The “Criticism” of Gritty Fantasy

Okay, I’ve been seeing a lot of so-called criticism about gritty fantasy and the brilliant people behind them (although sci-fi is somewhere in there as well, even though the Strawmen have been using fantasy as target practice far more often), including authors such as Joe Abercrombie (no, no relation to the clothing stores…I hope), Mark Lawrence, George R.R. Martin, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and many more.

What are people saying? Well, plenty of things. It’s against Christianity. It’s ruining the genre. (This one here is a classic. No, really). “Grimdark” fantasy in literature is corruptible and demoralizing. Those writing about rape and misogyny must be rapists and misogynists and feed off it. It reflects the “gaming community”.

I could link you with dozens of more articles, each one more absurd than the last. But thankfully for you, I’m not. Instead, I’m going to rant on about my own personal thoughts. Now, I could just say that “it’s art”, “you just don’t see the value of it” and “no one can be told that their art is not worthy of being art” and that “there’s a creative force driving each person to write what they write, and it’s wrong to hinder them”, among half a dozen arty-farty excuses. Believe me, I’ve heard them before (from the same person, too). But since I want to be taken seriously, and I believe I have a fair point, I’ll delve deep into the nitty-gritty.

The advantages of dark, modern (post-modern, some call it), gritty fantasy are numerous. But my personal favourite is that generally the characters are morally ambiguous. Gone are the black and white cookie cutter characters who (sometimes quite literary dress the part) are clearly good or bad. This reduces them to bland, unremarkable characters with near to no complexities or flaws. And flawed characters are the most interesting by far. Characters that do bad things for the right cause. Characters that kill mercilessly in order to survive and get back to their families. And then you have characters that are generally deemed as “bad” who show mercy on occassion. Besides, what drives these characters to do the things they do? Sorry, but being “evil incarnated” or “indescrible, pure evil” might work for you, but it sure as hell doesn’t work for me. Take characters such as Tyrion Lannister, for instance. He’s done some terrible things in order to survive the game of thrones and to live a little longer. And he hates what he does, but he does so in order to survive, even if it means playing against his own family.

People are no longer completely good or completely evil. Each of them has the capacity to do horrible things and great things. It’s not so clear cut. My favourite character from Joe Abercrombie’s brilliant The First Law trilogy happened to be Glokta the crippled torturer. But we got a look into his bitter, crazed head. He did terrible things, but he was still a complex, clever character in a cruel society that has been shaped by circumstances. A little more deeper than “unimaginable evil” if you ask me.

Humans are complex beings. We’re not so easily drafted and branded into convenient sectors that label us as this or that. When I read about a character, I don’t want to be forced to think that he’s on either side of evil or good. I want to judge him by his actions and the world around him. The more morally ambiguous a character is, the more complex and interesting they are. Shades of grey (No, I’m not talking about that “book”) is a great thing, and can make us sincerely care about a world and each character’s fate. In real life no one wakes up and says “Gee, I wonder what evil things I can do today.” People are more complex than that, and that’s reflected in fantasy fiction.

As it should be.

Now, another thing of great concern is the common depiction of (ultra)violence. People say it’s too gory. It’s too gross. It’s too gruesome. It’s too bloody. Yes, there is a thing such as too much violence, and that’s when it ventures off into the gratuitous borders. But more often than not, writers use violence tactfully and for a reason. Yet people still find a way to scream the good ol’ complaints that the violence is too much and point the finger at books. Let me explain something, shall I?

Someone gets bashed over the head with an axe. Guess what? They die. Gruesomely. Very, very gruesomely. Blood sprays. They empty their bowels dying. Blood pumps out of their necks, coating the floor. This is wrong, you say? But what’s really wrong is to show the same scene, except in an almost comical way, (que the cartoony sound effect) with no effect, and it’s all okay, because the “good guy” did it. Death is death. Violence is violence. It’s as simple as that. Gritty writers are telling us how it is, how life isn’t always a pleasant experience where everyone gets along and holds hands around a campfire, roasting marshmellows and telling light-hearted jokes. Sorry, buddy, it ain’t like that anymore. By portraying violence and the consequences of it, we see the full impact that it makes. In A Song of Ice and Fire, thousands, ten of thousands, of people lose their home, are murdered, tortured, brutalized, etc. Who are these people? Most of them are the commonfolk. Why did it happen, then? Because of “the game” that is being played. We see the realistic consequences of war and brutality. Martin captures this beautifully in his quote “When the lords play the game of thrones, the realm bleeds.” And bleed it does. War is a terrible thing with consequences on an unimaginable scale. This is something reflected in fiction instead of just watered down, portraying war like back in the “good ol’ days” where the baddies got their heads bashed in, the goods guys won, and everyone was happy that night. Nope. Collateral damage on a massive scale is a little more realistic. Violence is just one way of showing that. Besides, it’s honesty. People die horribly all the time, and it’s never pretty, never pleasant, never welcome. That doesn’t mean we need to have an explosion of gore each time a person gets a papercut, using violence and cruelty to create conflict, urgency, motives, and goals for the characters. The strawmen will say that if a writer is “really good” they’ll be able to create conflict and strong world building without violence. Perhaps they think GRRM will be able to create a fantasy on the same scale, but instead of violence, political back-stabbing and war, everyone will be skipping to the candy store, and instead of incestuous intrigue, the mystery will be finding out who stole the sweets.

As for novels such as Prince of Thorns, Jorg is a thirteen year old boy who rapes, kills and destroys. He’s an angry young bastard filled with mayhem and destruction. I’ve heard people complain about the ultraviolence and rape, even going as far as to as that there would never, under any circumstances, be something like this published a few decades ago. (A Clockwork Orange, anyone? I mean come on, how any parallels are there between Mr. DeLarge and Jorg?) Yes, it’s pretty damn violent in more ways than one, but it’s justified. Lawrence isn’t going for shock value in creating such a bleak world with such a dark protagonist. As you read on, it becomes obvious that Jorg is a damaged, traumatized child who is haunted by demons of his own psyche instead of the navel-gazing rapist that everyone else makes him out to be.

But what I find primary amusing is that people seem to get a kick out of complaining out these things. You don’t have to read them. You can read light-hearted fiction if you feel so inclined. As seen in the above articles, people are demanding that these “shitty” novels either be named ‘n’ shamed, discouraged, or taken off the shelves all-together. Yep. Because someone fiction is just a little too dark for them, it should be banned from shelves and all who read them. This complaint wouldn’t be completely unjustified: if we were talking about splatterpunk, that is. But we’re not. We’re talking about medieval fantasy and their writers, who have been called “pretentious, narcissistic pretenders” for attempting to change up the genre a little bit and write about the darker side of fiction. Well, too bad buddy. You don’t have to like or read it, but you sure as hell can shut up about demanding that it be kicked off the shelves and that it’s not “real” fantasy fiction because it’s not light-hearted enough.

If I were to play devil’s advocate and offer my opinion as a fact, then I don’t see “the point” behind really light-hearted/bloodless fantasy fiction for adults (especially medieval fantasy, as it’s basically an oxymoron; history is written in blood), but I’m not exactly saying it shouldn’t be sold as it’s corrupting the genre, and I’m not calling those who write them pretentious wankers, am I?

But at the end of the day, attempts to “draw the line” between is “righteous” and what should be read and what shouldn’t, results in several people taking potshots at each other, demanding that the line (however blurred it may be), be moved this way and that. It’s different for each author and for each reader, and there certainty is a difference between gratuitousness and non-gratuitous, but to call these authors out simply because their fiction is “grimdark” is a going a tad too far, don’t you think?

Wait, what’s that? You still don’t like it, even though you don’t have to read it, you still think we shouldn’t read it and they shouldn’t write it? Oh well, tough grit, buddy.

The td:lr version: A lot of people are “concerned” with the darker side of fantasy fiction, calling it gratuitous, disgusting, unnecessary, and corrupting the genre, simply because they dislike it. “Grimdark”, as the strawmen like to call it. As I, and others, have stated, gritty fantasy has undeniable value, reflected throughout the fiction itself, from their morally ambiguous characters to their fantastic world-building to their realistic and believable motives.

GRRM, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, etc, have written some of the very pieces of gritty fantasy that I’ve ever read. And in their “quest” to undermine their work, not only have all the strawmen have done is inspire me to keep on reading their work (I picked up Prince of Thorns primary on hearing about it’s controversy), but inspired me to write my own gritty fantasy somewhere down the pipeline. Or at least a few short stories or so. Either way, I’m proud to say that I love these authors and their work, and I’ll defend it to the death if I have to.

Now excuse me while I’ll prepare myself for a lovely day of gritty fantasy fiction.


4 thoughts on “The “Criticism” of Gritty Fantasy

  1. Nerds-feather (@nerds_feather) says:

    Thanks for the link, dude, but I never made the argument that gritty fantasy is “corruptable and demoralizing.” I actually never made any general argument about gritty fantasy. Rather, I said that I find some of it meaningful and other examples of it cheap and schlocky, and stated that it’s a powerful approach when done right, and corny-ass when not. You’re free to disagree with that, call it a “strawman” or whatever. But in fact I like a lot of gritty fantasy (GRRM, Abercrombie, KJ Parker, Glen Cook, etc.), and was clear about that in the piece.

    • jeremyszal says:

      Hmm, perhaps I skimmed over it too quickly, and it wasn’t my intention to rustle any feathers. But what I did find was that you (even without reading the book) praised the…review…of Prince of Thorns in all it’s hypocritical, self-righetous, pretentious glory. I, for one, do agree with what you said about grit having value and there are limits, but I disliked way you kinda based the article around the review of PoT and the way he played the King of Strawman Kingdom of Strawmanland in his nit-picking and arrogant way.

      Again, I apologize if I made a mistake and didn’t read your blog too clearly. For what it’s worth, it’s the review you linked and praised that I have beef with, not your blog.

      Thanks for taking the time to visit the page.

      • Nerds-feather (@nerds_feather) says:

        No sweat. I also wouldn’t mind at all if you think the argument is wrong. (After all, how boring would it be if we all agreed on everything?) I just wanted to make sure the argument wasn’t misrepresented or misunderstood, as it has been a few times in the past. I do like gritty fiction (in crime as well as SF/F)…I just want it to be sophisticated grit, I guess. If you’re interested, here’s an updated version I did a couple months back for The Book Smuggers:

        As far as Edwards’ review of PoT, I did like it as an abstracted piece of literary criticism, but I often enjoy reading criticism for its own sake–I would have felt similarly even if if it had been written about a book dear to my heart, like say CHRONICLES OF THE BLACK COMPANY or Iain M. Banks’ USE OF WEAPONS (which, incidentally, may be the darkest SF/F book I’ve ever read). It’s true I do share some general concerns with Edwards on the subject of gritty fantasy, though I’d guess we wouldn’t draw the lines in the same places. And I did use the review as a springboard for more general thoughts; perhaps, in that context, I was not clear enough that I did not endorse Edwards’ opinions on PoT, though I felt at the time that I was. I did, however, include a lengthy quote from a second review of PoT, which takes the view that the grit in PoT is entirely justified (written by a friend whose opinion I value highly).

        In any event, I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to more. Also thanks for taking a second look at my piece.


      • jeremyszal says:

        Yeah, that’s fair enough. I like sophisticated grit as well. I’ve read a bit of Banks, his first culture novel to be specific, and I have Surface Detail on my shelf, so I’ll have to take a look at that.
        That that’s fine: I just wanted to be clear on where you stood with his argument, which, to be frank, was abysmal and seemed to be looking for problems to find just for the sake of raising a triumphant fist.

        And sorry again for my mis-reading of your blog post. Thanks for understanding.
        – Jeremy

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