The Secret History: A murder mystery that thrills 30 years on
Bret Easton Ellis – an early reader of Tartt’s manuscript for The Secret History – introduced his friend to his literary agent, who secured a $450,000 advance for the book. On its publication in 1992 the reviews were overwhelmingly positive (Time magazine called it “viscerally compelling”, Newsday labelled it “a thinking person’s thriller” ) – though not entirely, with The Independent saying “style is confused with substance time and again”. Still, the hype machine was already in full swing – with Tartt landing an eight-page profile in Vanity Fair and accompanying photoshoot alongside her pug, Pongo. Speaking to the New York Times at the time, her publisher Sonny Mehta said: “We didn’t know what she looked like when we bought the book, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.”
That Vanity Fair profile introduced her with the line: “Donna Tartt, who is going to be very famous very soon…” – but from the start, Tartt preferred to keep an air of mystery, brushing off questions about her personal life. The scant details that emerged were quickly mythologised: Her answer phone message was TS Eliot reading The Waste Land; she bought her clothes in Gap Kids; she could drink Bret Easton Ellis under the table.
Throughout her career, interviews have been rare – usually only to promote a new book, of which there have been just two more in the subsequent 30 years, The Little Friend in 2002 and 2014’s The Goldfinch. The mystery has only added to her legend. “The Secret History is enduring because The Secret History is so good,” says Anolik. “But it certainly doesn’t hurt that Donna has brilliant instincts about cult obsession and understands how to manage an enigmatic reputation.”
Still, the idea of her as a total recluse is overstated. In an interview with Italian publication Rivista last year, she talked openly about her love of fashion, her favourite contemporary music (Lana Del Rey) and her writing routine (“three hours in the morning”) – and hinted that a new book might be on the way. She also declared, to no one’s surprise, that she’s never used social media.
It’s ironic then, that social media is the reason The Secret History is riding a whole new wave of popularity, thanks to “Dark Academia” , a subculture on TikTok and Instagram that romanticises learning and celebrates an aesthetic that is “traditional academic with a gothic edge.” The book is seen as Dark Academia’s essential text, and videos with the hashtag #thesecrethistory have more than 150 million views on TikTok – featuring everything from young people cosplaying the book’s characters to fans reciting favourite passages or showing off their annotated copies. “It has been a joy to see a new generation discover Donna Tartt’s masterpiece,” says Isabel Wall, editorial director of Tartt’s UK publisher, Viking – which is publishing a special clothbound edition of the book to mark the 30th anniversary.
To Petrou, it makes total sense that the book continues to connect with young readers – even if the world depicted in it feels more distant than ever from today’s digital age. “It’s youth, right,” says Petrou. “Those same things that struck a chord for me as a young person, strike a chord for young people over and over again.” Anolik agrees that the book is timeless. “I think young people are natural snobs. And The Secret History is the great young-snob American novel, as Brideshead Revisited is the great young-snob English novel.”
Thirty years and millions of readers later, discovering The Secret History still somehow feels like joining an exclusive club. “To experience that book for the first time is see someone at the best in their craft,” says Petrou. “I envy those that haven’t read it yet.”
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