Friday 2 August 2019

Who's Angry About Grimdark?

First I should note that I don't really have a dog in this race. I've written 9 books since the last one I wrote that qualifies as grimdark.

Check this crowd sourced ranking of popular books by grimdark score:

(click for detail)

My most recent books are less grimdark than N.K Jemisin's debut and barely more grimdark than David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy. So while folks may accuse me of being defensive on the topic, really it's simple curiosity.

I've noticed recently a spate of internet condemnation not only of the "evils" of grimdark but of the arrogance of its readers who apparently look down on other fantasy, somehow claiming an intellectual high ground.

This seems bizarre to me on many levels and other than possibly the imminence of a new book by Joe Abercrombie I'm at a loss to explain the timing. It's almost as if a small group of agitators are stalking among the cyber crowd comic-book style, rattling pitchforks here, raising a cry of "they're after your jobs/significant others/livestock" there. Have Russian bots decided to foment a new round of grimdark wars? 😀

The truth is that grimdark fantasy never occupied a large portion of fantasy book sales, and what small percentage it held ten years ago has been steadily eroding. It's been a long time since a book widely accepted as grimdark has sold more than a few thousand copies, while the big hitters in fantasy are selling hundreds of thousands and even millions per book. Really, I would be very surprised if grimdark fantasy books accounted for more than 1% of all fantasy book sales today, and I doubt it was more than 5% a decade ago.

And yet you still hear - and far more often in the month just gone - posters on forums lamenting that their favourite fantasy has been pushed off the shelves by those terrible torture-porn books. You still hear them trying to 'other' grimdark readers in an attempt to create some sort of enemy/whipping boy. These arrogant grimdark readers are looking down their noses at you, fellow forum dwellers, they think our books are intellectually lacking because of … optimism.

At times it feels like an organised witch hunt by a group seeking to leverage the flamewar they're hoping to create in order to promote the even tinier subgenre invented a couple of years ago supposedly to "fight back" against grimdark.

The thing is that the vast majority of readers who read grimdark books also read a vast amount of other fantasy. And that's hardly the action of readers who sneer at all but the topmost novels on my grimdark chart.

So to conclude: Grimdark is not, and never has been, crowding any type of fantasy off the shelves. It was only ever a small presence and has been in steady decline. It's readers are omnivorous and not some kind of sect that disdain your favourite genre. And although from time to time some pundit wanting to bang a gong about moralist reading or to promote some other flavour of books sets up a fictitious grimmer-that-thou book to rail against, the novels they're describing in such cases don't actually exist.

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  1. The bottom line is that there's room enough for every type of sub genre under the gigantic Fantasy tent. I feel like as readers we really are experiencing an embarrassment of riches with the multitude of great authors writing outstanding and diverse books. I enjoy Grimdark a lot, but that doesn't mean I'm not also a fan of High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Military Fantasy etc.... Why does it have to be a zero sum game? We should all be able to read what whatever we like and allow others to do the same without ridicule.

  2. It's probably just people that see all modern fantasy as "immoral" "nihilistic" and "communist propaganda" and whatever, and not like the good old stuff from the 1920s - 30s (that's the trend I've seen) but they conveniently forget that pretty much everything, including how people view the genre, happened well after it fell prey to sjws and whatnot.

  3. "Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods." That's the quote that got it started, a "genre" (?) defining quote. The grim dark future in there is only war, a not-so positive future vision, not quite Star Trek Federation style. This is a quote from the intro of most Warhammer 40K novels, SciFi mixed with religion and Greek God style beings and interestingly not the "Classic" Warhammer Fantasy intro. It makes me wonder roughly at which point a book becomes "grimdark". I can only speak for myself, but believe other readers also rather want to read cool, inspiring books with great characters and story, interesting worlds to explore and dive in. Reducing this to "must have torture and really bad things must happen" and an overall dark and bleak scenario as the most important qualifier, even genre-defining, seriously? Well, if we take Star Trek as example and compare TNG and DS9, many found that the Federation at war as a longish story arc was already a change of tone compared to TNG and its more self contained episodes of exploring the universe. The vile Borg nevertheless got created in TNG and not DS9. I think fantasy/scifi is exploring indeed more darker topics today than in decades past. I am thinking of "The Deed of Paksenarrion", now that's a shining and well-written Paladin if there was ever one. Nowadays authors tend to explore the darker sides of their characters as well. Sometimes indeed to the point where the focus is on negative and dark sides. Richard K. Morgan comes to mind, "A Land Fit for Heroes" is very often quite cynical. As are your characters at time, but Jalan Kendeth was not nearly as grim as Jorg. Rather grim things happened to him nevertheless as well. I think nowadays readers and authors aren't as touchy to sugarcoat it when bad things happen. Books even contain words nowadays with "f" and so on that had to be avoided ages ago. Ah well... so we live indeed in grim, dark times, apparently. Literature is often following the spirit of the time period. Food for thought. "Grimdark" isn't what makes me read "grimdark" novels. So much about that.

  4. Hi. I wonder if the timing may be related in part to the mixed reception to the latest Game of Thrones series. Game of Thrones has had a huge effect on the fantasy market over the last decade in particular. Many fans of both the books and the TV series have ended up feeling dispirited, which may well have had led to a reaction against 'darker' fantasy as a whole.

  5. I think some of the issue my be that people dont really know what grim dark is. It is really poorly defined.

    When i was young and into my teens, i devoured R.A Salvatore, Terry Brooks and the like; as I got into my mid teens I outgrew that type of fantasy. I couldn't really read fantasy until 1998 when I stumbled across GRRM Game of Thrones as a 20 year old. After reading that, i thought "wow!" Fantasy can be written for adults. It was a game changer, but it was labeled as grim dark. After this i read the first law trilogy and loved it. Also labeled grim dark. So, I figured I must like grim dark novels.

    After analyzing this chart though (and a lot more reading), I think its more appropriate to say that i like varying degrees of grim dark. I could not finish the first two books on the chart. They were too much for me. The only reason I finished the broken empire series was because my wife reccomended it to me and the fact that Mark's character writing was great. But, I had never before followed a protagonist that I detested so much. In fact, I held off on the Prince of Fools series for several months due to that. But, when i finally did read the trilogy, I absolutely loved it! It had the same great character writing, but with a highly flawed, yet still likable protagonist.

    Looking at this chart, it seems rather than saying I like grim dark that i should state that i like my grim darkness to run from a 2.85 to a max of 4.11. I like the grittiness of the genre, but i refuse to believe that every person (or even the vast majority) is completely shitty without hope of redemption.

    As to the timing, I think the HBO verison of got has something to do with it, and the fact that readers reading pace is infinitely faster than their favorite author's writing pace. So, people are going back and reading works in other sub genres. Then when they dont necessarily like it, they blame it for their favorites (seemingly) to fall from the charts (i havent really heard this argument though).