More on Grimdark Fantasy

The latest reiteration of the debate about grimdark epic fantasy is happily chugging along. You can read my take (with lots of links) here. And now for a roundup of the latest responses:

Foz Meadows offers her take on the debate and points out that the supposed realism of grimdark fantasy is actually a very selective view of reality and one which all too often relegates women, people of colour and GLBT people to the status of victims or erases their existence altogether. Foz Meadows also makes the same point I made before, namely that the writers of grimdark epic fantasy are overwhelmingly straight white cisgender men.

Cheryl Morgan responds to Foz Meadows and also points out that dismissing happy endings for characters from marginalized groups as unrealistic denies readers from those marginalized groups the hope that things can and maybe someday will be better.

Now I don’t believe that Joe Abercrombie meant to say that since gritty epic fantasy portrays the world “as it is”, that automatically means that women only exist to be raped or abused, GLBT people only exist to be killed and people of colour often don’t exist at all. And indeed, Abercrombie pops up in the comments to agree with Foz Meadows. However, there are other authors of grimdark fantasy (cough – R. Scott Bakker – cough) who defend the prevalence of rape and general misogyny in their works with exactly this argument. “I’m only writing it because it’s realistic”.

Writer Jerol Johnson also responds to Joe Abercrombie’s post from the POV of someone who quite enjoys the grittier side of fantasy. What struck me most about this post was that Johnson includes three female writers (Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin and Cherie Priest) and at least one writer of colour in his list of writers of gritty fantasy. This is remarkable, because – as I’ve noted before – women and writers of colour are usually assumed not to write gritty fantasy, even if they do. Even more remarkable is that Cherie Priest does not write epic fantasy at all (gritty fantasy is usually assumed to be epic rather than some other mode of fantasy) but steampunk and urban fantasy.

Finally, here is an Italian response to Joe Abercrombie from writer Andrea Santucci. What I find most interesting about this post is Santucci’s assertion that gritty epic fantasy apparently does not exist in Italy or at least it doesn’t sell. Even George R.R. Martin isn’t very popular over there. Come to think of it, Martin wasn’t all that popular in Germany either, until Game of Thrones aired over here (on a channel mainly associated with crappy reality shows in a horrible “chunks of three or four episodes broadcast over a single weekend” format which meant that even people who might have enjoyed the show did not bother watching, because who has the time and the patience to sit in front of the TV for hours on end?) and the books started showing up on bookstore display tables and on the bestseller lists.

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8 Responses to More on Grimdark Fantasy

  1. Very interesting post. I have a question.
    I write fantasy (no magic, talking dragons) in a medieval-ish setting, though not in “our” Middle Ages. Strangely enough, I haven’t read all that much fantasy myself. Not Martin, Rothfuss, or any others. Just a few of the unavoidable classics.

    My main characters are gay, and one gets raped fairly early in the first book of the series. Although this plays a major part in the evolution and he does get his revenge on the one who raped him, it is by no means the focus of the series. There are political intrigues, warfare but also deceit, betrayal and torture… There are also scenes of comic relief. A lot of the female characters are strong women who let little to nothing get in the way of what they want.
    I’ve always wondered how to classify my books. Gay romance? There is some, but they’re too dark and I don’t guarantee a Happy Ever After. Fantasy? Yes, but as I already mentioned, no magic, no dragons, no special races. Could I call them Grimdark? But there are the light comic scenes, and not everything is gloom and doom.

    In other words: is there a clear definition of what it takes (and what should be avoided) for a novel to be called Grimdark?

    • Cora says:

      There is no clear definition of grimdark fantasy, which is of course part of the reason why this discussion erupts every year or so. Or at least, I have never found one. Most people seem to define grimdark fantasy as fantasy set in a world where good and bad are not clearly defined, but there are more shades of lighter to darker grey. Fans of the subgenre consider grimdark fantasy to be set in a world that’s realistic as in “bad things happen, even to good people”, whereas critics view it as a subgenre where the worst thing that can happen automatically will happen, where everybody is equally repulsive and rape and torture run rampant.

      Whether fans of grimdark fantasy would embrace your books depends on how open they are to gay relationships. Some of them obviously are, for example Richard Morgan’s entries into the genre, The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, feature a gay main character. And in general, grimdark fantasy features comparatively little magic. George R.R. Martin’s series has dragons, which are mostly legend until Danaerys manages to hatch her dragon eggs, whitewalkers, again mostly legend until they become a problem, and direwolves, but it’s generally low in magic, particularly in the early volumes.

      It’s also interesting that the overwhelmingly female readership of m/m romance is willing to tolerate quite a lot of harshness and violence, as the success of Flesh Cartel and Captive Prince attests. And of course women do write extremely nasty scenes of torture and sexual violence, often directed at young men, though the whole grimdark discussion tends to ignore female writers entirely.

      As for your books, I’d say they fall somewhere into the same borderline spectrum as Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, which is sometimes included into the grimdark trend and sometimes not.

  2. Thank you, Cora, for taking the time to answer my question so extensively. Very interesting.

    I think I’d better go read some of those discussions, although, it seems this is yet another category my books don’t fit in completely. I’m getting used to that. 🙂

    • Cora says:

      You’re welcome, Andrew.

      And I hear you about writing books that don’t neatly fit into predefined categories. Many of mine never quite fit either. But at least indie publishing gives us the opportunity to let those difficult to classify books find their own niche.

  3. Pingback: Linkspam on Fantasy, Realism, and “Grit” | Jenny's Library

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