Grit Lit is the rebellious stepchild of Southern Gothic. In the ninth grade, Grit Lit took on the entire football team underneath the stadium after practice. At sixteen she got pregnant and dropped out of school. Went back to school as a single parent working nights and weekends and doing her homework in the wee hours of the morning. At twenty-five she became the first female fire fighter in Yoknapatawpha County. A self-taught writer, she published her first novel at thirty and soon became the darling of a cult following but never gained national prominence.
Do I need to say the entire opening paragraph was a metaphor?
I always thought the term grit lit was coined by Barry Hannah, but even the almighty Google can’t find anything to back up that assumption.
It’s a Southern thing. Mostly. As Patrick L. Ledford wrote in Like the Dew, “Grit Lit is Southern Gothic on speed and ripe for violence.”
Best known Southern grit lit writers are Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, Pete Dexter and, of course, Hannah. Not exactly grit lit but deserving of mention in this context are Ju Jitsu for Christ by Jack Butler and Butler’s short story collection Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories . The undisputed king of the genre is Brown, author of Big Bad Love, Fay, Father and Son and many other masterpieces. Butler wrote of Brown in a cover blurb for the story collection Facing the Music, “Larry Brown has the ear, the eye and the hand. The fellow can write a blue streak. He doesn’t write characters, he writes live people, and he knows things about them you didn’t think would get found out until Judgment Day.” Hannah blurbed for the same book, “(Brown) rediscovers real stuff, like great writers do. He’s been out there, and reports it beautifully. He’s a master.”
Brown pulls no punches in writing real life. For instance, in “Facing the Music,” the title story in the collection, he matter-of-factly writes, “We used to have a dog, a little brown one, but I accidentally killed it. Backed over its head with the station wagon one morning.”
Speaking of dogs, “Boy and Dog” from the same story collection is the shaggy dog story of all shaggy dog stories. I find it absolutely amazing that anybody could think up such an unlikely but believable sequence of events as unfold in this story.
Murderer Glen Davis in Brown’s novel Father and Son is a despicable character. When I read the book, I thought: Why can’t I write characters like that? My characters are all so normal. So I set about inventing a despicable character. He became Earl Ray “Pop” Lawrence in The Backside of Nowhere. The first scene I wrote, long before I had any idea what the story was going to be about, was when David Lawrence’s sister called him to tell him their father was in the hospital:
“It’s Pop. He’s in the hospital. We don’t think he’s gonna make it.”
He kicks off the sheets and swings his legs off the side of the bed, sits up and rubs his eyes. He says, “Exactly why is it you think I should give a rat’s ass?”
I thought that might give the reader an idea of how bad Pop was or how toxic the father-son relationship was. After many re-writes, that scene ended up in chapter three. Neither Pop nor any other character I ever invented was as bad as Glen in Father and Son.
I loved Barry Hannah’s first novel, Geronimo Rex, a coming of age story set in Louisiana in the 1950s and ‘60s that was nominated for a National Book Award. As with the best coming of age stories, I felt like I knew Harry Monroe, and life in the Louisiana setting was identical to life in Tupelo and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I grew up during the same time period. At a party in Oxford a few years later, we met Barry, and either my wife or I (can’t remember which) told him we loved Geronimo Rex. His terse response was something like, “I don’t wan’t to talk about that book.” And that was the only thing he said to me at that party. I guess he believed he had moved on to better things from that first novel. I think he did get better after that, and I think his greatest talent was short story writing.
Hannah and Brown were friends. They both lived in Oxford, home of William Faulkner, and taught at Ole Miss. They also both died young at the height of their careers.
Dexter, who grew up in Milledgeville, Ga., home of Flannery O’Conner, is the author of the gritty, strange and hypnotic National Book Award-winning Paris Trout , which I would rank among the top five or ten books I’ve ever read, and Deadwood , a true-life story about Wild Bill Hickcock and his friend Charlie Utter, and a crazy drunk Calamity Jane.
I’d like to throw into the mix an excellent but little-known writer I met at a Creative Colloquy reading in Tacoma, Wash., Sam Snoek Brown. His Civil War novel, Hagridden should be up there with the best of grit lit. It’s the story of two women left behind when their husbands go off to fight for the Confederacy. On the verge of starvation, they make do by murdering and robbing Yankee soldiers. In my Goodreads review, I said, “A cover blurb for Hagridden compared this debut novel by Samuel Snoek-Brown to Cormac McCarthy. I can see that. There are a number of similarities: the grittiness, the descriptive phases, the shocking violence, and some of the dialogue. For example, this two-sentence exchange: ‘You hard on a man.’ ‘Then get comfortable, cause I don’t get no easier.’ ”
Finally, there’s an introduction to grit lit I have not yet read but just ordered from amazon. It’s Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin. Amazon says: “This is the dirty South as captured by those rooted in its land yet able to share its stories with candor and courage. Grit Lit guides readers through tales both tall and true, intoxicating stories of loss, violence, failure, feuds, family, and―above all―survival against the odds.”