Dark Academia and debt: University thrillers are the literary subgenre of the student loan crisis

At the heart of the dark academic aesthetic is a very American idea — the sacred, meritocratic virtues of education

By Ashley Winstead
Published July 31, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)
University reading room (Getty Images/Urban Glimpses)
University reading room (Getty Images/Urban Glimpses)

Dark academia looms large in our current cultural imagination, evidenced not only by the aesthetic's trendiness — the dark, moody libraries, the skulls and melting candles, the Gothic campuses flooding social media — but by a recent wave of books labeled "dark academic thrillers." These thrillers share the visual world of the aesthetic, and, as Amy Gentry points out, also trace their lineage back to Donna Tartt's 1992 hit "The Secret History," the dark academic ur-text. According to Gentry, the novels often have the following in common: "a fish-out-of-water protagonist from a hardscrabble background; a charismatic professor who inspires cultish devotion in her students; a gothic campus with lots of gargoyles; and, of course, as much sex and drinking as studying."

The concept of dark academia isn't exactly new, but its popularity and proliferation are. The New York Times speculates we're drawn to it now because we've been out of school for the past year, giving academia an added allure. I think there's something bigger going on. The dark academic aesthetic celebrates the world of elite colleges in particular, imbuing them with an almost glamorous sense of danger, but its literary counterpart leans much harder on the danger, with plots that dismantle the very fantasies about prestigious education the aesthetic thrives on, creating a tension between colleges as ennobling institutions vs. sites of tragedy, literal and ideological violence. As much as dark academia can glorify academia, it also depicts it as haunted by an invisible threat. I don't think it's a coincidence that either the aesthetic or the subgenre is popular at a time when America's relationship to higher education is more fraught than ever, our collective dream of education haunted by the specter of debt.

With the election of President Biden in November, we seemed to be taking a step toward federal student loan forgiveness, a policy that would own up to the ways America's higher education system is broken and even predatory, and make amends to those who were forced to mortgage their futures for an education by erasing the past debts that still burden them. But the policy has sparked intense debate, even among those who seemed to support it during the election. Questions have been raised: Has college tuition spun out of control, or are tuition numbers reasonable, despite the fact that millions must go into debt to attend? Don't colleges give students a good return on their investment? Isn't education the most important thing a person can strive for, so valuable you can't really put a price tag on it? And if someone takes out a loan, aren't the consequences theirs to bear?

The answers are complicated, and it doesn't seem like we can make up our mind: In 2021, the same year the country's collective student loan debt reached an all-time high and borrowers urged the Biden administration to treat their debt as a crisis, the ultra-expensive Ivy League saw a record boom in applications. (To be fair, while Ivy league schools are not among the highest-ROI colleges, they're also not among the lowest). Like moths to a flame, we seem endlessly drawn to the bright, beautiful fantasy of college, even when the price is steep enough to crush us.

Even when debt is absent in explicit ways from dark academic subculture and thrillers (though it often pops up in the novels), they represent and work through fantasies, tensions, and ideas about higher ed that are intrinsic to this moment. The books in particular seize on the romanticized vision of college rampant in the aesthetic, turning it on its head to depict characters in tortured and tragic relationships to higher education — to professors, fellow students, fellowship programs, grades, social clubs — characters who love and chase the people and things that continuously harm them. They ask critical questions about colleges as sites that perpetuate classism, places that not only reify hierarchies of value but rely on it as part of their mythology. I'm inclined to call dark academic thrillers the subgenre of the student debt era because of the way they open space to critique not only higher ed but the myth of meritocracy that pervades it, acting as a shield to obscure how much of academic success has nothing at all to do with merit.

The dark academic aesthetic often presents university life at its most elite, arcane, and privileged, divorced from the working world: the images you'll find on Instagram are of Princeton's Gothic splendor, not your local community college. To enter the gorgeous, spired libraries of dark academia (in your tweed jacket, of course) is to be let into a secret world, a society composed of the best of the best: like-minded people, dedicated to the life of the mind. It's a subculture appealing to bookish outsiders, offering a liberating dream, school imagined as a place to belong and shine. But the idea of a noble mind has long been bound up with noble classes. Despite its obsession with a very upper-crust British version of school, at the heart of the dark academic aesthetic is an idea as American as apple pie: that education is sacred and ennobling; that prestigious schools offer students not only an invitation to a wealth of knowledge, but to upward mobility, to literal wealth. And while the student debt crisis disproves this, the idea is still so powerful that it animates much of the discourse around college and tuition.

To its credit, the aesthetic doesn't only revere: also imbues its college fantasies with a sense of danger. The "dark" in dark academia is represented by literal shadows and artfully-arranged skulls and daggers, evoking a sense of memento mori, an undercurrent of loss and threat. As if a question haunts each beautiful, eerie image: all of this, at what cost?

This question drives dark academic thrillers, which take the tensions hinted at in the aesthetic—elite colleges as sites of beauty, belonging, and inclusivity, versus classist institutions, breeding hierarchy, full of threat—and dial them up to eleven. The main characters in these thrillers, as Gentry wrote, are nearly always economic and social outsiders who have won entrance to elite colleges or programs, usually brainy overachievers hungry to succeed. Suffice to say they do not find the intellectual paradises they imagined. Instead, over the course of the novels, they are forced to continue competing, to compensate for newly-discovered intellectual, social, and financial inferiority, to impress often predatory professors and mercenary classmates, and to perpetuate the rigid class hierarchies elite colleges run on. In essence, they are forced to become ruthless or are driven mad, driven to violence. At college, their dreams unravel.

This is true of working-class PhD student Mac Woods in Gentry's novel "Bad Habits," who wants desperately to be considered brilliant by her professors and win a coveted fellowship, driven by a literal need for money and a psychological need to feel equal to her wealthy peer Gwen Whitney. In "The Girls Are All So Nice Here," middle-class freshman Ambrosia Wellington is desperate to shed her déclassé habits, convinced she'll belong if she can only perform the same kind of cruelty her popular friend Sully does; in my novel "In My Dreams I Hold a Knife," undergrad Jessica Miller will do anything — take out debt she can't afford, betray her friends, compromise herself in every way — for the academic success she thinks will turn her into somebody.

Characters like these dramatize the lengths people will go to in order to succeed, to be thought of as valuable by others. And while debt and class issues are explicit in these three novels, even dark academic thrillers that don't explicitly mention financial debt frequently dramatize indebted relationships, consistently depicting characters' relationships to prestigious institutions and people as abusive ones, giving and giving without reciprocation. Like a Sallie Mae contract, the seeds of these tragedies are buried in the terms themselves: from the moment they swallow the idea that success and acceptance from these institutions is the measure of their worth, each character is doomed to dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes.

If in real life and fiction we are starting to see that the cost of an education can outweigh its rewards, why do we continue to apply to colleges we can't afford and sign the dotted line on (often predatory) loans?

I've asked this of myself. I was the first in my family to go to college. My senior year, as we struggled with maze-like FAFSA forms, my father was also struggling to find work and my mother received a little above minimum wage for her retail job; right before the holidays, as I was wrapping up college applications, we had a family meeting to prepare for the possibility of losing our home. Like many, I'd grown up dreaming of going to a good college, but as we looked at tuition costs, I had to ask myself: What am I willing to do for this dream?

The answer was easy, because my parents had drilled into me that education was everything, the key to success. So I would do anything, including going into debt for decades. After all, I'd eventually be able to pay back the debt I took out for college thanks to the opportunities college would give me — right? In my case, yes. For friends and other family members who took a similar gamble, no. They're still paying with no end in sight.

But I won't pretend my decision was strictly utilitarian, a matter of coldly determining the juice was worth the squeeze. I also believed in the idea that the value of college can't be measured in strictly financial terms. And while I still do, I also see the ways this claim helps keep colleges unaccountable. Unsurprisingly, dark academic thrillers both empathize with and poke holes in this claim, and they do it by playing with the idea of collegiate prestige as a fetish. Characters are so powerfully attracted to the idea of success that its markers—attendance at elite colleges and programs, Gothic architecture, high grades, fellowships, positions in campus social hierarchies — are fetishized, both in the Marxist sense of a commodity fetish — a thing so coveted that its market value exceeds its actual material worth—and a sexual fetish, an attraction that can't be fully explained by logic. In these books, prestige academia is irrationally desirable, valuable for reasons that have nothing to do with ROI and everything to do with deep-seated human needs and feelings.

Take a short but pivotal scene in "Bad Habits," in which Mac, who's been waitressing to support herself through grad school, sticks a thick stack of bills in her drawer after a shift. The next moment, without knowing why, she takes the stack back out and puts the money in her mouth. The scene is sensual: Mac smells the bills, rests her teeth on them, feeling the texture, indulging the strange attraction. A similar thing happens with the heady literary theories she at first can't grasp, then, over time, luxuriates in. In the novel's opening scene, a much-older Mac picks up a grad student at a conference who's "all elbow-patched corduroy and absurd woolen scarf and lips pouting suggestively around the word Lukács."

Dollar bills and Marxist theorists are just two of the things Mac fetishizes: The same way it's both understandable and yet not wholly rational to worship a slip of paper or a literary critic, Mac's compulsion to attend grad school, then be recognized as her professors' favorite, then win the fellowship, then get a tenure-track position — her willingness to go to any lengths to attain the accomplishments that were always supposed to go to her peer Gwen, never her — is both understandable and unreasonable. We see how Mac is driven to vicious lengths by a deep-rooted feeling that attaining these things will bring her a better life, power and comfort, all the things she believes she deserves. And we can recognize that her choices are bad even as we cannot fault her for wanting what she wants, and making what she thinks are the best decisions given limited options. If we can understand that a prestigious, expensive college education is a fetish many of us share, representing things we can fault no one for wanting, can't we extend the same empathy to student borrowers?

While the dark academic subculture can at times glorify college, from "The Secret History" forward, critique has also been endemic to the genre, part of its DNA. It's no wonder we're drawn to it as we wrestle with historic higher education policy decisions. Though dark academic thrillers are by no means meant to be morality tales, their tragic narratives of students driven to shocking ends point again and again to systems and ideologies as the true antagonists, flipping the script on questions of individual responsibility that pervade the student debt conversation. Maybe, unlike the novels' characters, we'll actually learn something.


Ashley Winstead

Ashley Winstead is the author of "In My Dreams I Hold a Knife" (August 3, 2021; Sourcebooks Landmark). A resident of Houston, she earned a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature from Southern Methodist University and a B.A. in English and Art History from Vanderbilt University. You can visit her online at ashleywinstead.com.

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