It’s the stuff of dark academia – writers overflowing with ambition, exclusive cliques who pour over the classics, secrets whispered behind closed doors. Except this isn’t a Donna Tartt novel set at Hampden College. It is Donna Tartt, and the college is the very real Bennington College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont, U.S.A.
Once Upon A Time… At Bennington College is a 14-episode podcast series chronicling the lives of three trailblazing Gen X writers during their college years: Donna Tartt, of The Secret History and The Goldfinch fame; Bret Easton Ellis, member of the illustrious literary Brat Pack and, most notably, author of the controversial American Psycho; and lastly, Jonathan Lethem, who, while more under the radar than his peers, has carved out a space for himself somewhere between science fiction and detective fiction with novels such as Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.
Journalist and author Lili Anolik serves as our tour guide throughout the series, documenting how these three lives often overlap over the course of many years. The narrative follows the individual stories of Tartt, Ellis, and Lethem, examining how they evolved to where they are today. It’s a tale of literary gossip, an extensively researched deep dive into the realms of ‘80s nostalgia, featuring postcards from smalltown America and New York apartments, New England college parties, and cameos from famous faces. But at the centre of it all is Tartt, Ellis, and Lethem. With a nudge and a wink reminiscent of Gossip Girl, Anolik tells their stories almost conspiratorially, making for a great piece of narrative drama thanks to its sensationalism and binge-worthy style.
But just because Once Upon A Time… At Bennington College can document the drama-filled lives of Gen X literary stars, does that mean it should?
The true crime debacle has been making waves across the internet. Stories of grisly murders and kidnappings have now been reframed in a different light. Is it exploitative to turn these victims’ tragedies into podcast fodder? Have we considered the families that simply want to move on? There is something uncomfortable about the fact that one person’s final moments, undoubtedly charged with fear and anguish, are converted into a cliffhanger for audiences to salivate over.
Moreover, the way certain players have been framed in these stories simply throw context into the bin. Netflix’s 2015 series Making a Murderer turned murderer Steven Avery’s defence attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, into heartthrobs (no, really) and the prosecutor, Ken Kratz, into a villain. Many flocked to Twitter to profess their love for Strang and Buting or rant about their hatred of Kratz. These black-and-white roles of good versus evil leave no room for nuance, ignoring complexity in favour of a clear-cut binary.
Once Upon A Time isn’t a true crime podcast, yet some of the qualms of the true-crime debate can still be applied here.
While listening to this podcast, it sometimes feels like Ellis, Lethem, and Tartt aren’t real people.
They’re merely characters in some dramatisation of a campus novel. They’ve been given roles to play: Ellis, the detached child prodigy in Wayfarers; Lethem, the aspiring writer grappling with imposter syndrome; and Tartt, the androgynous enigma from the south with a rare gift.
These characterisations may be based in reality, but combined with Once Upon A Time’s gossipy tone, it’s not hard to push the limits of exaggeration.
That’s the thing about sensationalism: it’s easy to get lost in the story and forget we’re discussing real people with thoughts, emotions, and private memories. As listeners, it’s easy to put aside the fact that we don’t know these people and start building up an image in our mind based on what we hear. And what we hear isn’t always the full picture.
Most notably, Donna Tartt is missing as a primary source in this narrative. We get to hear large chunks of interviews between Anolik and Ellis or Lethem, but we only hear Tartt from past interviews, readings, and her audiobook narration of The Secret History. Tartt declined to be interviewed for the podcast, and her agents would later write to Apple requesting that the podcast be taken down. Anolik does a decent job of filling in Donna’s blanks, but what is infinitely more concerning is how Tartt’s absence allows others to reshape the narrative of her life.
Sometimes, this isn’t always a bad thing. There are audio excerpts from classmates and friends of friends who gush about how beautiful and talented Donna was. Many speak highly of her, praise her writing, and remark upon the distinct figure she cut. But then you have the flip side of seeing Tartt’s story retold through a male lens. Classmates like Todd O’Neal and Matt Jacobson were not very fond of her, and they did little to hide the fact in their interviews.
So many men on the podcast seem all too eager to dismantle Tartt’s cool, enigmatic image.
Sure, maybe her image is a fabrication — who knows to what extent — but it doesn’t matter. Tartt, like anyone, should have the right to curate her identity as she sees fit.But that autonomy is something that not all women have, and it’s something that a lot of men take great pleasure in dictating
With Tartt missing from the witness box, her narrative is often distorted. By men and by Anolik, whose sensationalist storytelling often means talking about the intimate details of Donna’s love life or uncovering truths about her past that we don’t know if she would be happy sharing with the world. Addicting to listen to? Absolutely. It’s easy to get caught up somewhere between Donna’s mysterious allure and the tales that Anolik weaves, but in spite of it all, we must remember Tartt is only human.
Is Once Upon A Time…At Bennington College good journalism? One man’s news story is another man’s gossip rag. It ultimately depends on the person and whether or not they consider Anolik to have gone too far with her speculation or digging, but then that raises another question — should we even have the right to speculate about the lives of people we don’t know? Should celebrities be considered free real estate since they’re so far removed from our own lives? Where do we draw the line?
It cannot be denied that the series is entertaining, especially when you’re a fan of any of these authors. When we admire someone, we want to know more about them. And when that person closes themselves off to the rest of the world, we will scramble for any morsel of information we can get. Once Upon A Time, intentionally or not, capitalises upon that fact.
And it’s not the only thing the podcast capitalises on, either. There’s a sense of romanticisation about all of it. From the dark academia aesthetics of college students in tweed suits labouring over novel drafts to the simple beauty of the 1980’s. Anolik admitted in a Vulture interview last year that “in the early ’80s, before Twitter or Instagram or camera phones, you had more freedom. For me, it’s appealing to look back at that.”
The Secret History may be based partly on Tartt’s experiences at Bennington, but Once Upon A Time… At Bennington College knows its target audience, many of whom adore the novel’s campus setting and dark academia atmosphere. Anolik doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels between the book and the life of its creator. In fact, they almost blend together, until the lives of these three Gen X writers feel like a parody of their own work.
In that same Vulture interview, Anolik argues that the podcast is “a celebration of these three people who are some of the most important writers of their generation…[Tartt] shows you can come from modest means and become hugely successful because you love what you do so much. I know this is probably not a delightful thing for her. But to me, it’s celebratory.”
Perhaps it may seem that way to some. But is it really a celebration of Tartt, Ellis, and Lethem when at times it feels like personal boundaries have been crossed?
Maybe it’s not really a celebration of these authors but a celebration of their personas and the enigmatic identities they have curated for themselves. After all, that’s what drew many of us here in the first place: the mystery itself. A valid thing to celebrate, but something that has far too often strayed into the dizzying heights of romanticism. So we better watch where we tread, because a good story doesn’t always equate to good journalism.