Burning down the house: the bittersweet appeal of break-up literature


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From Richard Yates and Maggie Nelson to Ocean Vuong and Alice Munro, many of the great love stories are really about its aftermath. What can we learn from the literature of heartbreak?

When I was 22, I tried to write a story about a breakup. I’d just been broken-up with. And yes, I was embarrassed to be writing about it. But my heart ached, and I wanted to believe that its ache could yield something profound.

Writing about heartbreak came easily, but I struggled with the part of the story about the love itself: the happiness before the fall. When I asked my writing teacher if he could recommend any literary texts that evoked the bliss of love, he suggested Scott Spencer’s novel Endless Love. There I found – instead of bliss – a house on fire. Literally: post breakup, a boy has set his ex-girlfriend’s house on fire.

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