To hear its practitioners tell it, dark academia burst forth from Donna Tartt's temple fully formed, like Athena. A shared fealty to this mythic parentage plot unites not just the authors writing in the burgeoning genre of fiction now known as dark academia, but also those who participate in dark academia as an online "aesthetic." For members of certain internet communities, the word "aesthetic" refers not to the study of beauty, value, or taste, but instead to something between a fashion sense, a philosophy, a mood, and a found community like a fandom, but unmoored from a specific object of devotion. Given the apparent distance between gonzo-gothic campus novels and TikToks dedicated to thrifting old blazers from Goodwill, we might be tempted to give up on any analysis that attempts to bring them together. In this line of thinking, dark academia is simply two disconnected phenomena a burgeoning genre of literature on the one hand and an internet trend on the other and both just happen to claim an origin in Tartt's novel. But to pronounce internet trends and literary genres as cultural apples and oranges ignores the portability of generic convention, particularly in internet subcultures. Dark academia, the literary market category, and dark academia, the aesthetic, could perhaps be more accurately described as two instances of the same genre impulse.

It might seem reasonable to ask if "genre" is even the appropriate label for this medium-spanning aesthetic trend. But though New Formalist literary critics like Caroline Levine may set aside genre as fundamentally different from form stating that "any attempt to recognize a work's genre is a historically specific and interpretive act," while "forms [ . . . ] can remain stable over time" the ever-shifting nature of genre itself facilitates insights into cultural landscapes that change at the speed of the internet.1 In fact, the slipperiness of genre is particularly suited for limning the convergences of the literary market and online practices. As Mark McGurl has argued, in our contemporary Amazon-dominated literary marketplace, genre functions in response to consumer desire. For McGurl "our desires are fundamentally generic in nature," and seen in light of this fact, "all fiction is genre fiction in that it caters to a generic desire."2 In this formulation, genres cohere around their promise to fulfill the same desire again and again, but importantly with minor variation. Conceiving of genre as a catalog of consumer desire points us away from the never-ending ahistorical debates of what inherent qualities of a text qualify it for membership in a specific genre and towards a recognition of the shifting economy of desires serviced by genre fiction. McGurl's conception of genre is particularly focused on the reader as consumer, to the potential detriment of other ways of imagining the relationship between reader and text, but his analysis nonetheless helps us understand online phenomena like dark academia, where all cultural production is reduced to "content" that fulfills a consumer desire. Applying McGurl's understanding of genre to the world of internet aesthetics, we can see that content is not just what's for sale, but a catch-all for all sorts of human production. When all of human activity is instrumentalized as content, genre's capaciousness becomes an analytical asset.3 The internet aesthetic and the literary market category cohere under the category of genre because each promises to fulfill similar consumer desires. And, in the case of dark academia, the humming undercurrent of desire that unites these two spheres is one for ownership of the aesthetics of higher education, where such ownership has previously been confined to the upper class.

This investment in class aspiration may appear to cement dark academia as a regressive, elitist fantasy. Amelia Horgan has gone so far as to call dark academia an "ersatz romanticism," a pale reflection of "old humanists committed to preserving and sustaining a traditional and hierarchical culture."4 It's easy to find justification for this critique in The Secret History, and the most damning piece of evidence may be that Tartt's novel, like her fiction generally, is particularly interested in the lives of the white and wealthy, the vanishingly small percentage of human beings with the resources to devote their lives to studying dead languages at elite institutions. The novel follows disaffected middle-class Californian Richard Papen as he becomes embroiled in a secretive clique of wealthy Classics students at Hampden College, an elite liberal arts school in the wilds of Vermont. While the members of the clique present themselves as scholars, Richard ultimately finds himself covering up one murder, performed while the clique was in the thrall of a meticulously recreated Greek bacchanal, and in the course of that cover-up participating in a second murder himself. Over the course of the novel, the life of the mind is revealed to be not only a fiction, but also a deadly ruse that ultimately leads to the downfall of Richard and his wealthy friends. The Secret History imagines Richard's class striving as a generic operation: he seeks to leave his life of middle-class banality for the more exciting world of drawing rooms and scintillating conversation that his new haute-bourgeois classmates inhabit.

Reading for genre mixing in The Secret History becomes easier when we remember that like all genre progenitors, it was not setting out to participate in the genre it created, but rather building on and subverting existing generic conventions. Donna Tartt couldn't write a dark academia novel in 1992, because the category didn't exist yet. The novel uses the literary techniques of the thriller, unfolding its mysteries over many twists and turns and hinging not on a "whodunnit" plot but on what fellow dark academia novelist Amy Gentry has called a "whydunit" [sic].5 Why, the novel makes readers ask, was Richard driven from class striving to murder? The novel reveals its thriller predilections as it opens with the spine-tingling declaration that "the snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation."6 But The Secret History is not only a thriller. The thriller plot intrudes on Richard's ambitions to live a life of the mind his desire to escape his middle-class existence and enter the world of the bourgeois novel of manners, the world his murderous classmates were born into and which they inhabit with conspicuous ease, smoking, drinking, loafered feet propped up on its faded upholstery.

These two competing generic impulses the novel of manners and the thriller plot in Tartt's novel represent two visions of American life: in the America of the novel of manners, the best and brightest navigate minor social faux pas in leisure, while in the thriller's America there is always a twist lying in wait, threatening to upend the established order, the protagonist and the reader can never catch their breath. In the logic of the novel of manners that slowly unravels in The Secret History, Richard plays the secret fish out of water as he tries to fit in with his wealthy classmates. The generic desire at play here is one of academic wish-fulfillment in his averageness and relative anonymity, Richard functions as a stand-in for readers seeking the pleasures of elite education. He allows readers to engage in the fantasy of admission into such a rarefied club as he drops out of the pre-med program at his local college to pursue the study of Greek at Hampden. Richard believes that through wit and hard work he can master the academic obsessions and social mores of his newfound friends and in doing so, escape the middle-class doldrums for a life of intellectual rigor and high society. And he even finds himself moderately successful, begging his way into the Hampden Classics program and ingratiating himself with its eccentric students, before the thriller plot of murders and cover-ups crashes into his life and shatters the novel of manners.

Throughout the novel, the thriller lurks just off-stage before it makes its full debut. When Richard arrives on campus as a transfer student, faculty warn him away from taking Greek with the mysterious and reclusive professor Julian Morrow. While Julian is technically a member of the English faculty, he demands that his students study only with him, sequestered from the rest of the college. Julian adds to his mystique by appearing on campus rarely, residing in a countryside mansion, and tutoring a princess in political exile, presumably out of "his sympathy on principle with royalists instead of revolutionaries."7 Julian's romantic appeal is easy to see, as he is something of a fusion of stock mentor characters for today's readers, he might even be reminiscent of the eccentric (and equally snobbish) wizard professors of Hogwarts. The college tolerates this eccentricity because of Julian's great personal wealth, which allows him to teach for the nominal salary of one dollar a year, which he of course donates back to the college. Julian's effective super-tenure and royalist sympathies tip us off to the class politics of the novel itself. Despite his role in the novel as an aspirational figure, his position is a perversion of the tenure system's intended protections for faculty. Rather than tenure protecting Julian's academic freedom, Julian's wealth ensures that he is not beholden to academic responsibilities. Not only is Julian emblematic of the failures of meritocracy in higher education under capitalism, but his special exemptions from regular academic life create the conditions for his students' downfall. Tellingly, when his students ultimately reveal their homicides to him in an act of desperation, Julian sides neither with them nor the rule of law, choosing instead to simply resign his post and vanish into his wealth.

Julian's disappearance from the novel is the ultimate performance of the study of The Classics as bourgeois remove, the creation of a sphere wholly separate from material concerns. From this cozy vantage, any affinity for contemporary culture, and particularly for genre fiction, is seen as gauche. These logics of generic exclusion and distinction are most visible in Bunny, the victim of the novel's climactic second murder. Bunny's coarse literary tastes all but seal his fate. Among his sins: neglecting his studies to read comics, and, after uncovering the truth about the group's first murder, needling his homicidal friends with bad jokes from a jokebook that he keeps "on the shelf with Bob Hope's autobiography and the Fu Manchu novels."8 For Julian this classist cultural logic extends beyond genre fiction to encompass the whole of contemporary culture. Julian sneers to Richard that he "'wouldn't advise you to go out and buy a copy of Goodbye, Columbus' (required, notoriously, in one of the freshman English classes)."9 The invocation of Philip Roth's collection as the downfall of Julian's cherished Great Books curriculum has what we can only assume for Julian is the added benefit of a light air of antisemitism. Bunny's pointed corny jokes not coincidentally all "jailhouse" themed play a not insignificant part in driving the rest of the clique over the edge and eventually murdering him.10 Tartt's characters' distaste for all things pulp finally belies not just that a cheesy joke book might serve as the closest thing to a conscience among them, but reveals a homicidal class hatred that only masquerades as refined taste. This places the Classics students at Hampden in a long lineage of cultural figures, from the Marquis de Sade to Game of Thrones's incestous Lannister twins, whose depravity is only thinly veiled by cultural refinement (and is perhaps even the direct result of that so-called refinement).

This diegetic appearance of genre fiction works in tandem with Tartt's use of genre tropes to create something like a holistic genre system in the novel. Beyond Bunny's tastes, references to genre texts are constantly cropping up: Edgar Allan Poe, Perry Mason, and Hollywood blockbusters all make appearances and are used as tools by the novel's characters to understand the increasingly disturbing crimes they commit. Here the novel suggests a usefulness for the genre logics it reifies: in our worst moments we return to the comforts of genre, even if we think of ourselves as above it. When Richard is at the depths of his guilt and despair, he abandons The Classics for more lurid genre fare: mystery novels borrowed from professors in the English department and the autobiography of a serial killer purchased from an airport bookstore.11 Indeed, from the novel's opening sentences Richard reaches for genre to make sense of his affliction. There, from a vantage point after the events of the novel, Richard asks the reader directly, "Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does."12 On its face, this is a classic(ist) invocation of Greek tragedy. But the tragic flaw Richard identifies in himself, "a morbid longing for the picturesque," is curiously low, bordering on pulpy.13 The picturesque, if it exists at all in the contemporary intellectual imagination, exists only as a degraded category, bringing to mind the kitschy middle-class comfort found in a framed Thomas Kinkade print visions that also encode a history of class aspiration. Richard's very self-concept is drawn from genre; a dark crack of generic desire in the patina of classical signifiers.

The thriller's dominance over the novel of manners in The Secret History betrays a deep mistrust of the wealthy's ability to lead lives untainted by the capitalist system that created their wealth. Richard does succeed in fitting himself into the clique's life of the mind for a time, but at the cost of two lives and the group's eventual dissolution. Tartt, then, is not so much mindlessly celebrating the wealth culture of the Reagan era as she is acting as a kind of ethnographer, reporting on the darkness of the American bourgeoisie from the inside. Could it be this attention to the myths and rituals of class distinction, so crucial in the history of higher education, that keeps drawing today's online dark academia fans back to Tartt's novel three decades after its publication? 

Just as Richard enacts his attachment to his generic desires, dark academians online enact their class aspirations through the myths and rituals of education or taste. If, as McGurl suggests, genre fiction promises us a repetition of pleasures that we've felt before, then the online aesthetic applies this repetition to all aspects of our lives. If we want to (re-)capture the feelings evoked by dark academia, then we can read another dark academia novel or sew elbow patches onto our jackets or decorate our desk with a Halloween prop skull and a stuffed raven. Furthermore, all of these acts can be meticulously documented and posted online, adding to the ever-growing dark academia tapestry. In the world of the internet aesthetic, the passive reader-consumer becomes the producer of the genre themselves as they enact it for the consumption of others. You can demonstrate your dark academia lifestyle in an Instagram post, or create TikToks offering others dark academia fashion advice, or debate the merits of academic study with other members of the dark academia community. Like Richard, and like Tartt in her mode as ethnographer, you become a participant in addition to an observer. One typical Tumblr post captures this blurring of the lines between consumption and production beautifully: "Just because you missed your duolingo latin lesson today doesn't mean Donna Tartt would hate you. This community is lovely, but can fuel a lot of self imposed pressure."14 Learning Latin can be an act of participation, but more importantly, posting about learning Latin signals your membership in the community. That Donna Tartt serves as arbiter for all things dark academia is telling: it reveals that The Secret History (the author standing in metonymically for her novel) is still a constitutive force of dark academia even outside the realm of fiction. The world of literature is not hermetically sealed off from the more populist internet cultural sphere; it is in fact absorbed by it.

But these kinds of found community may be less utopian than they initially appear. After all, like The Secret History, dark academia as an online and sartorial trend is not just a populist co-opting of Oxbridge aesthetics there is a darkness to it that extends beyond its color palette. It is the darkness, perhaps, of an attraction to all the signs of upper-class attainment that accrue to recipients of an elite education, coupled with a growing sense of the unjustness of such a violent and exclusionary system. Dark academia's many reader-producers recreate images of such ruling-class belonging in part because they recognize that today, elite education and all of its accouterments are less accessible than ever to the working class and, more importantly, that the illusion of upward mobility itself has given way to a recognition that downward mobility is the new normal. In the face of this new and pervasive downward mobility, the reader-producers of dark academia feel an increased generic desire, if not quite a "morbid longing," for the hallmarks of elite education but crucially,  they also reclaim them for their own purposes. Increasingly expensive university education is reforged as a personal commitment to an imagined ideal of higher education, the camaraderie of the paid classroom replaced with that of free internet communities. It would be a step too far to claim that dressing up in a sweater vest and posing with a stack of books for Instagram is a revolutionary activity. And yet it is not an uncritical one. I recognize in the trend an echo of the ritual reversal that Mikhail Bakhtin observed in historical European carnival traditions. These ritual reversals included fools performing comedic inversions of serious rituals which Bakhtin argues resembled art, but "belong to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play."15

For Bakhtin, this play was vital to medieval life: it provided a way to stand outside of society and see it through laughter. The recreation of elite ritual by fools was not simply an observation of those rituals, but also a subversion of them. As Dylan Davidson points out elsewhere in this cluster, the act of producing and reproducing what we call "academia," whether it's done by a board of directors in a boardroom detailed in fine woods or by a teenager behind the screen of a laptop in a studio apartment, always entails the act of producing simulacra.16 By seizing the means of this production, dark academia's reader-producers are not simply yearning for the hallmarks of elite education, but recreating them from the outside for their own purposes. In this sense, dark academia's recreations of class distinction may be both a ruse that confers a semblance of prestige without bestowing lasting power and also a mode of resistant mimicry. Dark academia presents a world where anyone can master the aesthetics of ruling-class belonging, even if as in Bakhtin's Carnival, this subversion risks ultimately reinforcing the social order. And yet, by creating their own Oxfords and Harvards online, dark academians can laugh at those that still feel the need to worship at those altars in person. Whether or not that laughter contains a kernel of revolution remains to be seen, but at the very least it promises to disrupt the neoliberal order in higher education. And for my money, that disruption is sorely needed.

Gunner Taylor (@gunnertaylorgt) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware, where he is studying contemporary American literature and media. His dissertation project, "Weird History: Genre Collision in the Contemporary Historical Novel," explores the way that popular genres create new historiographic possibilities in American historical fiction after postmodernism.


  1. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 13. []
  2. Mark McGurl, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (London; New York: Verso, 2021), 14-15.[]
  3. This flattening of all human activity to content production is one of the many ways living with the internet has changed how we see ourselves and our work. For the damage that it has done to the academic production of knowledge, see Rachel Tay, "Killing Our Darlings," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  4. Amelia Horgan, "The 'Dark Academia' Subculture Offers a Fantasy Alternative to the Neoliberal University," Jacobin, December 19, 2021.[]
  5. Amy Gentry, "Dark Academia: Your Guide to the New Wave of Post-Secret History Campus Thrillers," CrimeReads, February 18, 2021. Gentry considers herself a practitioner of dark academia, having written a "whydunit" of her own inspired by Tartt's work, Bad Habits (2021). Bad Habits plays out like a gender-swapped The Secret History, but its grad school setting and working-class protagonist update the plot for the twenty-first century and make the class politics of the novel even clearer.[]
  6. Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2004), 3.[]
  7. Tartt, The Secret History, 351.[]
  8. Tartt, The Secret History, 154.[]
  9. Tartt, The Secret History, 32.[]
  10. Tartt, The Secret History, 155.[]
  11. Tartt, The Secret History, 424, 277.[]
  12. Tartt, The Secret History, 7.[]
  13. Tartt, The Secret History, 7.[]
  14. somethingmissingthings, "Reminder to Self," Tumblr, Something Missing (blog), accessed December 30, 2021.[]
  15. Mikhail. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 7.[]
  16. Dylan Davidson, "To Be Transformed," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]