parents are divorced, and we discover that part of the tension in their relationship arose from the fact that his father was never able to talk to him about race and understand what he experienced as a biracial child. His mother laments that his father failed to see that "colored kids don't get to be innocent" (202) a failure certainly suggested by his having sent Ethan to such a place for the summer to begin with. Ethan and his mother talk about what black people experience, they talk about what white people fear, and they talk about "a revolution." Ethan reflects that he "would remember the revolution his mother spoke of he'd see it in the people around him, and eventually in himself" (204-205), and as the novel is told as Ethan's retrospective narration, we know what this means, because we learn in the first few pages that he met his eventual wife through involvement in the student politics of the Civil Rights era.

Ethan leaves his visit to his mother feeling buoyed, loved, and supported. These are feelings he'd been sorely lacking in the small white town, despite Juniper's friendship. The terms used to describe his feeling are interesting: "sitting there with his mother, he realized how long he'd gone without having someone who understood him." He finds himself "wishing to hold still forever in the safety of that moment" (205). Maternal care and mirroring merge here; one can be cared for by a shared experience. This is at the heart of much of the fiction that Wattpad features on its platform, and it is especially characteristic of what is selected for print publication: literature as a mirror that, held up to the reader, shows the reader their own experience. McQueen even dedicates her novel "To my younger self and all the kids like her, wishing for books they could see themselves in."

Here McQueen positions fiction writing as an activity of care for readers who need what she has to offer. She undertakes her work as a means of solidarity with them. This is consistent with how McQueen has talked about writing in various Wattpad-sponsored events. In a panel on the "own voices" movement held at the Wattpad convention, for example, McQueen praises it as a flowering of the shift away from the authority of legacy media publishing dominated by white men.27 The value of a platform like Wattpad, she argues, is that it gives space to writers who did not have a voice before. In McQueen's conception, the values embodied in the "own voices" movement mirror Wattpad's values, as they echo the priority accorded to people from minoritized communities telling stories aimed at people from those same communities and featuring protagonists they can see themselves in.

In terms of the second form, the assertion of the beauty of what is normally considered ugly or beneath notice, my example here is Jo Watson's novel Big Boned  a work that would belong to the "own voices" category, since Jo Watson, and her protagonist Lori, are both chubby white South Africans. We meet Lori as she has recently moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where she is struggling to fit in to the culture of sporty beach-bodied surfers and social media influencers that characterizes her new high school. Lori has also been thrust into the role of primary caregiver for her younger brother, who is on the autism spectrum and can occasionally erupt in ways that are hard to manage.

The main issue here though is Lori's perception of herself as a person whose extra weight means she does not fit the standard beauty ideal that she assumes everyone she knows clings to. She is unable to see herself as beautiful and has been traumatized by past experiences of being bullied because of her weight, including an incident where her head was cruelly forced under water at a children's pool party. Lori's brother meets a friend at school a girl with ADHD and as the result of their bond, Lori becomes friends with the girl's attractive older brother, Jake, who volunteers at their school and aspires to work with special needs kids in the future. You can guess where this is going.

The connection between Jake and Lori begins with an appeal then to the mirroring form also in The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones: they agree that it is wonderful to have met someone who understands what they experienced with their younger siblings. No one else they know goes through the same thing: "Having siblings like we do means having to grow up quicker. It means that life isn't always a party. There's a serious side to it, filled with heartbreak and pain, and sometimes the greatest joy too" (151). The two agree that most people stigmatize children who fail to comport themselves in the expected way, thinking them simply badly behaved. Lori and Jake both understand, instead, that neurodivergence is not only a real thing but beautiful. Because of their difference, their siblings are uniquely interesting, wonderful, and brilliant in their own ways, and Lori and Jake are bonded by their capacity to recognize this.

Initially, though, there is a limit to their relationship, and that is Lori's traumatic past and inability to see her own beauty as she can see her brother's. She fails to get into the art school she applied to because she completed a self-portrait badly, being unable to look at herself naked, reckoning with the reality of her physical appearance. The director of the art school states that she lacks voice, so this is something that Lori also needs to overcome throughout the course of the novel. She is not deliberately trying to find this voice when she embarks on a series of guerilla art projects around town, becoming "Cape Town's banksy," but it ends up having that effect.

The nature of the illicit art that she does is important. In the first piece, she paints flowers around a crack in the pavement after hearing some pedestrians complaining about how ugly it is. This echoes an earlier moment in the novel when Lori reflects on her favorite t-shirt: "You know why I love that shirt so much? Because it takes something so ordinary a can of Campbell's soup and elevates it to art. I've often wondered if Warhol was able to see things in everyday objects that no one else could see. Could he look below the surface of something and find the thing inside it that made it beautiful and special?" (29) This is an assertation of the novel's basic aesthetic, and, as I have been suggesting, an affirmation of a characteristic form in Wattpad novels, asserting the beauty of the ordinary and the excluded, an assertion that coincides with the bringing of those things into the world of art through their exploration in the novel itself. Big Boned is then itself something like Warhol's soup cans, and like Lori's reworking of the pavement crack: proof that these things are not merely ugly or beneath notice, but rather realities that can be refigured for the audience through the activity of the creative artist. Pop art is repurposed here for Lori's self-expression: she identifies, in essence, with the ordinary soup can, but also with the artist who sees its extraordinary potential.

After getting some attention on social media and in the mainstream press, Lori decides to use her newfound voice, protected by anonymity, to fight gender-based violence in South Africa. She paints a mural of a woman who was killed by her boyfriend, which reignites media interest in the broader problem; and later, she depicts a missing girl whose case has gone cold, after seeing a ragged flyer that the girl's parents put up in the hopes that the public might do what the police could not. Lori's art here thus merges the aesthetic of ordinariness she paints oversized portraits of regular people with a politics of care, using her voice to do what she can in support of a cause that matters to her. Again, we hear the echo here of Wattpad's very purview, as they tell potential writers that "2 billion minutes per month are spent reading and writing about LGBTQ+, anti-bullying, body positivity, diversity and people of color on Wattpad. Our community has inspired a global ripple effect of youth who raise awareness and encourage positive social change."28 This unites a discourse of social care with a commitment to providing a platform for regular people, mostly untrained writers, to express themselves and draw attention to their own experiences and their cherished causes. When it is eventually discovered that Lori is the artist responsible for her artworks, she has already achieved a kind of celebrity through the circulation of images of her work via social media: an assertion, then, of the power of prosumption as a means of identifying what is important artistic expression. This plot point is in tacit support, again, of Wattpad's algorithmic sorting mechanisms: the voices that people want to hear will automatically be identified and amplified via likes, comments, and shares.

We recall though that Lori's more glaring problem, giving the novel its title, barring her from the art school of her choice because of a failed self-portrait, was her inability to look squarely at her own physical person. While developing her artistic voice, then, she must also work on embracing her plus-size beauty, to the point of truly seeing that her body is beautiful and then accepting that she is lovable. We grasp that the process may be lifelong, but she certainly makes some real progress before the novel concludes, as she is able to be relatively comfortably naked in front of Jake, and he even helps her overcome her fear of swimming. With her self-image and her artistic values now somewhat in hand, at the close of the story she goes off to a different top art school in Paris, hoping to maybe keep things going with Jake, but not unaware of a world of new possibilities before her.

Big Boned's interest in aestheticizing the ordinary and idealizing art as a form of care work makes it more than another fantastical book with a protagonist who deviates from the romance norm of the skinny, beautiful girl but still winds up landing the hot boyfriend. Instead, is also a reflexive work about its own cultural value. Lori tells her therapist:

The girl like me, the fat girl [. . .] They're not the leading roles in the big Hollywood rom-coms. No! We don't get to be the stars in our own rom-coms, we don't get that guy. We don't get Jake Jones-Evans star water-polo player, hottest guy at school unless we're in the pages of some unrealistic YA book that totally throws social conventions out the window and sets itself in this totally made up world where fat girls win and the guy looks past all her cellulite and sees the girl inside. We don't get that. (274-275)

This clever acknowledgment of the fantasy structure of the very novel we are reading instructs the book's audience in the source of its own value: against conventional romance, it puts the fat girl in the leading role, and it asserts that this is not just a YA trope, so they should not assume that for them as readers, the fantasy will only ever be just that. Instead, the message is that life can sometimes meet the standards of fiction. What could be more reassuring?

Watson has, like McQueen, often taken part in Wattpad-sponsored events, deliberately identifying as a Wattpad author who is closely affiliated with their branding. She has emphasized the role that she knows her work can play for readers who depend on her for positive messages about the beauty of the non-normative. Indeed, the expectations that readers have, and her awareness of their needs, can sometimes feel like a burden: she acknowledges the difficulty of having to work, having to stick to a consistent upload schedule, even when it is the last thing that she feels like doing. Yet she has also discussed how sustaining she has found the engagement from readers in the Wattpad community. She explains that she is not someone who can sit down and write all day, in the modernist image of the lone writer sequestered at their desk. Instead, she rather needs the stimulation of readers' engagement with her story segments to persist with her writing.29 The value of Wattpad as a platform for the creation of community around serialized writing is thus asserted once more. What matters to her, by her own lights, is her involvement in a community that cares about her and needs her work because it serves as a vital salve for them in trying conditions.


There are other novels published by Wattpad Books that one could look at for similar tropes, themes, and pedagogies. In a future essay I will discuss, for example, Micah Good's The Opposite of Falling Apart (2020), a meet cute featuring a boy who lost a leg in a car accident and a girl who suffers from anxiety and who happens herself to aspire to be a creative writer and uses a platform that is quite like Wattpad's to achieve this. My hope is that these representative cases reveal how the work of writing is itself being imagined today in ways that are not entirely new, but that are being reinforced due to underlying transformations in the industry that are putting the gendered, bibliotherapeutic language of care at the heart of what the publishing industry does. This language associates working in publishing with attention to mental health, with wellness and resilience grounded in access to a supportive community that offers ambient messages of acceptance and diversity. Via such language, people are encouraged to experience cultural representation, participation, and belonging, as consolations available in conditions of increasing need for social supports, especially mental health supports, that are otherwise all too scarce.

It is not to denigrate the needs of readers to point out that the Wattpad platform benefits in material ways from the embrace of these conceptions of writing. To reiterate once more: most writers do not expect to be paid for the work they share, while the fact of the presence of their aggregated content is precisely what Wattpad depends upon for its own revenue streams. For Wattpad authors, the scope of their work can be enormous. They look at what stories are trending on the platform, participate in training courses, upload their own serialized segments, design covers, interact with readers who provide feedback or positive reinforcement, market their work via social media, and, to learn from and participate convivially in the community, they read and comment on work by other writers. The company holds out the carrot of possible success "Get produced . . . Get adapted . . . Get published" to help attract the contributions that their whole business model depends upon. Content attracts users; user figures are key to securing ads dispersed throughout the free content on the platform; and more users mean more data that can help in identifying what writing is worthy of star treatment. Very few writers will make this cut.

For everyone else, there remain affective rewards. A person with no expectation of a career as a writer can benefit from sharing work with a supportive community or readers and other authors. Writers can feel themselves to be helping readers who need their stories, and readers can find emotional supports via involvement in the Wattpad community.30 Wattpad may never discover your talent, but they will welcome you with their climate of supportive community and advice-giving, with tips for success on the platform, including free classes to help you develop your skills at writing and marketing, and access to a roster of successful authors who themselves produce reams of content sharing their own tricks and techniques for reaching readers. While turning storytelling into the work of care and the means of access to supportive community, Wattpad attracts the millions of users that secure their advertising contracts, resulting in a concentration of profits in publishing that depends upon users showing up for bibliotherapeutic reasons that is, for reasons other than pay.

Sarah Brouillette is a Professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.


My research on Wattpad is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Insight Grant number 435-2019-0653 for "The Future Literary"). I want to thank research assistants Sofia Colucci and Sarah Dorward for help with the reading for this project.

  1. I discuss Wattpad's business model further in "Wattpad, Platform Capitalism, and the Feminization of Publishing Work," forthcoming in Book History 25.2 (2022). []
  2. On Amazon's KDP as maximum customer service see Mark McGurl, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (London: Verso, 2021). []
  3. Eva Illouz, Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery (Columbia University Press, 2003); Timothy Aubry, Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (University of Iowa Press, 2011). []
  4. See Lewis A. Coser, Charles Kadushin, & Walter W. Powell, "Women in Book Publishing: A Qualified Success Story," in Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing (New York, Basic Books, 1982), 150. []
  5. Barbara F. Reskin, "Bringing the Men Back in: Sex Differentiation and the Devaluation of Women's Work," Gender and Society 2, no. 1 (1988): 70. []
  6. Katherine Bode, "Along Gender Lines: Reassessing Relationships between Australian Novels, Gender and Genre from 1930 to 2006," Australian Literary Studies 24, no. 3-4 (2009): 93. For a related argument see Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Readers in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave, 2014): "The feminization of middlebrow culture is not simply descriptive, but also derogatory" (29). []
  7. For recent data on women's positions and respective salaries see "The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2019," Publishers Weekly, Nov 15, 2019. UK data are comparable, showing men still dominant in top positions with highest pay, but with some small shift in favor of more women in leadership roles. See "UK Publishers Association Study," Publishing Perspectives Jan 27, 2020. []
  8. Simone Murray, The Digital Literary SphereReading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018); Aarthi Vadde, "Amateur Creativity: Contemporary Literary and the Digital Publishing Scene," New Literary History 48 (2017): 27-51; Aarthi Vadde, "Platform or Publisher," PMLA 136, no. 3 (2021): 455-462. []
  9. John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (Cambridge: Polity, 2021), 252. []
  10. See Katy Waldman, "Is My Novel Offensive? How 'sensitivity readers' are changing the publishing ecosystem," Slate, Feb. 9, 2017. []
  11. On the whiteness of mainstream publishing see Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente, Rethinking 'Diversity' in Publishing (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2020); Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente, "Diversity, media and racial capitalism: a case study on publishing," Ethnic and Racial Studies 45, no. 16 (2022): 216-236; and Richard Jean So, Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020). []
  12. This research is forthcoming in "Discourses of Emotional Labour," a special issue of Women: a cultural review, eds. Alexandra Peat and Emily Ridge. []
  13. See Leah Price, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 103. []
  14. Samuel Crothers, "A Literary Clinic," Atlantic Monthly, September 1916. See also Price, What We Talk About, 133. []
  15. See Jean M. Twenge and Heejung Park, "The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976-2016," Child Development 90, no. 2 (2017): 638-654. []
  16. Debbie McCulliss, "Bibliotherapy: Historical and research perspectives," Journal of Poetry Therapy 25, no. 1 (March 2012): 23. []
  17. "#WattpadSpeaks: Getting Creative with Self-Care," YouTube (May 19, 2022); see also "#WattpadSpeaks: Creativity, Compassion & Community with Maybelline," YouTube (May 25, 2021). []
  18. See Beth Blum, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 9. []
  19. Sofie Lazarsfeld, "The Use of Fiction in Psychotherapy," American Journal of Psychotherapy 3, no. 1 (1949): 26. Her emphasis. []
  20. McCulliss, "Bibliotherapy," 32. []
  21. Lazarsfeld, "The Use of Fiction," 27. []
  22. Price, What We Talk About, 120, 123. []
  23. For a piece treating YA reading as regression see Ruth Graham, "Against YA," Slate, June 5, 2014. []
  24. For examples of Wattpad's self-positioning as corrective see Wattpad, "#OwnVoices: Behind the Hashtag" and "WattCon Day 2 - Era of Own Voices: Writing Diverse Stories," YouTube (Nov 7, 2018). []
  25. Pamela Thurschwell, "Making out in Anne Frank's house: teen romance and catastrophic history," forthcoming in her book, Destructive Characters. []
  26. See "#WattpadSpeaks: Catharsis Through Creativity in 2020," YouTube (Dec 15, 2020). []
  27. See "WattCon Day 2 - Era of Own Voices" []
  28. This language is from Wattpad's About page. []
  29. Watson describes the difficulty of maintaining her writing schedule after her father's death during "#WattpadSpeaks: Creativity, Compassion & Community." Her writing process and dependence on fans are emphasized during "WattCon 2018 Day 1: Be Your Own Hero - The Wattpad Writerpreneur," YouTube (Nov 7, 2018). []
  30. One recent video aimed at advertising partners stresses Wattpad's capacity to provide "emotional support" to readers, and how those needy readers could not be reached in such high numbers if not for Wattpad's algorithms. See "Wattpad Brand Partnerships. Where Brand Stories Live," YouTube (April 19, 2021). []