Friday, 13 August 2021

Paperback's Pondering's: My Five Problems with Dark Academia

 CW: this post will discuss themes that may be triggering, such as sexual assault, torture and murder 

I've hinted before that I do not like the genre of dark academia, and a post detailing my top five problems with its spark in popularity has been long overdue. But before I go into full-on rant mode, I think it's important to break down the definition of dark academia. To be honest, I'm not sure anybody truly knows what dark academia means. From what I gather, dark academia is a sub-genre of books and other media that involves sinister happenings and overall darker themes while in the setting of an academic institution. The setting can either be a high school, college or university, and usually there is some sort of murder or crime committed within the walls of the institution that the main character is tied up in. However, this definition is not clear-cut, as dark academia can also be used to describe the general aesthetic of old libraries, sweater vests, and even themes of Greek mythology. The point is, dark academia has been taking the book world by storm. People like to feel thrilled by the mystery of a crime committed in an educational setting. My problem with the genre lies in its handling of readers who are easily triggered, as well as many other problematic elements that are consistent across a lot of the books. So without further adieu, let me detail why I cannot stand this genre: 

1. The books tend to be very elitist and classist.  

I find that dark academia lends itself to themes of higher education and an interest in things like Greek mythology and old English literature. Now as someone who loves Greek mythology and is pursuing a literature degree myself, these themes are not what irk me. What bothers me about dark academia books is that they tend to push the narrative of very wealthy characters who have a "holier than thou" approach because they are attending prestigious institutions. These characters come from the utmost privilege, and they never seem relatable to me, the average person reading the book who struggles in school and doesn't always win favour of a high-profile professor. Dark academia can sometimes push the narrative that attending a super-expensive post secondary institution is glamorous and desirable, while ignoring the fact that sometimes people cannot afford these institutions, or simply don't want to attend them. I find that the aesthetic ignores the harm that these institutions can do to people financially, in favor of a mysterious aesthetic. 

2. The genre is so incredibly white and heteronormative 

There is a long way to go to make dark academia a diverse genre. Books like The Secret History by Donna Tartt (see rant review here), feature some of the most racist, homophobic and downright offensive characters I have ever seen. But, instead of shining a spotlight onto why these characters are bad and what can be done to give justice to the people affected, these characters are lifted up to be "troubled," "mysterious," figures who we're still supposed to root for. Some dark academia books such as The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith have started to feature people of colour in leading roles, but these books still have their problems. The Ancient Nine fails to take into account the racist history of academic institutions, and has many transphobic elements. See Jesse's review here for more information. I long for the day when dark academia will be diverse without capitalizing off of the trauma of marginalized people, and without giving me problematic characters that I'm supposed to root for. 

3. Dark academia can be so incredibly triggering. 

Most dark academia books deal with some incredibly harsh topics, such as assaults, torture, usually murder, and the list goes on. I'm not saying that authors shouldn't write about harsh topics because it may be triggering to readers. People have the right to read and write whatever they want. However, so often, dark academia just seems to be a trauma dump in which more and more disturbing content is forced onto the reader, to the point where I at least have to skim through parts, or just dnf the book all together. I think it's important to talk about dark themes in books, at the very least to raise awareness. But when such heaviness is put into a book that it almost seems like the author is just doing it for the dark aesthetic, well then that's when I have a problem. I want authors who write dark academia to be respectful of their audience and the different limits that they may have. Books should have a healthy balance between conflict and resolution. With dark academia, it seems to always just be running on conflict. 

4. The tone of the books are often pretentious and boring 

This is more of a style critique than a theme problem. Dark academia books have to push this idea that the characters have a high interest in education and studying. But because of this, the tone of the books often end up feeling like I'm being lectured at by a highly pretentious English professor who just thinks that they're better than me. I get that authors need to get across how into education these characters are. But when it gets to the point where the book is not at all easy to read, then I just wonder why I'm putting myself through all of this trouble. I have found every dark academia book I've read to feel like a chore, as the books are usually super long and extremely boring, almost like reading a university textbook. I don't know if the authors feel the need to flaunt how much education they have by info-dumping, but it just needs to stop. 

5. The characters end up adopting extremely unhealthy behaviours that's overlooked. 

Along with committing crimes and being just generally shitty people, a lot of the characters in dark academia tend to engage in seriously harmful behaviours such as drinking and driving, alcoholism, drug use, and more. In addition to this, mental illness is usually an issue that authors try to tackle, but it ends up being done in an extremely insensitive way in which characters are either criminalized because of their mental illness, or the author unloads a whole lot of trauma onto the character that is then projected onto the reader who may be struggling with mental illness as well. I feel like characters never actually work through their trauma or see the errors of their ways, instead the books end on these angsty and dark notes in which nothing seems to be resolved, and I just feel like I've wasted my time. 

These are the main reasons why I don't think I will ever make it through another dark academia book. However, I also understand that a lot of people love this genre and this aesthetic, and I will never project my opinions onto someone else. I don't hate or think bad about anyone who reads or writes dark academia, I just personally can't get past these issues whenever I read it. I believe that if you don't like something, simply don't read it but don't shame others who do. So, that's what I'm going to do with dark academia. But, I also would love to see if these issues are brought up as the genre continues its popularity, and maybe, if we could get to some sort of solution. Maybe there is a perfect dark academia book out there, that I just haven't found yet. 

Do you like or dislike dark academia? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Emily @ Paperback Princess


  1. Yes!!! It's a genre I keep dabbling in because so many of my friends love it but I just can't get into it.

    The people are awful - which is the point, I know, but they kind of get away with it and it's glorified as being cool. IMHO. And with it being so elitist and classist - it's like...I don't want to spend time with any of you lol

    Karen @For What It's Worth

    1. For sure! I know the characters are meant to be awful but it's never addressed why they're so awful and if they ever see the errors of their ways.

  2. I've never read a DA book so far - I think that the premise simply doesn't appeal to me that much. But I have no reason to think that you're exaggerating the genre's faults - also because, just by reading the blurbs of those books, I get a certain set of vibes. I do think, though, that every genre has got room to improve, and I hope this particular one eventually will - even if I guess its content will always remain elitist, due to the very nature of its setting.

    You always post the most unique discussions! 👍

    1. Thank you Roberta! I guess with this being an relatively new genre, there is certainly time of improvement. I just wished I saw more people talking about these issues so I felt less alone haha!

  3. "sweater vests" lol. True, I think there is some ambiguity in what constitutes dark academia. To be honest I didn't even know there was such a term until fairly recently, when I saw a blogger list favorite dark academia books. I was like- oh, these are a SUBGENRE now?

    Anyway I definitely agree with you on some of these. #1- great point. and from my limited reading of this subgenre I definitely agree- need more diversity. I think everyone's been white in the ones I've read except for a few token supporting characters.

    "being shitty people" again haha I know! The characters are TERRIBLE in these lol. I mean, I like dark themes a lot of times so I'll admit, I like these kinds of books a but more, but yeah I see your points totally. I hope that as more of these come out that they address some of these issues...

    1. I have no problem with new categories of books coming out. In fact, the more specific genres can get, the better in my opinion! However I do see a lot of issues with this particular genre slide, and I need some of these things fixed.

  4. I'm not sure whether Dark Academia even knows what Dark Academia is. And then you get the whole mash between the aesthetic and the emerging genre...

    I can't honestly remember reading anything that I'd consider Dark Academia - maybe I have, but I can't think of any right now. I have seen Dead Poet's Society which... there were things I liked about it, and things I didn't - and it's unquestionably well-acted.

    I think there's room in the media for the kind of moral ambiguity and thought-provoking themes that Dark Academia can bring, but I also think that it's a genre that has a whole lot of evolving to do to leave its problematicness behind!

    1. The idea that it is an aesthetic and a genre can get super confusing. I've seen tweets telling people how to live the dark academia way. I guess it's similar to movements such as punk or goth. However, tying it to books puts a whole different aspect into the mix.

      I'm all for moral ambiguity, so long as there is a balance between bad and good. Sometimes these books tend to show all of the bad, without anything addressed.

  5. In theory, dark academia sounds like it would be right up my alley... if it wasn't full of the issues you've listed. I tried a few dark academia novels, but for the most part, I didn't like them. Well, the most recent one I read - Ace of Spades - was actually fantastic, exactly because it acknowledged the issues you mentioned, like racism, homophobia, and privilege. Unlike the dark academia novels I've read, it didn't read as pretentious or boring and it ended up becoming one of my top favorite books of the year. If there's going to be more dark academia like this in the future I can see myself reading it, but otherwise, this isn't a genre I'll be seeking out. Great post, Emily! :)

    1. That book is on my radar! I didn't realize it was dark academia, but given the positive reviews and the fact that it is so diverse, I'd be willing to give it a go. Thanks Veronika!