Dark Academia as a Literary Sub-Genre


Surely we’re all familiar with the general concept of dark academia. It’s when you scroll through TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram, or even Tumblr and encounter these pictures with dark atmosphere and grim colours; Victorian architecture, dark-coloured clothes, vintage lifestyle, dim-lit libraries, candles, and the romanticization of studying literature, classics, ancient language, and art.

That’s what we call the dark academia aesthetic—which is not exactly what we’re going to talk about today. We’re here to talk about dark academia as a literary sub-genre. What kind of genre is it exactly? Books that contain dark atmospheres and grim settings? Ones that contain murder and violence and gore? Dark brown vests and trench coats? Well, that is indeed what most may or may not recognize dark academia as. But what is true dark academia? What actually does the sub-genre stand for?

What Makes a Dark Academia Book Dark Academia?

Let’s start by defining what dark academia is as a literary sub-genre and what makes a dark academia book, well, dark academia.

For this, I will start by bringing up the two books that are considered the OG dark academia books—the books that are the bread and butter and were pretty much the start of dark academia both as a literary genre and as a culture: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt and “If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio. And from this, let’s start by identifying the similarities between these two books based on their themes and plot.

  • The existence of an exclusive and elite society/group.  In The Secret History, we follow Richard as he joins an elite group of students who study Greek and becomes completely infatuated by them, while in If We Were Villains, we follow a group of students at an elite art conservatory studying to be Shakespeare stage drama actors.
  • Academic setting.
    After all, it's called dark academia for a reason. Both books take place at an academic institution and revolve around the lives of the characters at the said institution.
  • Obsession; the main theme of the two books—the thing that drives our academicians to the dark.
    In The Secret History, Richard becomes completely obsessed with this group of intellectual and elite classics students that he starts becoming exactly like them and starts adopting their questionable morals. In If We Were Villains, we see how the characters are so obsessed with what they learn: Shakespeare dramas. So much that it bleeds into their daily life and starts mirroring their behaviours and actions.
  • Death; more specifically death hinted at the beginning of the story.
    In both The Secret History and If We Were Villains, the very first thing that the prologues told us was that our main characters killed someone, and both happen to be their own peers.
  • The most important aspect of dark academia: critique, which sums up every point mentioned beforehand.
    Both books use death as a symbol of critique towards an obsession with academic life and elitism and classism, which leads to the creation of these elite societies and groups—and both of them don’t end well, as shown in the books.

  • Themes relating to the occult/supernatural, which I noticed only started appearing in modern dark academia books and do not appear in both The Secret History and If We Were Villains. The most well-known example is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo.

Now, based on the points above, we can conclude what dark academia as a literary sub-genre is: a sub-genre that critiques elitism and classism as the dark side of academics and more often than not explores it from a human psychological perspective. And thus comes the saying: “the true dark academia criticizes dark academia itself”. A major theme in dark academia books is extreme obsession and infatuation towards academics, so much so that it turns you into a horrible person laced with arrogance who thinks those who aren’t part of your elite circle or society aren’t cultured or aren’t intellectual enough. Dark academia critiques these behaviours by indirectly showing the readers the gruesome result of the character’s actions and behaviours—more often than not, by death.

Dark Academia Book Recommendations

Now that we’ve established what the dark academia sub-genre is, here are some book recommendations that truly fit the categories I mentioned beforehand.

  • Babel by R. F. Kuang, where the main character joins a prestigious translation institution. One thing I notice about this book is that it’s often regarded as the epitome of modern dark academia, especially with it being inspired by The Secret History. Other than bringing up classic dark academia themes, it also unravels themes concerning colonialism and racism.

  • Bunny by Mona Awad, where we follow the main character as she joins a group of feminine girls who refer to themselves as ‘bunnies’. Other than the book being a critique of academia, it also critiques femininity and female relationships. A bit of a warning: if there’s any word I would use to describe this book, it would be “twisted”, “chaotic” and “absurd”, albeit in an extremely positive way. It may not be for everyone, but I am definitely suggesting you give it a go.

  • These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever, a story about two boys at a university who become completely obsessed with each other. While I wouldn’t say the book doesn’t contain a direct critique of academics, it concerns itself more with themes of a codependent relationship and this feeling of superiority that some isolated people might have.

  • The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, which is inspired by the burning of The Great Library of Alexandria. We follow six characters who wish to join a secret hidden library. The catch: in order to do that, they must decide which of them must die.

With all that said, I should clarify that this article is written purely as a guide to the dark academia sub-genre and serve recommendations of books that I often see associated with dark academia. I am not implying that you should read these books (or any other certain books) just to appear ‘dark academia’. In fact, I strongly advise against doing that. Books aren’t meant to be read just so you would appear more cultured or intellectual or sophisticated, which is a very common problem in dark academia as a trend and culture (which I will be discussing at another time). If you do that, you would be doing exactly what dark academia itself is against. The books I mentioned are books that you should read because they are pieces of art that should be appreciated, not because they would make you appear more elite and ‘different’ than others.

After all, we all know what happened to Richard from The Secret History after he tried fitting into a dark academia group and adapting the dark academia lifestyle.

Writer: Manohara Diwasasri

Editor: Arinda Risma W.