Donna Tartt was famously so unhappy with the lacklustre 2019 film adaptation of her novel The Goldfinch that it soured her entire opinion on any further screen adaptations of her work. “Once the book is out there, it’s not really mine anymore,” she presciently told her longtime agent (before sacking her). Fans of the author’s first book, The Secret History, which turns 30 this month, were presumably bereft; the novel had been in development hell with various studios for decades, and now the prospects of a dimly-lit, sexually-charged movie starring Timothée Chalamet as Richard Papen seemed bleak. They needn’t have worried though. The year after The Goldfinch was released in cinemas, the pandemic happened, TikTok exploded in popularity, and the literary set on the app—BookTok—claimed The Secret History as their unlikely fave. Whether Tartt is even more bereft about that remains to be seen.
On TikTok, the appetite for The Secret History is insatiable; in spite of the fact that many of the book’s biggest fans weren’t even alive when it was released back in 1992. The novel’s hashtag has over 153m cumulative views and is filled with videos imagining what creators would wear as a student-cum-murderer at Hampden College (or its real life counterpart, Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington,) slideshows of celebrities like Anya Taylor-Joy holding their copies of the book, and fan-casts of what an adaptation could look like, frequently featuring young Eddie Redmayne as Francis. One caption reads “I’d simp for Francis too” (Richard erasure is sadly relatively rampant on the platform.)
The Secret History exists in the aesthetic universe of shows like Fleabag, movies like The Virgin Suicides and Cruel Intentions, and novels like My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s—spiritually speaking at least—a lynchpin of “dark academia,” an extremely online aesthetic that emerged over the course of the pandemic. The app’s users designed outfits, decor and bookshelves around the same ideals of beauty and glamour espoused by Tartt’s book; mahogany, dreaming spires, linen shirts, sweater vests, Doc Martens, round spectacles, orange leaves, leather bound books, Catholicism. “At least a part of the novel’s continued readership is drawn by a middlebrow appreciation for the trappings, rather than the substance, of intellectual life. This aspect of the book has proven susceptible to transformation into an ‘aesthetic’ with mass cultural appeal,” said a recent New Statesman piece on the 30th anniversary of the novel’s release, which also drew parallels to the nihilism at the centre of The Secret History—no spoilers, but there is a bacchanal—and our ongoing vibe shift towards aesthetic, financial and ethical anarchy. “With a recent tendency towards hedonism and the defence of aristocracy in certain cultural precincts of New York City, not to mention a faddish penchant for Catholicism, one might expect that Tartt—a practising Roman Catholic—would be poised for a revival,” it argues.
Aesthetically then, TikTok’s adoption of The Secret History makes sense (any book with a line like “beauty is terror, whatever we call beauty we quiver before it” would appeal to moody teens.) “The Secret History has been a victim of dark academia for years,” says Books and Culture writer Barry Pierce. “Those of us who are ancient enough will remember it used to be huge on Tumblr; people used to draw the characters in that cartoonish DeviantArt style. I genuinely think I first read it because it was big on Tumblr, at least a decade ago.” But pragmatically speaking, the book’s appeal makes less sense. As a text it’s notoriously dense; over 600 pages filled with incest and Latin and Dionysian rites. “It’s not a book that the TikTok girlies chose, it was simply bequeathed to them from fandoms past,” says Pierce, “which is why it jars so much alongside the newer TikTok books.”
A lot of the BookTokers who have fallen for The Secret History long after its release tend to agree. “People on TikTok are attracted to a certain type of aesthetic,” says creator Eva Gizem, citing examples like “elitist vibes” and “boarding schools -” While Gizem says she sees the irony of celebrating those aspects of the novel in Pinterest-style short videos, it’s unavoidable that the short form format of the platform misses a lot of the nuance that initially made The Secret History such a success. “There’s always going to be some people who misunderstand,” she says. “But I feel like TikTok’s accessibility makes the book less elitist, and more attractive to a new audience. I probably never would have heard of it if it weren’t for TikTok.”
Gizem thinks this newfound accessibility is something Donna Tartt would like, and it’s true that the democratisation of literature through communities on Goodreads, YouTube, BookTok and Bookstagram can only be a good thing if it introduces a new generation of readers to texts they might otherwise have missed. Certainly, for a book that is fundamentally about snobbery, the lack of snobbery around introducing The Secret History to a new audience on social media is refreshing. But, when books and authors are understood solely through aestheticism, it’s inevitable that they become memeified too. A book becomes not just a novel, but an accessory, a means of communicating intellect, beauty, chicness. “I’m sure it pleases publishing houses,” says Pierce, who recently profiled similarly sad-girl-memeified author Ottessa Moshfegh, and discovered she was horrified by the endless TikToks about My Year of Rest and Relaxation. “I’d love to know what Donna thinks about it all. Does she know what TikTok is? Is she secretly a girlie?”
“I don’t think it cheapens a text,” he adds of the novel’s 30-year social media reign. “But it can dilute it, and lead to some weird interpretations. There are people out there reading The Secret History and thinking those kids are models for how they should dress and act and what they should read… when those kids are deranged! They should all be shot!” Harsh? Yes. Fair? Also yes. But alas, not the kind of sentiment that would lend itself to a viral TikTok.
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