It’s that time of the year again: Grimdark Fantasy

We’re having our annual gritty fantasy debate, because Joe Abercrombie – being one of the prime purveyors of grimdark fantasy today – launches a preemptive strike and defends dark and gritty fantasy against its critics. Of course, nobody is actually criticizing grimdark fantasy this week, though there is a discussion going on whether epic fantasy is a conservative genre (Liz Bourke and John H. Stevens offer summaries at Tor.com and SF Signal respectively, while Shaun Duke responds to Liz Bourke at The World in the Satin Bag). But considering that criticisms of the relentless darkness of much of current fantasy and SF pop up every few months or so (I have added my two cents to some of the previous go-arounds in these pages), it’s only a matter of time until the next one.

For those that don’t have the patience to dig through more than two years of posts, here is a summary of my views on this subject: I don’t much care for grimdark in any genre and am particularly troubled by the inherent misogyny, racism and homophobia of many works written in the grimdark mode. Nonetheless, I read and write dark stuff and even enjoyed some works generally classified as grimdark (which is not the same thing as merely dark. For example, I very much liked David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which is about as grim and gritty and dark as you can get (and crime fiction rather than epic fantasy). And I find the TV version of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, often viewed as the founding text of grimdark fantasy*, surprisingly entertaining, though the books didn’t do much for me. But when viewed as Dynasty with swordfights and not taken too seriously, Games of Thrones can be very entertaining indeed. And unlike some other critics of grimdark fantasy, I don’t necessarily view those who write grimdark as immoral creatures out to destroy the fantasy genre or the fabric of western civilization or some such thing. Indeed, I believe it’s possible to write grimdark fiction and be a perfectly lovely human being (Joe Abercrombie seems to fit into that category from what I’ve seen/heard/read of him). However, just as we should not attack writers of grimdark fiction, unlike they have actually proven themselves to be jerks (a few have), I also think that nobody should be criticized or ridiculed for saying, “I don’t want to read/watch that.”

Upon taking a closer look at Abercrombie’s post, it turns out not to be a preemptive strike at all but a response to this post by Tom Simon, who veers close to the territory of “writers of grimdark fantasy are immoral” (but then Tom Simon seems to have issues with the modern incarnation of the fantasy genre in general), but also points out an interesting quote by Harlan Ellison about the decline of the horror genre into ever more gore and splatter in the early 1990s, that an escalation of violence and gore tends to be a symptom that a genre is played out and in its death throes, as well as this post at the group blog nerds of a feather, which makes the important point that once the grimdark gets a little too dark and grim and gritty, it can easily tilt over into self-parody, at which point the text becomes impossible to take seriously. Because by that point, the horribleness quotient is so over the top that you must either laugh or slit your wrists. That’s the reason why a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film can be hysterically funny – because it’s either view it as a satire or forever hate humanity.

But now on to Joe Abercrombie. First of all, I find it telling that he equates people who don’t want to read grimdark fiction with those who don’t want sex or swearing in their fiction. Now there may be people for whom this is true – though personally I have found that at least American readers tend to get far more upset at a few bad words than at graphic violence, unless said graphic violence is inflicted upon animals. But graphic violence inflicted upon human beings is all too often no problem. Here’s a post by George R.R. Martin responding to viewers upset about the death of a dog – pardon me – direwolf in the second episode of Game of Thrones which illustrates this issue very well, particularly since Martin points out that nobody was much bothered by the death of a human character, a teenaged boy at that, in the same episode.

But I for one have no problems with swearing at all, as long as it’s appropriate to the characters. Hey, I love Misfits and I’m the sort of person who will stop a DVD or TV recording after a character has uttered a particularly dirty word and will gleefully explain how marvelous it is that this particular word was uttered in this context, because said word is normally a total taboo and must never be said on TV… – by which point everybody’s eyes have glazed over and people beg me to just start the DVD/recording again so they can please watch the film. Swearing in fantasy novels only annoys me when it does not fit the setting, e.g. a borderline grimdark fantasy debut where every second word uttered in dialogue was “motherfucker”, a swear word that feels so very American (Germans don’t approve of incest either, but they don’t generally accuse each other of having sex with their mothers as an all-purpose insult) and did not match the fantasy setting at all, since there was no indication that this society had particular issues about men sleeping with their mothers (probably because there were no mothers in sight). Still, it wasn’t the word itself that bothered me, but the lazy linguistic worldbuilding. It made the novel sound very much like the utterings of my students who will say the worst word they know over and over again with zero regard to context.

I don’t have any problems with sex either, as long as it’s either between consenting adults or at least not rendered for titillation, if it’s not. Nor do I agree with classifying sex as gritty, because it’s not. Sex can be absolutely beautiful, though the sex in gritty epic fantasy rarely is. Never mind that the problem with sex in grimdark fantasy (and grimdark fiction in general) is not that it exists, but that sexual activity is often limited to rape, incest and sex with prostitutes (The HBO adaption of Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this). Very few people in grimdark fantasy ever have regular consensual sex without money changing hands.

However, a scene in an SF novel which graphically describes a stripper cutting off her own breasts and eviscerating herself on stage – with a blunt knife, so it will be even more painful – a scene which Tom Simon describes in his post – well, pardon me, but I have serious problems with that and I don’t want to read it, especially since – according to Tom Simon – it doesn’t even have any impact on the plot, it’s just gratuitous background detail. And I don’t think that not wanting to read about women cutting off their own breasts makes me a prude. For that matter, imagine if it were a male stripper cutting off his own genitalia before disembowelling himself on stage. Does anybody think many men, even ardent fans of grimdark fantasy, would like to read that?

Never mind that there is a difference between gritty and dark on the one hand and grimdark on the other. Plenty of books and films and TV shows can be dark or gritty (and again, grittiness and darkness don’t necessarily corelate) without being grimdark. There even are graphic and therefore gritty childbirth scenes in Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series and Virgin River is about as far away from grimdark as you can get. Meanwhile, grimdark is the complete absence of any sort of lightness or hope. Every hero will not just be flawed, but untrustworthy at best and a complete and utter bastard at worst. Every king is a dictator, every wise old man a manipulative bastard. Love often doesn’t exist in grimdark fiction at all, and if it does, the object of said love will be brutally raped or murdered or turn out to be treacherous to motivate the hero to go all badass on the opposition. There is nothing in the way of laughter, though there is cynical banter masquerading as humour. And in the end, things will not just be as bad as before, they will be worse. In fact, most grimdark fiction would be infinitely improved if a meteor strike or a random troop of Daleks or the zombie apocalypse would wipe out the entire world at the end of the first chapter.

Abercrombie’s next argument is equally familiar, namely that gritty fantasy is only realistic, because life is shit. There’s just one problem. If, like the overwhelming majority of readers and writers of grimdark fantasy, you live in the western world** (and interestingly, non-western writers of fantasy often write dark works, but they don’t write grimdark), then your life is probably as safe and ungritty as at any time in recorded history. Do bad things happen, even in the western world? Of course, they do. Can you find a video of a woman cutting off her own breasts on a fetish site somewhere? Probably (and newsflash, fetish porn is icky but not real. Those women are no more hurt than the dog who portrayed the doomed direwolf Lady was hurt in Game of Thrones). Nonetheless, the average western reader and writer of epic fantasy has a far better chance of living healthy to seventy, eighty or beyond than any previous generation. So the – to quote TV Tropescrapsack worlds of grimdark fantasy have very little to do with our reality. However, they say a lot about how a certain segment of the western world – usually young white middle class men – perceive the world. It’s The Wire problem all over again – namely that those who most enthusiastically proclaimed The Wire to be the best TV show ever, because it was so realistic (never mind that about half the Baltimore cops and drug dealers were in fact played by distinguished British actors) were – as I once observed – inevitably privileged young white middle class men and that the closest they’d come to the sort of urban blight portrayed in The Wire was getting off the tube in Brixton (that was before Brixton was hit by gentrification). The prime readership for grimdark epic fantasy as well as many of its writers seems to be the same demographic.

There is a time in the life of otherwise privileged young western people where they become disillusioned with the world around them, once they figure out that parents and teachers are fallible and may even be jerks, that revolutions don’t necessarily lead to freedom, that voting for the right guy doesn’t necessarily mean that the wrong guy won’t win. And the young people going through those realisations tend to develop a taste for dark and gritty entertainment, because hey, the world is bad and western democracy does not work as advertised and now they want entertainment that tells it like it is. For most people, this phase starts sometime in their mid to late teens, which is also why the teen version of grimdark fantasy, dystopian YA, works so well. By their mid twenties to early thirties at the latest, they usually grow out of it. You can actually see this development in the work of several writers and artists. Alan Moore is a good example of this. His earlier work – Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Marvelman, his run on Captain Britain (all written in his late twenties to mid thirties) – is much darker than later works such as Promethea, Tom Strong or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all written when he was in his late forties to early fifties. So grimdark fiction is something that appeals to people at a certain time of their lives. However, since the a large part of the fantasy audience and a particularly vocal one is made up from people going through that life phase grinmdark seems that much more dominant than it really is.

Joe Abercrombie makes one good point, namely that the usual tropes of grimdark are often deployed for shock value, which conincidentally also echoes Tom Simon’s point that ever escalating shocks may be a sign of a genre that has run out of ideas. Now I’m not sure if epic fantasy has really run out of ideas, but the problem of writers piling on more and more horrors for pure shock value is definitely real. Again, Game of Thrones – both the books and TV series – provide a good example. Because Game of Thrones is obviously designed to provide an ever escalating sequence of shocking moments. In the opening minutes of episode one – using the TV series as an example here, because it’s more visible there – some anonymous men of the Night Watch are slaughtered and the equally anonymous lone survivor is beheaded. By the end of episode one, we have brother-sister incest and a little boy thrown off a tower. By the end of episode two, we have a teenaged boy killed and see the closest thing the series has to a hero at that point kill a dog – pardon, direwolf. In episode three, a horse is beheaded. By the end of the season, our hero himself gets his head chopped off. Season or book two tries to top these horrors by showing prostitutes whipped, babies being killed on screen, people brutally tortured on screen, a woman giving birth to a smoke monster in a grotesquely disgusting scene, a character who had been sort of sympathetic up to that point inexpertly beheading an old man (and making a mess of it) and burning two little children to death and so on. By the end of book 3, finally, half the cast is brutally slaughtered at a wedding. The shocks obviously escalate as narrative taboo after taboo is violated. And since Martin is a talented writer, it even works, at least in the beginning (I was getting a bit sick of awful things happening in graphic detail by the end of season 2).

Of course, the problem is that seventeen years after A Game of Thrones was first published and approximately ten years after grimdark epic fantasy became a trend, the shocks escalate to ever more grotesque levels because every new writer tries to outdo what has come before. By now we’re at the point where the subgenre is about to tip over into self-parody. And reading reviews and summaries of some recent works of grimdark fantasy frequently maikes me wonder whether the tipping point hasn’t already been passed, because in summary a lot of those works sure sound like parodies with their catalogue of awful things happening.

Niall Alexander’s review of a new novel, The Grim Company by Luke Scull, at Tor.com is a good example. The novel itself, which I have neither read nor ever heard of until today, sounds like a fairly standard example of the subgenre – it starts of with a tyrant drowning a whole city and killing forty thousand people, because… well, the review doesn’t say, but I hope there’s a reason beyond shock value. There’s a whole bunch of characters mentioned, a hero who isn’t very heroic, a crochety old warrior, a “sultry sorceress” (Niall Alexander’s words, not mine) and so on. You know the drill. However, what makes this review remarkable is that the reviewer – obviously a fan of the subgenre – wonders whether this novel is the last hurrah of grimdark fantasy. And just because no post on or review of the subgenre is complete without it, he also manages to get in a bonus dig at paranormal romance while he’s at it.

Fantasy author C.P.D. Harris responds to Joe Abercrombie at Domains of the Chosen and points out that gritty versus classic fantasy does not have to be an either/or question – it’s possible for both types and more to coexist. Bonus points for admitting that urban fantasy and paranormal romance are as much a part of the broad spectrum of fantasy as epic fantasy, whether traditional or gritty. And indeed it is interesting that all of the discussions on grimdark fantasy usually focus exclusively on the epic fantasy subgenre and a very specific sort of epic fantasy, too (female writers like Karen Miller or Tamara Siler-Jones don’t qualify for gritty epic fantasy, even if they write gritty), even though some of the best examples of gritty fantasy that is not just dark for the sake of being edgy were urban rather than epic fantasy (Rob Thurman and Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series come to mind). But then, if there is one thing that could unite the fans of traditional and gritty epic fantasy, it’s that urban fantasy is inferior to their chosen subgenre, because it has girl cooties.

*Though George R.R. Martin strikes me as more of a reluctant patron saint of grimdark epic fantasy, since A Song of Ice and Fire strikes me as closer in spirit to writers like Lois McMaster Bujold (who can be very dark and gritty indeed) or Simon R. Green in his epic fantasy and space opera period (and though his recent works have been lighter, early Green is very dark and violent, though like Bujold always tempered with humour) than to writers like Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker or Mark Lawrence. Stephen R. Donaldson would probably makea better patron saint than George R.R. Martin.

**In fact, this whole discussion is what is often called a first world problem.

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13 Responses to It’s that time of the year again: Grimdark Fantasy

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  3. Kate Elliott says:

    Belatedly want to say this is a very good post. Your point about the main demographic of many (most?) readers (and writers) of grimdark is an important one that is, I suspect, often overlooked or ignored.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks. Glad you liked the post.

      I also enjoyed your recent contribution to the epic fantasy debate and why consensual sex is so rare in grimdark fantasy. I meant to write a response on my blog, but life got in the way.

      • Kate Elliott says:

        Believe me, I understand about life getting in the way. The one thing I have too little time for is following all the interesting blog posts and comments.

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  7. o'rety says:

    you lost me at “Hey, I love Misfits”…

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