The Value of Grit
It’s been way too long since I have driven up my page hits with some self-important splurge of ill-considered waffle, which leaves me wondering why the hell I even have a blog. Let us end this lamentable situation right now.
I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook. I’m going to be vague about who I mean that I may properly remove all nuance from their arguments and construct a total straw man, of course. This is the internet, after all, I wouldn’t want facts or charitable interpretations to get in the way of my pontificating. But I think we can accept that some people think things have got too gritty. Or maybe gritty in the wrong way. Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’
Of course there have always been those who’d rather not have explicit sex, violence, or swearing in their books, and express that as an entirely reasonable matter of taste. But there are others who go well beyond taste, and identify grit as something objectively dangerous, wrong, or reprehensible. My observation of this tendency goes right back to that classic Leo Grin article a couple of years ago. Leo wanted the mythic wellspring of his fantasy kept pure, simple, and heroic. Fantasy morality tales, you might say. Others are less evangelical, but there’s a tendency to see grit as skeevy. As by default an appeal to the lowest common denominator. As wallowing in low-grade moral slime like a pig in filth for no better reason that the amusement of neanderthal idiots. We idiots, of course, need and deserve amusement as much as anyone else, if not more, and I’m happy to fill that need, but such criticisms ignore what grit has to offer to all kinds of other readers and, I would argue, entirely miss why it has become so popular of late.
Now before anyone makes a straw man out of me, let me say that this is not intended as some kind of manifesto. I don’t think everything has to be gritty by any means, in fact there’s a degree to which grit loses its power the more of it there is. Every writer has to find their own style, their own way to be truthful. And with great grit comes great responsibility. It’s easy in an earnest desire to be truthful, or perhaps a less earnest desire to bludgeon the reader with the amazing dirty grim gritty grim depths of which you are capable, to ride roughshod on your spiky horse over rightly sensitive issues. To cause offence through crap writing. Maybe to a degree that’s inevitable. Removing all crap writing from a given book is a herculean challenge. But I believe the role of a writer is not to avoid offence. Just to think carefully afterwards and reflect on how you might do better next time. To be assessing criticism and constantly striving to become that little bit less crap. But you’ve also sometimes got to laugh in the face of criticism. Because the role of the writer is also to throw caution to the wind and write the most honest and heartfelt books you can. Better to have a book that many readers love and some find revolting than a book that no one reads at all. Far, far better. Gritty is one tool in the writer’s arsenal, and it’s one I personally like to use. In discussing gritty, I’m going to be a little gritty. Possibly even grimdark. But if you really don’t like that shit, why are you even here?
Realism, people. Lots of those who praise gritty writing talk about its realism. Lots of people who criticise it assert there’s nothing realistic about splatter and crushing cynicism. You’re both right! Realism is an interesting concept in fantasy. If we were aiming at the uncompromisingly real we probably wouldn’t be writing in made up worlds with forces that don’t actually exist. So things are often exaggerated for effect, twisted, larger than life. But we can still aim at something that approximates real life in all kinds of different ways. Where the people and their behaviour and the outcomes of their actions are believable. Real life is surprising, and unpredictable. Traditional fantasy is often the reverse. You know how to spot a certain type of character, and when you spot him/her you’ve a pretty good notion where their story is going to go. Grit attempts to shake up that relationship, to throw curveballs. Critics might say that grit is so prevalent we now can be sure our hero will be eating babies by the end of the prologue, but I actually don’t believe that. I think the palette of epic fantasy has grown broader over the last few years as a result of the movement to gritty. And I do think there is a correlation between dirt both moral and physical and realism. Cities before the coming of modern sanitation were pretty ripe and unhealthy places. People who walk hundreds of miles ill equipped can get suppurating chafe-sores in their arse-cracks. Glittering heroes often do have filthy skeletons in their closets. Grit can give the reader the sense that they are dealing with something true. Something honest. Is it the only route to verisimilitude? No. But it’s an entirely valid one.
And grit isn’t just about realism. It bleeds into, and is associated with, all kinds of other features of writing that I think can be desirable when properly deployed. Let me count the ways…
1. Tight focus on character. There was a time when epic fantasy seemed to spend a whole lot of time on setting. It was about the maps, monsters and magic systems. The authorial voice hovered above the characters at some remove in a third person omniscient kind of way, occasionally dipping into their thoughts for a heroic aside. These days a lot of writers choose to get closer, to write in tight point of view, to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be those people and how they see the world. And extreme people in extreme situations may well think, feel, and observe some pretty extreme stuff. I’d argue it’s very hard to write a convincing, immersive combat scene in tight point of view without including those details of blood, pain, fear, and horror that by definition take it into the arena of gritty. You don’t have to be an actual mass murderer yourself to realise that real violence is painful, dirty and deeply unpleasant, with sudden and explosive lasting physical and psychological damage stripped of all romance. Violence, related truthfully in tight point of view, is gritty. Of course you could find your drama elsewhere. In commerce, in conversation, in romance. But epic fantasy is about war, is about battle, is about violence and people who inflict and suffer it. These are live and pressing topics which people want to read about. And if you’re going to cover those topics, gritty is a totally valid choice. I will stop short of saying the only valid choice. But it’s a good one, especially in a world with…
2. Moral ambiguity. Perhaps in the aftermath of Word War II and the midst of the Cold War, good sides and bad sides seemed to make better instinctive sense. The modern world, with its 24 hour coverage of every point of view, seems like a much murkier place, at least to me. Perhaps we no longer accept the idea that people can be totally good or totally evil. At least we begin to suspect that they’re often not. That sometimes we’re dealing more with the greater good and the necessary evil. That the exercise of power requires compromises with the dark side, and high motives rarely entirely survive contact with reality. That everyone thinks they’re good, and that good people in bad corners might have to do bad things. Some of us want to read about such characters. We may not want every character in every book to be a morally grey irredeemable torturing tortured fuckwad. But some shades of grey, or even black, in some parts of a genre is a healthy thing. The bad things our good people have to do? They’re gritty. The good motives the bad people have in order to make them at all believable? You know what, they’re gritty too. When the whole thing becomes such a moral jumble that it’s really difficult any longer to tell which are the bad or good guys? That’s really gritty. I also believe it to be truthful, in its way. In real life you don’t have orcs that you can conveniently tell are going to be evil by looking at their spiky armour and can therefore in good conscience slaughter without mercy. You have differing groups of people with their infinitely complex individual needs and conflicting desires. Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world? That’s only…
3. Honesty. People crap. People swear. People get ill. People die in a way that serves no narrative. People get drunk and take drugs. People do and think and say vile things. People are horrible to each other. Really horrible. These things have ever been true. Do we need to read about all that? Not necessarily. But in a book that tries to get inside the heads of characters facing their dooms and present them as cogent and coherent people, I don’t see why these things shouldn’t be looked at. They’re part of life and hence fair game for investigation and reproduction by a writer. The fact is, though we fight hard to live well and enjoy ourselves…
4. Sometimes life really is that shit. Forget historical accuracy. The truth is fantasy is rarely about the world as it was. That’s what historical fiction is for. It’s a reaction to the fantasy that’s come before. Gritty fantasy is a reaction to and a counterbalancing of a style of fantasy in which life is clean, meaningful, and straightforward, and the coming of the promised king really does solve all social problems, and there are often magical solutions to the horrors – like death, illness, and crippling wounds – that plague us in the real world. Good fantasy does not have to gaze wistfully over its shoulder at an imagined past, it can cast its uncompromising eye on the now…
5. Modernity. Verily mine leige-lord but twas a time in ages of olde when a fearsome tranche of ye genre did aim upon an moste horrible approximationne of faux cod-medievalism in both language and dialogue. Hey nonny nonny! Let me state right now that unless you do it amazingly well I really hate that shit. It may very well be that you’re aiming at creating a sort of medieval analogue, but we’re not writing in middle english, and even if our characters are from then, our readers are from now. Every writer is going to find their own route to verisimilitude as I keep saying in order to unconvincingly cover my ass, but for me the only language that’s entirely truthful from an author of today is the language of today. In a book about action and adventure I want to feel that pace and drive and edge that you get from unashamedly modern prose, I want to feel that…
6. Shock Value. A quick kick in the nuts. A splash of cold water. The unexpected, the gob-smacking, the cringe-inducing. The reader is snatched from their complacent stupor like a fish from the pond, perhaps while they gasp on the bank made to consider their own expectations and preferences. Some readers want to be swaddled in the fluffy blanket of the familiar, good for them, but they can find something else to read. Now, clearly things are much more shocking when you’re not used to them. The death of a certain main character in Game of Thrones blew my mind when I first read it. Now central character death is de rigeur. Moral ambiguity, gore and filth are common coin in fantasy to a degree, certainly they’re not nearly as surprising as they were. But a well executed scene can still have mighty punch. And hey, as expectations change, you can change it up. The vile mercenary … saves a bunch of school kids. Grit allows you more shock value because…
7. Range. In the end, ‘teh gritty’ is another tool in the toolbox. Grit is an inclusion. Not grit is an absence. Nothing to prevent gritty books including the ennobling, the clean, the beautiful. Indeed, I’d argue 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. Clean books deny themselves a chunk of the physical and emotional spectrum. Not to mention the wonderful, versatile and expressive word, ‘fuck’. And yeah, a lot of gritty dwells more in the dark half, perhaps, but often less than people tiringly bemoan, and no book exists in a vacuum, all books grow out of what has come before. A lot of gritty writing is about counterbalancing the heaps of clean, shiny, good guys win type stuff which dominated commercial fantasy throughout the 80s and 90s and is still, as far as I’m aware, being written very successfully and in large quantities.
‘But grit and depth are not the same!’ comes the bleat. ‘Cynicism isn’t grown up! There’s nothing clever about fart gags!’ It goes almost without saying that gritty writing at its worst is silly and superficial, just as tediously heroic and mannered writing at its worst is silly and superficial. Guess what? A lot of writing is silly and superficial, though obviously not mine. At all. But the dividing line between what is righteous and worthwhile, and what is wrongful and gratuitous, is so fuzzy as to be a blur, and will be in a totally different place, or indeed set of places, for every author and every reader. Often people have limitless capacity for savage ultraviolence but find a consensual sex scene, or indeed someone having a wee, just a bit too edgy for their sensibilities. One person’s disgracefully titillating torture porn can be another’s searing examination of how far one might go to get the truth. One person’s foul profanity is another’s hilarious and realistic dialogue. One person’s perverse and unnecessary sex scene is another’s honest and necessary investigation of the full range of the characters and their relationships. One person’s disheartening pessimism that threatens the heart of western civilisation is another’s thought provoking deconstruction of conventions. No doubt there were, and probably are, enthusiasts for the western that found Fistful of Dollars a purposeless and disgusting debasement of their genre. To me it’s a necessary, valid, and entirely natural development and investigation of it, a step in pushing things forward to new and interesting places. If a movement is worthless, it will quickly dry up. If a movement is valuable, it will influence what comes after. This is why I always raise an urbane eyebrow when people go beyond declaring something bad, and into the arena of proclaiming it wrong.
And the fact is, for those who don’t like it, one has to smile, shrug and say – Tough Grit. There have always been rich seams of darkness, cynicism, savagery and moral ambiguity in fantasy, but this stuff is in the commercial heart of the genre now, and at the core of many of those examples that are spilling out into the mainstream. There are an awful lot of readers who love it, who find it has reinvigorated their interest in a tired genre, and the genie won’t go back in the bottle. I would say sorry, but I’m not. George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, surely the gold standard of gritty epic fantasy, is also rapidly becoming the most successful epic fantasy of this era, and he its definitive living writer. There are still plenty of writers and publishers very successfully putting out more traditional stuff if you really need another righteous hero endlessly prevailing against the odds. In due course I don’t doubt the pendulum will swing back at least some of the way towards romantic and heroic. It’ll just take one great, interesting, exciting book to do it and I look forward to reading it. Who knows, I might even try to write it. But for the moment most of the debuts, most of the things that are really generating excitement, are more or less gritty. In this, fantasy is simply starting to catch up with what’s been going on in TV for some time now, and where written westerns and thrillers have been for years.
So, yeah, shitty gritty books are no better than shitty shiny books. But I proudly and unapologetically assert that there’s a great deal more to grit than a capacity to shock and titillate. Although I must equally proudly and unapologetically assert that I do sometimes quite enjoy being shocked and titillated.
Whatever could be wrong with that, vicar?
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