Dark academia

I enjoy reading dark academia — and have previously shared some of 2am reads in that category: Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus). Dark academia is often described (like steampunk) in terms of its aesthetic qualities, but it is also a literary genre. Well-known examples include A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Donna Tartt’sThe Secret History.

There is crossover here with boarding school books and campus novels. Whispering Gums has a great post on Australian campus fiction, sharing a quote from author Diana Reid (Love and Virtue) on the dramatic interest inherent in “a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities … in a confined space.”

I recently read some great (confined space) distractions: A Deadly Education (no teachers, lots of murderous monsters), They Never Learn (murderous teachers), The Society for Soulless Girls (murderous teachers), For Your Own Good (murderous teachers) and Truly Devious (you guessed it). I have many more in this vein waiting to be read (several with ‘violent’ in the title). I call these 2am books because their page turnability makes middle-aged hormonal night waking much more enjoyable.

At other times, I read literary (but still occasionally murderous) matter: My Dark Vanessa, Vladimir, Transcendent Kingdom and Love and Virtue. These are more challenging reads, and prompt discussions of the complexities of belief, grief, abuse, affluence, power and privilege. They make great companion reads to enrich my 2am books. I recommend this brief but thoughtful article on ‘sexy’ privilege in dark academia.

Here’s a wonderful collection of dark academia playlists by a Haitian-American student, ideal for reading, writing, studying and being moody in gloomy weather on campus.

For me, the appeal of dark academia lies in taking the familiar (campuses, classes, assignments, graduations, committees, students and academics) and rendering it strange, magical or dangerous. Like gothic literature, dark academia is concerned with the soul of individuals and institutions. At the risk of sounding too much like the genre, the soul is more poetic than pragmatic, intimate and unknowable, a boundary or a borderline in constant contestation (sacred/ profane, divine/ damned). Dark academia celebrates and pokes fun at the elitism, rituals and rules of academia: esoteric readings, secret societies, and hierarchy and competitiveness. The genre is also, conversely, layered with nostalgia for campus buildings, libraries and lecture theatres, and archaic and complex theory, philosophy and poetry.

There is more to think through here: ideas about academics, students and campuses; our nostalgia, more pressing since pandemic lockdowns, for an immersive vision of the university; ideas of knowledge and learning that infect us; and challenging (or reinforcing) power and privilege through fiction. A good place to start is the scholarly work of Emily F. Henderson and Pauline J. Reynolds on fictitious representations of academic conferences: hierarchical, decadent and conflict prone and reinforcing gender inequalities.

One thought on “Dark academia

  1. Thanks for the link Agnes.

    I don’t think dark academia is really for me – though campus novels are. I don’t really feel drawn to the “strange, magical or dangerous”, though I like the celebrate and poke fun, and nostalgia, aspects. I think I prefer to experience these in satirical or realist novels. Always have!

    Liked by 1 person

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