I have a deep and – in all senses of the word – dark secret. My name is Rebecca, I write romance, and I love gritty literary fiction.
In preparing this post I’ve thought a lot about how to reconcile my enormous passion for romance novels with my equally devoted enthusiasm for not just gritty, but often violent, nihilistic, hyper-masculine novelists. In truth, I’ve never given much thought to how easily romantic darlings like Elizabeth Lowell and Linda Lael Miller sit beside purveyors of stark, depressing narrative like Norman Mailer and JM Coetzee.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Elizabeth Lowell and JM Coetzee both have the power to do exactly the same thing – completely and wholly sweep the reader into the world of the story with vivid, masterful writing. And you know what else? Sometimes those grumpy old dudes in the modern literary canon can be downright romantic themselves – and those moments can feel like precious, glittering diamonds in the rough of their novels.
Possibly my favorite book of all time is The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. It’s what he calls the “documentary fiction” account of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in Utah in 1976 and was executed by firing squad the following year. It’s over a thousand pages long, it’s written in Mailer’s quiet, detached style, and parts of it are absolutely, lyrically beautiful. For example, Gary has an unhealthy and ultimately destructive relationship with a woman named Nicole, and he writes her totally unbalanced yet weirdly romantic letters from prison:
I don’t care that you say you have this crazy heart – I have a crazy heart too. And my crazy heart makes a request of your crazy heart – don’t refuse my request to be only mine in heart mind soul and body. No, I ain’t drunk or loaded or nothing this is just me writing this letter that lacks beauty – just me Gary Gilmore thief and murderer. Who will one day have a dream that he was a guy named GARY in 20th century America and that there was something very wrong. And he’ll remember that there was something very beautiful too in that long ago Mormon mountain Empire and he’ll begin to dream of a dark red haired sort of green elfin eyed fox who laughed and cried with him.
Okay, maybe that was a little too out there. How about this exchange between Llewelyn, the main character of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and a very attractive young woman trying to seduce him in a motel, who he flatly refuses out of loyalty to the wife he loves? (All formatting is true to the book!)
We get to El Paso I’m goin to drop you at the bus station. You got money. You dont need to be out here hitchhikin.
All right. You aint changed your mind have you?
You know about what.
I dont change my mind. I like to get it right the first time.
He rose and started up the walkway. She stood at the door. I’ll tell you somethin I heard in a movie one time, she said. There’s a lot of good salesmen around and you might buy somethin yet.
Well darlin you’re just a little late. Cause I done bought. And I think I’ll stick with what I got.
Maybe I’m the only one swooning at that… but maybe not! Do you have any eclectic reading tastes that seem to jar with your romance roster? Or am I totally on my own here?!