Thursday 5 February 2015

After "Grimdark" - a grim gathering responds

A recent blog on Nerds of a Feather asked three fantasy bloggers of note what they noted about "grimdark". I carry the quote marks over from that discussion where they stood to indicate the fact that the word trails a variety of definitions (this is worse than simply being ill-defined as it allows people to talk right past each other with confidence).

I'm aiming the same question at six (because twice as many is twice as something) authors who have on occasion been found loitering beneath the grimdark banner.


The question posed is:

Last year some of gritty fantasy's authors dialled down the grit in their new releases. Has "grimdark" had its day in the sun, and if so, what might come after? Has "peak grit" been reached? Or is it a broadening and shift in how people "do grit". What does it all portend? Should I buy shares in Apple? Sell Shell? Tell me the answers goddamnit!

I've ordered these by brevity, shortest first. Mine at the end ... cos it's guests first:

R Scott Bakker

People like to bag things, particularly when they don't like those things. The person who walks their dog without a baggie is the person who leaves his or her dog's shit on the lawn.

People like to bag things because bags have handles, and handles make complicated things easy to handle. Bags are handy-dandy tools.

Grimdark is a bag. All genres are bags.

The question of what can be put into this bag is simply a question of interpretative juice. Anything can be called 'grimdark,' even dear old Gramma, given enough interpretation. If we don't put Gramma in the bag, it's because we don't want to get dog shit on her, not because dog shit has to be in there, but because it takes less interpretative juice to put dog shit in there, and so there's a chance we'll be packing Gramma with said feces.

Anyone who argues the 'essence' of grimdark has confused a handy-dandy tool for divine revelation, and should seek counselling immediately.

Anyone who argues that the term 'grimdark' can't be a bag because the term was originally used for X, should, on the pain of inconsistency, cease using all terms which do not possess their original meaning. Silence, as they say, is golden.

Anyone who argues that the contents most easily placed in the grimdark bag are the wrong contents because they are 'stale' should be congratulated for so scrupulously checking the best-before dates. Where might these be found again?

Anyone who argues that the contents most easily placed in the grimdark bag are the wrong contents because they are 'immoral' should be congratulated for standing closer to God. Where does she stand again?

Anyone who argues that the contents most easily placed in the grimdark bag are the wrong contents because they 'distort history' should be congratulated for growing up comfy, safe, and warm, surrounded by many soulful encouragements and benevolent sentiments, then sent to a Syrian refugee camp.

Grimdark is a bag, one most easily filled by frightening and troubling things. It gives us a way to handle them.

I appreciate that some people don't like frightening and troubling things, but please... Don't blame the bag.

Karen Miller

My short answer to this question is:  No, 'grimdark'  isn't dead, but it may well be evolving in response to external influences.

Trends in genre, like trends in life generally, I think live on the arc of an ever-swinging pendulum. As has been pointed out elsewhere, much of art is born out of a reaction to the status quo. So if we're seeing any kind of shift in the execution of so-called 'grimdark' or 'gritty' speculative fiction, that shift is being prompted by the urge to shake up a status quo that has, over the last few years, come to showcase a lot of pretty brutal storytelling.

One reason for that, I think, is the inevitable escalation that comes with writers attempting to outdo what has come before. I think both writers and readers get desensitised to story, which means that in a crowded marketplace it's seen as necessary for writers to up the ante, as it were, so they don't get lost in the crowd. And that's fine, but I think you can only up the grit factor so far before the readership steps back and says: Okay, I'm done now. I need a break from the relentless dark. The other element which I think plays into this exhaustion factor is the harshness of real life. When the world is bright and safe and shiny it can be an act of pleasurable escape to vicariously experience darkness and danger. But when the world of day to day living is brutal - and so much of the world is brutal right now -  readers are more likely to want somewhere happy - or happier, anyway - to play for a while. A shot of optimism and hope to offset another day of ghastly headlines. When real evil roams the world, burning helpless captives alive in a cage or throwing them off tall buildings, we're inclined to look for an antidote in our entertainment, not more of the same.

But having said all that, a writer is drawn to write his or her individual truths regardless of where on the arc the pendulum has come to rest, for the moment. And that's why I say that grimdark isn't finished, because there will always be a place in the world for stories that shine a light into the darkness of the human soul ... while hopefully remembering that where there is violence and brutality and evil there can also be honour and courage and hope.

Joe Abercrombie

Ah, grimdark, grimdark, what to say about grimdark?

Any discussion falls immediately into definitional problems like a drunk into shop window.  Subgenres are always fuzzy around the edges, but grimdark is fuzzy all over.  No two people ever seem to mean quite the same thing by it.  Few writers I know willingly refer to what they write as grimdark, certainly few set out to write it.  When I first heard it used maybe three or four years back it was purely as a pejorative - stuff that was excessively cynical, brutal, and humourlessly hopeless to the point of being ridiculous, that of course being a very subjective judgement.  But it's come more generally to refer to a style of gritty, cynical, antihero-led fantasy, and these days is often used positively by people to refer to an amorphous subgenre that they enjoy.  Even then, the characteristics are hard to pin down.  Some talk about the tone as the defining thing, or the violence, or the cynicism, or a hopelessness, or a lack of humour.  Critics of grimdark often define as something else the very books that enthusiasts for grimdark celebrate as the essence of the subgenre.  The problem is it then becomes very easy to make an unassailable argument about grimdark by defining out whatever doesn't support your argument.

The future for grimdark, then?  Well, if we're talking about purely what's crap, schlocky, over-the-top and one-dimensional, the future is never particularly bright, is it?  Anything without nuance, range, or subtlety quickly becomes boring.  But if we're talking more generally about what's gritty, what's tough, what's shocking, what's cynical, what's unheroic, I don't think that tendency is going anywhere.  It's always been there, of course, with writers of sword and sorcery like Howard, Vance, Leiber, Anderson, Moorcock, and you can probably trace it back all the way to Beowulf and Norse Myth if you want to.  In a way it was the boom in the shiny, optimistic and heroic in the 80s and 90s that was the anomaly, the popularity of gritty stuff recently is, for me, a much-needed correction that has put a bit of range and edge back into epic fantasy.  You wouldn't want everything to be gritty any more than you'd want everything to be smooth, and we may well be due a correction the other way, but I don't see a lot of evidence of it, and there's still plenty of less gritty stuff out there if that's your bag.  I occasionally see genre commentators proclaiming the death of grit, but out in the big wide mainstream it seems as though Game of Thrones is still pulling in a few punters…

Teresa Frohock

Since we can’t even agree on the qualities “grimdark” literature encompasses, I find it horribly difficult to believe we would ever understand what “peak grit” is and whether or not we’ve achieved it. Art in any medium—be it literature, sculpture, or song—is an ever shifting conglomeration of techniques and themes. We’re always taking old ideas and grafting them into new configurations, so as with any art form, “grimdark” is going to broaden and change. Anything that becomes stagnant dies.

However, to imply that “grimdark” has become irrelevant is to say that nihilism is no longer significant in literature, and I don’t believe that’s true. We use our stories to examine our lives and the meaning of the world around us. Sometimes we focus on hope and redemption and other times, we inspect the darker aspects of our nature. To say “It’s just a fantasy novel” cheapens our own art, which is just as vital to our respective cultures as any other literary works. We can either dress our enemies up as orcs, because killing a non-human species is easier than murdering a human, or we can have humans pummelling one another on a field in a “dark and gritty” fashion.

Some will argue that most “grimdark” works are lacking in cultural context. If I give any novel a shallow reading, superficialities will abound, but if I look more deeply at the characters and their situations, I often find authors have embedded many cultural contexts within their prose. Jorg’s desperate need for his father’s approval, or Ardee’s alcoholism are two that immediately spring to mind. Give me an hour, a day, or even a week, and I can find many more examples within the novels that others decry as “grimdark.” That spark of humanity, however fragile it may be, is there, just as it exists in each of us.

Hard stories are worthwhile. I had a veteran who saw active combat write to thank me for a passage in Miserere that made him feel better about his own circumstances. If I had sugar-coated Lucian’s experience in that novel, the individual might not have felt the same way about the story. As it was, he found something meaningful to him within my prose, and that brings me back to cultural context, a concept that is highly dependent on the individual. Let’s stop sneering on grimmer literature and realize that, while it might not be your particular favorite, the art form has a place within our culture. Through our stories, we are showing you humanity at its worst so that you might strive to make the world better. To each her own. Go in peace.

Kameron Hurley

Market saturation is a real issue in any genre, and when all the books in a category start to look the same, and are marketed the same; when epic fantasy as a category becomes, essentially, grimdark of a certain flavor, there’s bound to be a reader backlash. I’m reminded of the endless Shannara knock-offs that grimdark was in conversation with when it started bleeding out onto the scene in the late 90’s with folks like Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin. Dark fantasy has been around for ages, but I’d argue it was Hobb and Martin who made it truly commercially successful and paved the way for “grimdark” becoming nearly synonymous with “epic fantasy” here in the mid-teens.

What inevitably happens, though, is that imitators who come after start to water down the original ideas behind the backlash, and instead of a nuanced exploration of human frailty and complexity, we end up with nihilistic heroes who kick puppies and murder people on page one and call it deep and serious. That sort of stuff gets exhausting after a while, and I say that as someone who was exhausted by the crapsack world I created for my own GOD’S WAR series after three books. I may have created complex and layered people, but writing in a world on the edge of ruin for eight years started to feel like a grind. By contrast, writing about genocide and parallel worlds in THE MIRROR EMPIRE felt like a groovy carnival fun ride. My grim has become a little more weird to compensate for burnout.

What’s after grimdark, if this is the peak? It really depends on what the next break-out fantasy book ends up being, the one that sells so many copies that publishers start saying, “Give me more like this” the way they did with Hobb and Martin. I do think folks are hungry for less bleak epic fantasy that shows actual complexity instead of just “bad guys do good things sometimes!” or “good guys do bad things sometimes!”  There’s been a lot of chatter about the hopefulness of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, and CITY OF STAIRS certainly brought back the awe and wonder of fantasy without sacrificing the raw emotion and bloody monster fights that fantasy readers love. It also showed some real complexity of culture, characters, and settings that we just aren’t seeing as much as epic fantasy has become watered down.

I find the epic fantasy wheel of time endlessly amusing. It’s only a matter of time before another Shannara comes along, touting the revolutionary idea that it will tell a story where the good folks are actually good, and the bad ones are actually bad. Round and round we go.

Richard Morgan

First gut response - Oh, FFS, not this again!!!  I swear, it seems like people have been pronouncing the Death of (and an elaborately mannered disdain for) Grimdark practically ever since it arose as a discrete genre descriptor in the first place.  And that was barely six or seven years ago.  Really - what is all the fuss about?  This is the fantasy genre’s very own version of moral panic, and frankly I find it both weird and embarrassingly parochial.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that only in the quaint, walled-off kingdom of fantasy fiction, could a storm in a teacup like this even arise.  Take a stroll out into the broader context of literature in general, and the debate becomes almost meaningless.  Greek tragedy, anybody?  Medea or the Oresteia?  Shakespeare’s King Lear or Titus Andronicus?  Webster and Middleton?  The Brothers Grimm? (I’m talking of course, about the real-deal original folk and fairytales, before they got Bowdlerised down into kid-friendly fare)  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  Jean Anouilh’s masterful re-imagining of Sophocles’s Antigone for the modern era?

These are just a handful of examples from a broad, inter-related swathe of grim fiction down the ages to which we are all heirs, and which is packed full of the elements a clutch of nose-holding fantasy commentators now perceive and decry in so-called grimdark fantasy.  Horror, pain and loss.  Inhumanity, depravity and despair.  All that good cathartic shit.  Outside of the fantasy walled garden, contemporary literature has been full of it for decades - try some early Ian McEwan on for size, or Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece of scorched-Earth existential despair, Blood Meridian.  Orwell’s 1984.  Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms or American Psycho.  Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones.  Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting or Filth.  And nor is this solely a function or affectation of soi-disant Literary Fiction - crime writers have been mining a seam of increasingly explicit human depravity for decades too.  Try Val McDermid’s The Mermaid’s Singing, Mo Hayder’s Birdman or just about anything by James Ellroy.  See where it leads you.

The truth is that what the nose-holding contingent have chosen to designate (and denigrate) as grimdark is no more than the intrusion into the walled fantasy kingdom of a much more general lens now applied across pretty much the whole landscape of contemporary fiction - to wit, a willing engagement with the darker recesses of the human condition, a refusal to sugar-coat uncomfortable human truths, and a clearer all-round vision of who we actually are as recently evolved violent apes.  Now, that’s not a dynamic that’s going to go back in the box.  It’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s a solid developmental aspect of the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and it is here to stay.  Asking whether we’ve reached “peak grit” in fantasy is rather like the inhabitants of a sleepy little village just off a major motorway junction wondering wistfully if we’ve reached “peak car”.  It’s like positing a coming tide of disenchantment with mobile phone technology.  It’s wilfully blinkered and it’s inane.  There is no going back.  Deal with it.

None of which is to say, of course, that this heralds the death of the more cheery, bucolic forms of fantasy.  Inherently noble farm boys or plucky tomboy princesses who defeat evil hordes and rise to rule (paternally benevolent, natch) kingdoms and empires are never going out of fashion.  There’s a huge market for that shit, and probably always has been.  Ditto inherently noble trainee adolescent mages or dragon-riders who acquire mastery of their craft, throw down their (inherently evil) enemies and triumph without ever abusing their colossal power or lording it over those below them in the hierarchy - well, except maybe for that One Time they did it but were then Ashamed, learnt Character-Forming Lessons from it, and Vowed thereafter always to Use their Powers for Good.  This stuff shifts by the metric tonne, and I imagine it always will.  It’s important to realise that very large numbers of the people who read fantasy are reading it specifically to escape from the darker and more uncomfortable human truths you see encroaching elsewhere in fiction.  (Which is perfectly fine - it is entertainment after all; you pays your money, you takes your choice.)  So you can sort of understand that when that same darker approach comes battering at the door of these readers’ chosen refuge, yes, they might well get twitchy and start making ridiculous straw man statements about gratuitous gore and torture, unrealistic misogyny and the death of nobility and hope.

But such complaints are at best disingenuous, at worst colossally dishonest.  To start with, where is it written that you have to tell stories of nobility and hope?  For that matter, what is nobility?  Beating seven shades of shit out of a horde of opponents on the battlefield (with all the actual blood and screams and pleading tastefully edited out) and then putting on a crown?  Is that noble?  Blowing up an entire planet-sized space station of people who happen to have chosen - or more likely have just ended up stuck on - the opposing side to you in a galactic war?  Butchering a huge intelligent reptile who was, until you disturbed it, dozing rather peacefully in a hole in the ground and not bothering anyone?  What kind of hope is it, exactly, that we’re selling here?  The hope that we can slaughter them before they can slaughter us?  The hope that our brand of faith or politics can kick the living shit out of anybody else’s?  The hope that I’m a bigger, tougher motherfucker with a blade or a spell than anyone else in this neck of the woods?

See how it works?

Epic fantasy is habitually set in worlds where men (and sometime women) resolve their differences with sharpened steel and blunt instruments or violent magic or both.  Might makes Right (even if there’s some feeble pretence that the finally triumphant Might is only really mighty because it was already, in some intrinsic way, Right).  Combat violence is usually central to the narrative, either at an individual level or in full-dress battles or both.  There’s an unclean rush to all of this, of course, a sense of power and excitement accorded the protagonist which more civilised contexts would not afford; a sense of living on an edge we thrill to as readers but would run screaming from if we ever found ourselves even remotely close to it in real life.  No-one writes an epic fantasy about the guy who spends his whole life peacefully ploughing and planting a field, feeding and raising a family, living and growing old and dying as a farmer, and handing his farm on to his children in his old age.  We don’t want that from our fantasy, because in fact it isn’t fantasy.  Too dull, too workaday - save it for the LitFic crowd.  What we want is that unclean rush of steel in hand (or spell in mouth) and good, old-school power to command.  We want the violent ride.

Faced with this as a writer, you have a choice - you can elide the brutal violence and human suffering inherent in the context, keep it all PG and sanitised and shit, pandering to the desire for the rush, but rinsing out the unclean violent-ape bases the rush is built on.  Or you can examine the human logic of the context and make an honest stab at telling a story that’s true to what that context implies.  You can deliver the desired rush, but you keep it unclean.  You make the reader pay for their dirty pleasures, you make them accept the price.  Face and kill a man in combat with sharpened steel?  Sure - but what’s that really going to be like?  Let’s have a look at the wounds and the screams and the blood, shall we?  Command thousands in battle and take the throne.  Sure - now let’s dolly in for a close-up on the human cost of that battle, the social devastation, the trauma, the remorseless hunting down and expedient disposal of inconveniently surviving opponents.  Torture, murder, exemplary execution, more than likely a bit of judicious infanticide just to be sure.  Live in a world where these things are the norm?  Right - let’s consider what underlying social and cultural realities that implies.  Let’s take on board the stifling hierarchical oppression, the inherent corruption and casual day-to-day brutality, the poverty and ignorance and generational slavery and serfdom - oh, and let’s not forget the soul-crushing, ever-pervasive misogyny.

This last, I think, deserves a special mention.  Much has been made of the misogyny inherent in so-called grimdark fiction - as if misogyny were some rare and perverse dysfunction in human behaviour, and grimdark responsible for unfairly amplifying the extent to which said dysfunction emerges in the real world.  But a quick glance around that real world right now would be sufficient to dispel any such illusion - misogyny is globally rife.  Misogyny crushes millions upon millions of women the world over.  Misogyny defines entire fucking cultures at the most basic level.  And that’s right now, with all our much-vaunted civilisational advances in place. Pull the plug on even a century or two of those advances, wind back the historical clock to the kind of eras epic fantasy habitually apes in its trappings and contexts, and the weight of misery imposed on women grows ever more horrific.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say from the evidence that, far from any dysfunction, misogyny appears to be an entirely functional natural aspect of human evolution and culture, an integral part of our violent ape heritage - just like xenophobia, genocide, slavery, and war.  No surprises, then, that it - along with all those other delightful human pastimes - should crop up so solidly in fiction which deals with periods of violent upheaval in pre-modern social and political settings.

If the last century and a half of human experience and scientific advance has shown us anything at all, it is this - we are not who we would like to believe we are. I’d argue further that good modern fiction takes this on board and tries to do something with it - other, that is, than hide it under the nearest richly embroidered cushion.  In most areas of literary endeavour, the attempt to confront that kind of human truth rather than run away from it is usually hailed as a sign of merit, a measure of literary worth.  And people who aren’t much in the mood for such confrontations - say, for example, the “cosy crime” contingent of the crime readership - seem content to simply say yeah, well, fine, but it’s not really for me, it’s just not my thing, and to move cheerfully along the shelf, avoiding that particular kind of entertainment in favour of something softer and more consolatory that better lights their fire.

Only in the walled-off garden kingdom of fantasy does confrontation with unpleasant human truths seem to be regarded as a regrettable aberration, and to engender a violent, repeatedly spasming immune-system response.

Mark Lawrence

For there to be an after there needs to have been a before and during. As fantasy writers we deal in myth and imagination, and we seem to have found ourselves embroiled in our very own  myth. The harshest opponents of "grimdark" decry the terrible violence and hopeless nihilism ... and yet seem unable to actually point at any book demonstrating their point. Like the bogeyman, we're sure he's out there, but shine a light on any particular corner and we come up empty.

The term "grimdark" is the everlasting Fox News terror threat that tries to make us 'behave' and tow the line.

The term "grimdark" is used like the fear of crime is used (flagrantly ignoring the solid facts of declining crime statistics) to scare us back indoors. The most common reaction I see when someone reads my work is surprise - 'I thought these books were supposed to be dark?', 'I didn't even notice that scene upon which so much blogger vitriol has been poured ... seriously? it was that one short paragraph? those three lines?'

That's the during.

The before is equally mythical. Violence in fiction is as old as fiction and far older than the idea of writing it down. The books labelled grimdark do not appear to have upped the ante except perhaps if you myopically limit your view to a collection of books in the 80s ... which is rather like being at sea, looking across to the nearest wave crest and declaring the dip you're in to be the lowest point on the entire ocean.

Much of the narrative about the genre is dictated by bloggers who, as is their nature, have read very large numbers of fantasy books and interact with many others with similar experience. Many of them go to conventions, have a great number of discussions of the sort we're having here, and form notions and theories about the nature and direction of 'the genre'.

Frequently I'll read how X grew out of Y, how A was influenced by B, how P is aping Q. The idea that each new dark fantasy book is the work of an author who has read the 'opposition' and is set on outdoing them is one I often see. The idea that grit/grimdark is an arms race is commonly forwarded, along with the sneering certainty that subtlety, nuance, subtext, and characterisation are the first casualties of such a war.

This mindset, this narrative, runs counter to my own experience as an author though.

Before my first trilogy was written I had heard of 0 out of the 6 authors contributing to this blogpost. Since getting into print I've read Scott Bakker's début and Teresa Frohock's.

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen someone say 'Lawrence was influenced by / copied Abercrombie'. But we wrote our débuts at the same time and neither of us has read the other's work.

I haven't read Glen Cook, I haven't read Steven Erikson, I haven't read Brandon Sanderson. Until last year I hadn't read Lynch or Rothfuss. Before I was published I hadn't read Hobb. The only influence I can cite in Prince of Thorns is a general one from George RR Martin and a direct one from Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, 1962).

My point is - that bloggers talk in terms of movements, flows, influence etc because they read a lot of books and talk a lot about these things. They very often assume authors are basically book bloggers who write, and thus operate just as bloggers might imagine.

My experience indicates (though is obviously far too small a sample to prove) that authors are far more focused on their own imagination and stories - they're not trying to follow movements or drifting in currents or trying to up the ante on the next - they're pursuing their own paths, largely independent of what's going on around them.

Yes, which authors publishers choose to put into print is a choice that may well owe much to ideas of trends and success. But if I go fishing to catch an orange fish because orange fish have been selling well at market ... it doesn't mean that fish chose to be orange as a sales strategy.

So "after grimdark"? A hard question to answer because it's largely meaningless, but whatever comes next it's more likely to be because of what stories publishers and the public choose to follow from the great ocean of writing that's out there, rather than what writers choose to follow - they will, no doubt, continue to follow their muse and hope someone likes it.

As a final note - I'm always surprised to see someone claim A is try to 'out-grim' B as if raw gore and horror are a goal or mark of success, as if it's a competition. I've never considered my work particularly dark. I could go darker in a heartbeat. MUCH darker. I just don't want to - I wouldn't enjoy it - writing it would make me sad - the stories I want to tell don't go there.

(with apologies to Brian McClellan)


  1. Thanks for this, Mark.

  2. "Promise of Joylight" sounds like a ripping good read, personally.

    More seriously, this was a very cool conversation/panel/whatever to get to see. As the fellow above said, "Thanks, Mark."

  3. This is hilarious, I really enjoyed reading it, thanks dear authors. Grimdark is love, grimdark is life. ;)

  4. This was such an awesome read. Thanks Mark.

    Even when "grimdark" goes out of mainstream fashion I will still read/look for these stories. I love the fact they are dark, gritty, brutal, realistic etc... any book/author that falls under the "grimdark" banner to my mind is writing honest fantasy stories that I know will appeal to me. Yes they are harsh and upsetting, so is life and I like my fantasy to include that.
    The fact that The Broken Empire, namely Prince of Thorns was getting people upset and outraged and making them rage-quit and leave one star reviews were the main reasons I bought a copy also the blurb and blog post by Peter V Brett was the other reason.
    Long live "Grimdark" fantasy!

  5. Most of it TL;DR
    Read yours, though.
    Thanks for that. You pretty much nailed it :)