Cover Art for THE HEROES by Joe Abercrombie

The conversation in the genre blogosphere lately has been leaning heavily to grittiness, grimdark, and whether they serve a purpose—and whether there’s any difference between the two. A lot of bloggers and commenters seem to be settling on the idea that “grimdark” is the pejorative, so perhaps that is how I will use it here.

Now, I love a good tragedy as much as the next guy. If the next guy is William Shakespeare.

I believe in fiction where actions have consequences, and sometimes terrible prices are paid, and sometimes good people meet fates you wouldn’t wish on Count Rugen. I would argue that darkness and uncertainty are a needful thing; that without them, there are no stakes, no emotional engagement.

If Boromir never falls to the Ring’s lure and betrays the Fellowship, the narrative is shallow and hollow.

If Boromir never falls to the Ring’s lure and betrays the Fellowship, the narrative is shallow and hollow.

But I also believe—with John Gardner, who knew a thing or two about writing fiction—that it’s possible to swing too far in that direction. That one of the things that makes fiction interesting and valuable—one of the things that makes it art, and usefully reflective of life—is the tension between positive and negative, good and bad.

If Boromir never regrets his betrayal, recollects his honor, and dies to redeem himself… the narrative is shallow, and hollow.

heroes-1I’m not saying, of course, that it has to play out exactly that way. What I’m saying is that if I find myself reading about antiheroes who will always make the worst, most destructive possible decision in any circumstance, I’m not likely to be surprised once I figure out what the trick is. There might be a certain train-wreck fascination, but the direness gets exhausting. And predictable.

If every woman’s going to be raped, if every hero is going to turn out to be a pedophile or a coward, if every halfway honorable man is going to be impaled, if every picturesque little town is going to be burned to the ashes… Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies is just as lazy a narrative as the one where all challenges are resolved by a handy Deus ex machina. And possibly a little more juvenile.

I mean, we’ve all been fifteen and in love with death. Yours truly was a Goth before that was a thing; we were still adjectives back in my day, not even having graduated yet to nouns. That nihilistic view of the world is essentially a juvenile, sociopathic, self-justifying fetish, and most of us eventually grow out of it. We grow into a little responsibility, at least—the understanding that the only thing likely to make the world a more endurable place for the bulk of humanity is collective action. Even when we’re spending a significant amount of time selfishly looking out for number one.1

The world is not a black and white place. The options are not martyrdom or monsterhood. There are balances in between.

heroes-3

The world is not a black and white place. The options are not martyrdom or monsterhood. There are balances in between.

The least self-reflective of the grimdark seems to me to be a little too busy wallowing in splatter and gratuitousness—violence, betrayal, rapine, raping, pillaging, cannibalism, torture… pick three… or four… as if those things were an end to themselves. Admittedly, for some readers, they are. They satisfy the itch those readers want scratched. They conform to a worldview that presents itself as sophisticated, but in reality is just as one-sided and uncomfortable with challenges as the sort of novel where, as Roger Zelazny wrote in one of my favorite gritty fantasy series of all time, “Good triumphs over evil and hero beds heroine.2

For me, there’s a level at which I feel like I’m playing in a D&D game with a bunch of other fourteen year olds with our fingernails painted black. Again. And I’m forty-one now. But if that’s your comfort read, go for it. When I’m looking for something less challenging, I myself prefer novels about cats solving curiously bloodless murder mysteries.

heroes-2

But what some critics ignore is that the best of the current wave of gritty fantasy does not buy into this fallacy—what Gardner called the disPollyanna syndrome. Instead, it embraces a balance closer to reality: that the world is arbitrary and unfair, and that sometimes even well-meaning people do awful things: desperate, vicious things. But also, that complete jerks, sociopathic monsters, can and do accomplish good—sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.

People are not good or bad, but people. Some are better than others. Sometimes that goodness depends on perspective. One man’s culture hero (Vlad Dracula, Genghis Khan, Saladin, Richard Lionheart, Crazy Horse, Custer, Alexander) is another man’s monster. The best gritty fantasy (Sarah Monette, N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor3, George R. R. Martin, Scott Lynch, Richard K. Morgan, Joe Abercrombie4—to name just a few out of many authors I adore5) reflects this, considers it, attempts not to spin a morality play but describe a complicated and ambiguous arc of people doing what they feel they have to do.

They have a working compass, in other words. Rather than just a needle pointing in some direction that we have then decreed south, or north.


Notes

1I feel the need to point out that the heroes of some of the non-grimdark fantasy can be objectively just as monstrous as the grimdark antihero. It’s just that the narrative is much more likely to gloss over and justify their actions. Heroes can kill with impunity, because heroes. And because the author said so.

2Grit, incidentally, is not a new invention. It’s fashionable of late, however. And has been before and will be again.

3Women often get left off the lists of authors writing gritty fantasy, which is nonsense and contributes to farcical circular conversations wherein people argue around this enormous blind spot and people who should know better talk about how it’s realistic for women to have no agency and no role in fantasy beyond being victimized because the person making the argument has apparently not read enough actual military and social history to know better. Even leaving aside for the moment the entire “Fantasy is a made up world from inside your head” argument…

And anyway, nobody mutilates a protagonist like Sarah does. Except for maybe Nnedi. Or me.

SHATTERED PILLARS by Elizabeth Bear, Art by Donato Giancola

Buy Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear.

Well, if I’m being honest, I should mention that Anne Bishop’s first novel has somebody castrated by rats on page one. Ratstration! Richard K. Morgan Eat Your Hea… okay, bad choice of taunt. Nevermind.

Maybe some people only read male authors? Or find sexual violence a suitable topic for entertainment when it’s only leveled against women?

…nah. Foolishness.

4Joe’s recent blog post on the utility of grit in fantasy is a good read, and I refer you.

5Two of whom I not only consider brilliant writers, but who also happen to be respectively my cowriter and my boyfriend, but damned if I’m leaving either one of them off the list. So there, disclaimer served.


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35 thoughts on ““I Love a Good Tragedy as Much as the Next Guy” by Elizabeth Bear”

  1. Fantastic post! And yet more authors/books to add to my list to explore. And I agree that a good story – or reality for that matter – is always a balancing act between good and evil.

  2. Well, if I’m being honest, I should mention that Anne Bishop’s first novel has somebody castrated by rats on page one.

    Yeah, I still remember that. Vividly.

    In any event, this was very well done. I think an exploration of why grit is suddenly “in” again, and why, is worthwhile, but above my pay grade.

  3. Yes to all of this, but thank you for footnote #3. That is all.

  4. ebear says:

    In the interests of space, I left off a bunch of contemporary character-mutilating, family-annihilating authors of reasonably gritty second-world fantasy who often get left out of the lists, including Patricia Briggs, Chaz Brenchley, and David Anthony Durham. If your favorite is not included, feel free to discuss in comments. *g*

  5. What Teresa said. In spades.

  6. K. Harris says:

    I agree with your article, but I wish people would try to be more aware of the rest of the world. We don’t need new terms for this – it’s noir.

  7. ebear says:

    Noir, while it gets used pretty sloppily, specifically refers as a subgenre to “hardboiled” crime fiction, so it can be confusing when applied to fantasy–especially as it can also refer back to “film noir.”

    Sarah Monette uses “noir” and “clair” as adjectives describing literary approaches, one of which is more concerned with grit and the other more concerned with heroism–but we also speak of “high-mud” fantasy.

    We invent our critical terminology as we go, and it evolves.

    I like Zelazny’s phrase, from the same passage I quoted above: “A philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.”

    And where does it bleed over into the grotesque, say? Grand Guignol? Splatterpunk? Entire careers have been made on these arguments!

  8. I’m far less familiar with “clair” as an adjective than “noir”.

    I do think it is a spectrum, a range of shades of grey and black. None of the “grimdark” novels, current and past, are precisely alike, even if they sometimes rhyme.

  9. Todd says:

    Especially resonant for me is the penultimate paragraph. One thing I believe Grimdark does very well is show us what’s on the other side of the fence. I love me a hero as much as the next person, but even the bad guys think they are heroes in their own mind. Perspective is everything, and every ‘villain’ has a mom, etc.

  10. RiverVox says:

    After watching a Game of Thrones episode last night, I was thinking about the balance of dark and light. (And yes, I realize that watching the show is not the same as reading the book!) At one point, the cruelty of Joffrey was unbearable and I looked away. Hearing Tyrion’s voice, I turned back to the screen, washed with a wave of relief. Then I thought, what an exquisite gray world Martin has created where Tyrion Lannister is a hero! If there were no moments of redemption in Game of Thrones, I could not bear to watch or read it, not only because of the violence, but also because it’s too far from reality to resonate.

  11. Josh Gentry says:

    Those looking for the best in “gritty” Fantasy should read Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles.

  12. Joris M says:

    If a speculative fiction tale full of misogyny, rape and torture can give us food for thought there certainly should be a place for dark, thoughtful gritty or even grimdark fantasy. Of course not all will be as successful at avoiding the pitfalls as “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

  13. So I’ve read some, but not all, of the other authors you’ve mentioned. (I have a sizable backlog lately) I’m actually pretty surprised that there are people who consider Scott Lynch grimdark. Dancing around spoilers for that one person who hasn’t read it, but not everyone I wanted to made it to the end of the book. Does that qualify it? Some heavy stuff goes down but I never though of it as bleak or needless or gratitous. I don’t think a mature story should deafult to grimdark status.

  14. Josh Gentry says:

    A correction, the Holdfast Chronicles are technically Science Fiction. I do not think it matters. It should be recognizable to readers who like “grit.” What sets them apart is their moral and emotional range and depth.

  15. Doug M. says:

    “But what some critics ignore is that the best of the current wave of gritty fantasy does not buy into this fallacy—what Gardner called the disPollyanna syndrome. Instead, it embraces a balance closer to reality: that the world is arbitrary and unfair, and that sometimes even well-meaning people do awful things: desperate, vicious things. But also, that complete jerks, sociopathic monsters, can and do accomplish good—sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.”

    Should have led with that paragraph. It’s perfect.

    I can’t think of any fantasy authors that are living high on the hog by writing books that contain nothing but characters with absolutely zero redeeming qualities and nothing in the way of plot outside of rape, death, destruction and despair. Not to say they don’t exist… but I just don’t see the point in all the internet gnashing of teeth over fantasy that’s not actually being written and/or purchased/read in any kind of volume. The problem is that there are some people that seem to take offense at any amount of “characters acting reprehensibly” in their fantasy; and seek to attribute that depiction of a reprehensible act as a sign that the author who wrote it has no respect for genre traditions at the very least … and at the worst, actually condones that sort of behavior in real life.

    The “too much grit” gnashing is less about seeing a rise in the popularity of a style that they, themselves, don’t particularly care for, and more about resenting a rise in the popularity of a style that they don’t want anyone to care for (and apparently misrepresenting the amount of utter, unadulterated bleakness that’s riding roughshod across the genre is rather important, too). Has wishing that everyone disliked what you (a non-specific, rhetorical you, to be clear) disliked ever had a positive result?

    Let’s face it: nobody’s actually running out of genre stuff they like to read. So unless someone’s goal is to only read the books that the “in” crowd are reading and talking about, then why should anyone care that something they don’t appreciate is catching more of the limelight for the moment?

  16. I was reading a book recently and indeed thought to myself that there is an awful lot of useless rape situations and sometimes overly graphics. I find the suggestion more than enough to describe the situation. The interesting part of such a story is what happens to the character afterward, how he or she gets back or get transformed. But a lot of authors just use gratuitous violence and it gets really old. I have yet to read Elizabeth’s Book, but I too, thought that Joe abercrombie did a good job of balancing good and bad. It felt like I was reading about real persons in dire situations. Ninefingers was probably my favorite character in the blade itself.

  17. Having grown up three blocks from Glen Cook, who has written both a certain amount of dark fantasy that deals with the horrors of an epic fantasy war in close-up (and with a sense that the good and evil people are a range of grays evenly distributed between the “good” and “evil” sides, both of which the main characters work for at various points) and a noir detective fantasy series whose narrator is pointedly more cynical than actually justified by the reality surrounding him, I enjoy the occasional fantasy reminder not to be too blind to either the evil or the good in the world.*

    On the other hand, since in my ordinary life I deal with advocacy issues that confront me with the evils of the world—which is frequently born of sincerely believed good intentions and which is never going to go away no matter how hard I work—I frequently enjoy being reminded of the more perfect world I’m striving for; my every-day reality doesn’t need any more grit.

    I guess that’s just my way of saying “I can see the usefulness of nuanced grit, even if personal circumstance frequently renders it a depressing reminder of reality, which is not what I go to fiction for.”

    I should note that I am also a fan of President Roosevelt’s speech “The Man with the Muck-rake,” which argues against an unrelenting and undifferentiated dark view of the world as harmful to society, so I entirely agree that it serves no useful purpose to go too far in that direction, if less because I have a problem with adolescent fantasy than because I have a problem with its effects.

    So. There’s another county heard from.

    *And yes, having noted my relationship, I am getting my own plug in.

  18. I have to admit, I have no idea who is actually writing grimdark fantasy. Perhaps that’s down to my exceptional taste in reading/listening (HA!) but I just am not seeing the actual grimdark. If this is about the authors that Bear mentions being mislabeled as grimdark, then I get that. But I really don’t have a lot of visibility into the actual grimdark subgenre then (which, might be a good thing, but I would like to be aware of it).

  19. Another well written post – I enjoyed the read.

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