Unpacking the “Red Flag” Bookshelf: Negotiating Literary Value on Twitter

King, Edmund G. C. (2022). Unpacking the “Red Flag” Bookshelf: Negotiating Literary Value on Twitter. English Studies, 103(5) pp. 706–731.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/0013838x.2022.2087037


On 24 August 2020, the writer Jess McHugh posted on Twitter a list of her “Top 7 Warning Signs in a Man’s Bookshelf”. At the very top of her list of red flags was “A Dogeared copy of Infinite Jest.” This was followed by “Too much Hemingway”, “Any amount of Bukowski”, “AYN. RAND”, and Goethe. Lolita and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons also made the cut. McHugh’s tweet quickly went viral across the platform, gaining 3200 replies, 6000 retweets and 17,000 likes over the next four days, as well as news coverage in a variety of venues, including the Onion AV Club and The Times of India. Drawing on platform analysis and qualitative analysis of Twitter data, this article will examine McHugh’s bookshelf meme and some of the many responses—discussions, appropriations and alternative lists, and counter-lists—that it generated (not least from readers of Goethe). It will ask what this episode reveals about the effect of algorithmically curated digital space on understandings of reading, taste, gender, and canonicity in the early 2020s. To what extent do the specific dynamics, affordances, and posting cultures of a virtual platform space like Twitter affect the way “book talk” unfolds online?

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