Friday, March 29, 2013

Grit is This Year's Black

This blog post has been a long time coming because I got distracted by all that publishing industry stuff, but here we go.

One of my favorite current fantasy authors, Joe Abercrombie, recently published a great post regarding "The Value of Grit."

He's a smart guy, and covers the subject pretty well, but I figured I would throw in my two cents.

I grew up reading the Redwall series, The Dark is Rising sequence, The Lord of the Rings, and The Lost Years of Merlin.  Each of those series is pretty traditional fantasy (LoTR, of course, being the quintessential traditional fantasy), and each embodies the traditional fantasy elements of heroism, medievalism, magic, good vs. evil, and of course, good's inevitable triumph.

Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, I came across George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and my world changed.

Mr. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series has become for "gritty fantasy" what The Lord of the Rings was for traditional epic fantasy.  He introduced vague magic, nihilism, and characters with questionable motives who were often--gasp!--neither good nor evil.  He popularized a massive movement within the genre--one that seems to have stuck.

While Mr. Martin is, er, still pushing this movement forward (given the fact that he's still working on his ASoIaF series...), many other voices have emerged and taken hold of the "true grit" of fantasy:  namely Steven Erikson, Tom Lloyd, R. Scott Bakker, Scott Lynch, and of course, Joe Abercrombie (among others).

Which brings me back to Mr. Abercrombie's blog post.  In it, Abercrombie defends the "gritty" fantasy movement (which has endured various levels of attack since its popularization).  I'll just list his main points, and tell you my brief thoughts on each.

  1. Gritty fantasy has a tight focus on character.  Certainly one of the things that I love about the gritty side of the fantasy genre.  From Martin to Abercrombie, the characters are more real, visceral, believable, and sometimes they just make me squirm.  I love it.  While epic fantasy certainly can have strong characters, they're often overshadowed by the magic, setting, or the sheer scope of the conflict at hand.  In gritty fantasy, the people are almost always front and center.  I've always been drawn to stories that focus on character as opposed to plot, setting, or idea, and therein lies one of the draws for me.
  2. Moral ambiguity.  While I certainly acknowledge value in presenting fantasy worlds where things are always as clear cut as "good vs. evil," I don't think that's reason to completely ignore all of the shades in between.  Gritty fantasy explores those shades of gray.  The truth is, sometimes good people do awful things.  Sometimes bad people pull through with something good, against all odds.  That's the way of things, and I, personally, love to see it in fiction, and write it in my own stories.
  3. Honesty.  Abercrombie says it best:  "People crap.  People swear.  People get ill.  People die in a way that serves no narrative. . . . People are horrible to each other.  Really horrible."  Now, a lot of the gritty fantasy focuses strictly on the crappy sides of life and people.  Abercrombie labels that as a reaction to years and years of focusing on the heroic and bright sides of people in traditional epic fantasy.  I agree with him; such a reaction seems both obvious and inevitable.  So, while a lot of the gritty fantasy may not be completely honest in the sense that it tells life exactly like it is (but then, what does, artistic or otherwise?), but it does offer a new, or at least different, take on honesty and verisimilitude within the fantasy genre.
  4. Sometimes life really is that [crap].  Edited for content by yours truly, of course, but either way there it is.  Sometimes life is that awful.  Sometimes people are that horrible.  Sometimes things happen for no reason whatsoever.  That's life, and that's also something that has been missing from epic fantasy*.  In my opinion, at least in my own (largely LDS) culture, we tend to wear the rosy glasses a little too often.  I like to take mine off every once in a while.
  5. Modernity.  A lot of epic fantasy writers use a very high-language style of writing and prose.  Most gritty fantasy takes the modern twists and nuances of contemporary prose and mashes it with the fantasy world, creating a bit more of a splash-of-cold-water feeling (as opposed to epic fantasy's slow immersion into a luxurious bath, if that metaphor makes any sense at all).
  6. Shock value.  Gritty fantasy surprises me.  Usually for the worse, in the sense that the surprises are often horrifying and disturbing and exactly what I never wanted to happen, but there's something to be said for that kind of shock.  It may be gimmicky--and it some cases it is too gimmicky--but there it is.  If nothing else, it gets the reader's attention, and honestly that is something that traditional fantasy has had a difficult time doing for me lately.
  7. Range.  Perhaps one of the reasons why I think darker fiction is so fascinating.  We have a saying in the LDS church that there should be "opposition in all things," and I think gritty fiction exemplifies that ideal, albeit in nontraditional ways.  Abercrombie says that "the extremes of darkness only allow the glimpses of light to twinkle all the more brightly, if that's the effect you're after."  So, in theory, by showing the gritty dark side of stuff, you can showcase the pretty bright side that much more clearly.
While I don't think I'm writing stuff that is quite as dark as Joe Abercrombie (and even he admits, and I agree, that his stuff could still be much darker), I'm definitely at least as interested in the dark as I am in the light.  If I'm honest with myself, I'm far more interested in the darker stuff.  And it's really for the reason states above:  by showing the dark, I start to see the light more clearly.  I'm not advocating that ideology as a lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination.  Let's be clear on that.  But, while my life has been pretty great in a lot of ways, it has also been pretty hellish in a lot of others.  And my own fiction feels most honest when I include that kind of stuff.

A lot of my writing has been, is, and will be cynical.  A lot of dark, gritty stuff happens.  But, for me, the reasons for that relate far more to #s 1, 3, 4, and 7 on that list than #6.  I don't do it for shock; I do it because it feels right.  And I'll keep doing it as long as it does.

*  The really good epic fantasy, of course, always has moments of this.  Frodo succumbing to the Ring, for example, totally sucks but allows for a really beautiful ending.  But, generally, those moments are very few and far between.


  1. I am almost completely in agreement with everything you've said. However:

    1) I haven't really read much gritty fantasy, so I don't really know what I am talking about.

    2) As far as "bad things happen" in real life. Yeah, that's true, but I don't feel like that's acceptable in fiction. I don't think this is what you were trying to imply, but I think that when writing Epic or Gritty, or any other fiction, deaths, crap, awfulness, and redemption, too, must all happen within the rules of the world, and be within the characters' possibilities. Otherwise, it's just farce.

    1. I think there's definitely a line worth drawing; there's gratuitous violence/sex/cynicism, which, as you said, is really nothing more than farce (at best), and then there's an honest attempt at showing the "bad things that happen," and hopefully juxtaposing them with the good--and staying within the rules of the world, which is a great point. Personally, I think the former is dull at best and offensive at worst, while the latter is really what I find interesting, and what I'm often attempting to do. It can be a fine line to walk, but I'm not so sure it's as fine as some people want us to think.

  2. I think this is a super interesting topic. However, like Scott Morris above, I've not really read too much gritty fantasy (at least by authors listed above). Is there something that you can point me to that I have (likely) read that illustrates that grit?

    The only thing that comes to mind right away is the work of Lloyd Alexander, where he (sometimes) tries to show both the good and bad of characters (e.g. the jerk in The Black Cauldron that ends up killing himself to save others). I'm not really sure this is what you're going for, though.

    1. I'm don't think I would categorize Alexander in this genre, although the specific part you're referring to definitely does work within these parameters (as I mentioned, most traditional epic fantasy has moments of "grittiness," but the works that comprise this new movement are saturated with such moments). George RR Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones series is sort of the poster child of the "gritty" movement. Some other contemporary examples, other than the authors I mentioned in the post: in TV, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot all fit the bill; in film, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises might be on the lighter side of gritty, but definitely dark enough to be considered; in YA lit (which I remember you enjoying?), The Hunger Games trilogy is the only real contender I can think of at the moment.

      Great question--hopefully some of these examples help clarify.