Book Club / Culture

Why are Gen Z so obsessed with ‘The Secret History’? We investigate

the secret history tiktok

If this was a high school thesis, I would write that The Secret History is a novel about isolation and how it can be corrosive for the human spirit. In Donna Tartt's 1992 debut, isolation manifests in a few simple ways; through money and how it insulates and enables one to evade responsibility, the danger of divorcing ourselves from our emotions and being emotionally intimate with others, and how physical isolation can warp our sense of the world. This is what it feels like wading into the discourse around The Secret History on TikTok.

Maybe it's the fact that The Secret History celebrated its 30th anniversary in October this year, or that its author, Donna Tartt, is just the kind of mysterious, well-dressed mind that would pique Gen Z's interest (à la Ottessa Moshfegh), but the bestseller is currently experiencing a resurgence on the platform.

@siobhaan_ Screaming, crying, throwing up 🫶🏻🫶🏻🫶🏻 @vikingbooksuk #thesecrethistory #ths #thesecrethistory30thanniversary #booktok #bookcollectors ♬ the fatal flaw - camille 🧸

So far #thesecrethistory hashtag has received more than 229 million views and counting, with users sharing their love for the book by showing off rare copies and fan castings of a long-anticipated movie adaptation where Timothée Chalamet plays Richard Papen and Eddie Redmayne, Francis Abernathy (and vice versa). Or a young Sarah Michelle Gellar is put forward as Judy Poovey and Australian actress Mia Wasikowska takes on Camilla Macaulay.

@amelicl3 Most of these are really basic lmao/ i have never really found any richard fancasts that really work but i think i like this one #thesecrethistory #thesecrethistoryfancast #richardpapen #francisabernathy #henrywinter ♬ original sound - Amelia

Then there's the outfit planning. All across TikTok, people are sharing looks in a "what I would wear if I attended Euphoria High" kind of way, subbing Hampden College in in place of the A24 series' school halls, and skimpy violet sets from I AM GIA in favour of silk ties and pince-nez.

The allure of The Secret History is the same as it's always been. You've got an outsider willing his way into a close-knit group of six snobby, intellectual and reclusive college students majoring in Classics. Every ten years or so the book finds a new audience amongst angsty teens. My own first run-in with the novel happened on Tumblr in 2012 when I was fifteen. With lines like “beauty is terror, whatever we call beauty we quiver before it," the book is catnip for teenagers. As if the campus novel, with its frequent bouts of nihilism and Dark Academia style wasn't enough of a calling card, throw in a disastrous Bacchanal, a murder mystery and you've set the conditions for it to go gangbusters on TikTok.

But there's a much more obvious drawcard here too, and you probably can sense what I'm going to say. The pandemic, as tired of a reasoning it is, speaks to the upswing in readership for the book. The book is in a lot of ways about control. After all, Julian Morrow's quote about beauty continues with: "And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?"

Here I go again with the high school thesis, but isolation and hedonism – the excess of alcohol, drugs and sex that linger over this book – are two ingredients that speak to our current moment. It's the same reason why indie sleaze is trending. And to a cohort that's largely experienced schooling online, of course an old world East Coast private college like Hampden is bound to appeal. Especially one based off of Tartt's own alma mater, Bennington College, a Vermont liberal arts institution where her classmates included Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Quintana Roo Dunne.

Unlike most viral novels on BookTok, The Secret History is darker in theme and tone, and is noticeably different (although, no less worthy) to the YA romance from authors like Colleen Hoover. Most readers on the platform have duly noted it should come with trigger warnings for its mention of rape and incest. Given the platform it's on, a book like this is always bound to dredge up cultural divide, where we see those who gate keep out of fear that the book's meaning will be misconstrued, versus those who enjoy the novel for its narrative and aesthetic sensibility over any particular deeper meaning.

One TikTok user has labelled it the "TikTok-ification of The Secret History", something they describe by pointing out how BookTok tends to water down themes and favour those that centre romance. Which explains why there are readers simping after protagonist Henry Winter rather than being repelled by the character. Although, for a book that's largely about elitism, it's comforting to see how widely it's being enjoyed.

@loveletterstoautumn feeling like a hater today #thesecrethistory #richardpapen #henrywinter #booktok #reading ♬ original sound - INACTIVE

But when a book is reduced merely to its aesthetic, like Dark Academia, it's easy to flatten it and divorce it from its intended message; a satire of academia entirely. Which is how you end up with trends like "Hot Girl Books" where Tartt's novels sit alongside Joan Didion and Sally Rooney and Eve Babitz and Ottessa Moshfegh (basically, anything Emily Ratajkowski would recommend) as aspirational markers of a certain type of person and intellect. Hopefully, it can withstand this same memeification.

Anyway. I guess with a resurgence on TikTok, we might once again hope that The Secret History film is finally on the way? No dice, I'm afraid. When it released in 1992, Alan J. Pakula and Warner Brothers snapper up the rights to the film, with Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne (rip) tapped to write the screenplay. However, when Pakula died shortly after, the possibility of an adaptation was snuffed out. Add a handful of others trying and failing to bring The Secret History to our screens, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Harvey Weinstein, and the fact that Donna Tartt was displeased with the adaptation of her other acclaimed book The Goldfinchit's unlikely we'll ever get to see Timothée Chalamet as Richard or Francis. And that dear friends, is a loss that will be felt regardless of generational lines.

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