Aesthetically, what makes Dark Academia dark are the muted colors, rainy weather, and dim libraries full of dark wood. But in literature, the “dark” of Dark Academia is much more than just color. Books like The Secret History, The Atlas Six, Legendborn, and Ninth House try to reveal more sinister darknesses in academia: insularity, elitism, classism, racism, sexism (many more -isms), cultural theft. Dark Academia has never been more in, more inclusive, or more interesting. Now more than ever is a time to question the hazy mythos academia has long kept wrapped around itself.
Unlike, say, Dead Poets Society, a successful dark academia novel is more than a little critical of the very world it operates in.
Today, academia is at a crossroads, struggling to hold on to its exclusive mystique while tuition continues to rise, the value of a degree continues to fall, and more and more people begin to question why knowledge must be so closely guarded in the first place.
The world is not completely disillusioned with academia; not yet, at least. The aesthetic’s popularity alone speaks to that fact. Having any academic role, whether it be as a professor, researcher, or student still affords outsized social capital compared to, particularly, the monetary capital associated with it. Academics today call to mind the gentry of the early twentieth century, stripped of much of their influence yet still clinging to an old, powerful image of gentility. Or, in this case, of a kind of aloof, scholarly separation.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
The youngest version of dark academia that comes to mind, I still love Frankie and her disreputable history years after picking it up when I was also fifteen. This book is witty and unafraid to be youthfully obsessed with boys and cliques.
At this exclusive boarding school, there is a secret all-boys society. It’s a juvenile version of the old boys clubs, real and fictional, that crowd our world. And Frankie absolutely outshows and obliterates them. With pranks. Because there’s something both insidious and ridiculous about all those all-boys clubs, and giving them a taste of their own medicine, in unique Frankie style…
It is glorious.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
I am in awe of Deonn’s deftness with challenging subjects in Legendborn. The novel criticizes, subverts, and weaves together such iconic academic cornerstones as the Authorian legends and secret societies with a powerful modern narrative about black American survival and empowerment.
Like Frankie, Bree is whip-smart; being in her head is a delicious privilege, especially as she infiltrates, you guessed it, another old boys club that is definitely all-white. She infiltrates it, and then totally grabs it by the balls, and the precise way she does so exposes all the hypocrisy of prestigious, exclusive organizations.
The Atlas Six by Olivia Blake
While this novel spends less time on big questions about gatekeeping knowledge than it could—it’s literally about a magical, secret Library of Alexandria—the questions it does ask are incisive and important. In particular, Blake questions the morality of keeping knowledge highly exclusive and the morality of stealing that knowledge from its native lands and cultures.
I also liked the way The Gilded Wolves similarly treated this issue of European enlightenment-era cultural theft. Both novels speak to a certain patronizing hubris of that age, and to the way such attitudes are alive and quite well today.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I am deeply suspicious of The Secret history. Not only is it extremely white, but its narrator never has the least the self-awareness to see his own infatuation academia for what it is: a desire to act enlightened and treat everyone who isn’t “enlightened” like expendable movie extras. The whole time, Richard just wants to be in with this pretentious, frankly caricature-esque set of elite greek students at a small Vermont college.
You have to take a step back to see the seediness of the whole novel. It is rife with insufficiently addressed racism, classism, sexism, and male gaze.
Maybe it’s all so distasteful that the whole thing can stand as a criticism of the rot inside idealized academia. But I worry not all readers will read it that way, not when the narrator is so thoroughly enthralled.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
The criticism of academia in Ninth House takes on classism in particular, this time partly internalized. Again a novel about secret societies in a university setting, Ninth House is as dark as it gets, even setting academia and secret societies aside.
But I actually think Ninth House treats exclusivity in academia both carefully and successfully. I really appreciated the complexity and objectivity with which Bardugo approached writing this surreal world of New Haven elite. No one is a caricature. Everyone is real and multilayered. Alex is a complex, tumultuous character, and so she has the ability to recognize contradiction and observe nuance. Especially when compared, for example, to the gullible protagonist of The Secret History.
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
I still think of this book weekly, years after reading it. This is the book that successfully drew me into an academic setting and even cajoled me into romanticizing it a little. It is an utter mind-bender that isn’t particularly worried about academia as an idea, but rather all the big-brain philosophy it champions. And yet there is a distinctly academic flavor to this modern Russian classic: it is about truth and knowledge and secrecy and how human beings fit into all those high-up, distant ideas. Or maybe it’s about how those ideas bend us irretrievably out of shape.
I don’t know how to describe Vita Nostra. It will blow your mind. Please read it and help me talk about it.
A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite is a fantastic sapphic romance that has interesting, clever things to say about male-dominated enlightenment society.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides is the new Dark Academia on the block. I haven’t read it and probably won’t since it’s in the vein of Secret History and If We Were Villains, but it looks good.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is one I want to read, not least because I’m from Pennsylvania where it’s set. Look here for more academic secret societies that are rotting from the inside out.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is not critical of academia at all, but rather quite celebratory about knowledge and research in general. It takes an optimistic if measured stance on academia that is sweet and refreshing without seeming naïve.
If We Were Villains by M.L.Rio is like The Secret History but wittier, about Shakespeare instead of greek, and more deliciously chaotic. I liked it a lot more because it treated a lot of The Secret History’s concepts with an updated modern awareness.
I do sometimes wonder if the emphasis on murder in many of these novels makes them more sensational and actually takes away from any serious criticism. I suspect most people who pick up a novel that would be considered “Dark Academia” have at least a little bit of affection for a campus setting, even aspirationally. Even if they won’t admit it.
How do the themes and aesthetics of dark academia engage with genuine criticism of the culture? In many ways, they clash: one promotes, the other warns. What better good cop-bad cop duo is there? We’ve always liked things edged in danger, especially when their aesthetic is quite the opposite—cozy cups of tea in small bookshops that smell like biblichor.