The Value of Grit

February 25th, 2013

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?

Posted in opinion by Joe Abercrombie on February 25th, 2013.

146 comments so far

  • Steve K. says:

    Well stated, Joe. Moral ambiguity is honesty. If everyone rolled a lawful good character, the game wouldn’t progress very far.

  • Soteris says:

    Okay, I love shocking, gritty, grimdark? books. In other words, I thoroughly enjoy reading the books you write. I suspect there’s a few people who enjoy reading your books hence the fact you seem to be able to make a living out of it.
    Looking forward to the next cold, hard slap in the face book you write.

  • Joe G says:

    Well put Joe. I think readers tastes have evolved. There been far too many novels ( as much as I love them all) where the hero’s triumph over adversity with minimal effort and lots of love and happiness along the way. Realism is surprisingly essential to fantasy books because although you take people to a different place, they need something to relate to.

    If you look at the top sellers nowadays, its the gritty books that are getting there. Your own books, A Saga of Fire and Ice and dare i mention the rubbish known as 50 Shades of Grey. All had some examples of a shocking aspect to it which made people want to read more. It still only applies to the more adult readers as most youngster are pretty happy with HP or twilight and its lovey dovey storylines. They will learn however and your books will be there to educate them on the value of realism, honesty and how to torture correctly.

  • Thile says:

    I like the direction that fantasy has gone, to me, it is more plausible (in lieu of realistic) and basically I am not a teenage reader as I was when fantasy was booming, I suppose. I suppose to those looking for literachure it is not acceptable. Fuck em.

    “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.”

    This would shock the world more than anything else ever!

  • innokenti says:

    I find it mildly disturbing that there seem to be quite a few people who are actively putting forward that the gritty stuff is wrong. And bad for us. Just seems… odd.

    Actually, when I think about it, it isn’t particularly. But still. Silly people. Good to have a discussion about it though.

    Mind you, I’d love to see your treatment of clean heroic fantasy. I am sure you could make it an interesting and well-crafted tale of excitement.

  • Vegard Stokke says:

    Hero eating baby. I can see the headlines now.

  • James says:

    One of the reasons I like ‘teh grit’ (sic) is that it often goes hand in hand with unpredictability. Life is unpredictable. Predictability is dull. The noble king rides to the rescue, and frees the princess, defeats evil, yadadada and they all live…ooh, hang on – he’s been killed by a wayward arrow and evil and darkness descends on all.

    That’s much more interesting, really. So grittiness for me is a useful way of making plots far less obvious. The bottom line as Joe points out is ‘is it well written and enjoyable to read’. Anything that’s patently predictable struggles more – it is possible mind – to be enjoyable to read, certainly for me.

    Grittiness gives more chance of a ‘wow, cool’ factor. One of my favourites moments was in a TV show – when Gan died in Blake’s 7. A lead character dying…no way? I certainly didn’t see that coming and it reinforced those gritty credentials that made it such an interesting show.

    (Whaddya mean we’re talking about books??)

  • Mus says:

    Interesting discussion Joe. I have all your books and like the level of grimness you have set. I do also however appreciate well rounded characters some of which might actually try to do the right thing, and even succeed from time to time, rather than a simply having a cast o’bastards who’s only joy in life it crushing all around them through the use of boot and broadsword. Which is why I like your characters such as like Logen and Jezal, on occasion they do try to do the right thing, even if normally it leads to grim failure. So erm…keep up the good work I guess!

  • Luke says:

    And that, along with the way you write it, is why I love your books. Keep giving me the non shitty gritty grimdark evil and not so evil twisted machinations of your imagination. Please.

  • Kreso says:

    I’ll never forget how my perception of fantasy worlds was changed when GRRM killed off Ned Stark.

    All of a sudden, everyone knew that the best way for fantasy to grow and perhaps even become mainstream was to make realistic events and characters in a fantasy world.

    Regardless if everyone agrees that GRRM started it or not, I’m glad writers like Joe, Scott Lynch, even Bakker and Eriksson (much more fantasy, but people still suffer consequences for bad decisions etc.) continued its growth.
    I’m glad that certain games are going in a more realistic and adult direction (DA:Origins, Witcher series, Dark Souls, Skyrim… All feel like deep games made for adults, not childish like DA2).

    Point is, fantasy shouldn’t mean child stories and good vs evil etc.
    Realism of events and characters is what makes the “gritty” fantasy so much more enjoyable than the old stuff.

  • Robin says:

    People are going to think something is wrong with whatever any artist does. That’s why it’s art and not math.

    For the curious, I believe the genesis of the word grimdark is from the Warhammer 40,000 tagline: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
    People use it to describe how “warhammery” something is. i.e. “This is too sci-fi and not enough grimdark”.

  • Hillsy says:

    As someone who’s enjoyed immensly both the first law books and the more traditional, clean cut fare of the Wheel of Time – I kind of have my own observation on why this seemingly unneccesary backlash against grit occurs.

    I think there’s a worthwhile point around tropes, cliches, and expectation. The heroic fantasy having become so prevelant decades ago, forged it’s own tropes, parodied them, post-modernised them, and has settle into a place where it is comfortable within itself, warts and all.

    ‘Grimdark’ fantasy comes along and is a dark reflection of what exists already in heroic, to some extent. However, as the character curves are often tragedies, or in some cases completely futile (through struggle they return to who they were at the beginning), they will likely take the inverted form of what is an already established trope of the Heroic side.

    And here’s where the screaming comes – “Leave it alone! Don’t twist it! It’s ours and it’s precious!”. They think ‘grimdark’ is some form of ugly post-modernism that is staining what they thought was good – a black parody where everything ends up shit and broken. Grimdark is an canker that’s growing out of Heoric, trying to gain self sufficience.

    I think what is missed it that ‘Grimdark’ is actually a completely self-contained genre that happens to have a similar form to heroic. However, it’s in its hot, energetic stages of formation and as such it’s still going through the process of forming it’s own cliches and tropes.

    There are a lot, to be fair – but in time, just like heroic, they’ll bed down and relax, just as all other genre types have. And I think because ‘Grimdark’ is going through the phase of lauding it’s own tropes and they just, at the moment, happen to look like dark reflections of Heroic, people get defensive because they perceive a backward step towards something less….’evolved’ as a genre. Like a modern professor taken back to his crass youth and forced to become a drug-dealer instead.

    My point overall is that I think, at the moment, ‘Grimdark’ fantasy lacks a certain subtleness, and that offends some of the heroic conservatives. They want gritty fantasy to be immediately mature and aged, a fully-grown offshoot from Heroic. But ‘Grimdark’ isn’t a clone, it’s its own thing, and so it has to be crass and cliche’d at times in order to develop, as offensive as Heroic finds it….

    And no one wants to be reminded of how much of an arse they were as a teenager.

  • Dr.Gonzo says:

    I am happy that I found some more gritty writers during the last years. Fantasy was loosing more and more its worth for me after I read a lot of non fantasy stuff.
    But I know plenty of friends who are strongly against any kind of dark or gritty elements in fantasy or RPGs. Well I cant find any fun having the same popcorn story again and again but for them a novel should end with some shiny hero who successfully fought the dark good or a well known alternative of that clichee.

    Had the discussion once in my RPG round. One player is still quite problematic when it comes to hard decisions and their conseqences. Still I dont get it. Different tastes.

  • Sword1001 says:


    Good name for a cat.

  • Adam A. says:

    Is this really an issue? I don’t think it is. But if propping up a few detractors to Elvis your way into turning on new readers works, I’m 100% in favor of it. Controversy sells as well as praise; the best thrive on both. Which you could probably quote from Verturio or some such.

    And if someone really has an issue with the dark side of our beingness, it’s probably because they haven’t picked up any history books or turned on the news or have decided that those things are unimportant, contrasted with their view of how things should be. In which case, who gives a shit about what they have to say, anyway?

  • Buck says:

    Very well-stated, Mr. Abercrombie. I’m often confused at the go-to reaction of certain readers to things that shock or disgust them: “The author obviously put this here to titillate and arouse those sickos who enjoy this sort of thing! The author him/herself must also obviously enjoy this sort of thing! This garbage belongs in a sewer! (Yes, I flush my garbage down the toilet! What of it?)”

    It seems like a large segment of readers simply cannot understand the idea of writing anything discomfiting or morally objectionable by design, and so chaulk every such inclusion up to the idea that we’re supposed to find this stuff a good bit of fun at some level. I will probably never forget my reaction to the epilogue of R. Scott Bakker’s The Warrior Prophet, which featured a rape scene so twisted it stayed with me for days. I’ll probably not forget certain scenes in your books either, like the burning out of Caul Shivers’ eye. But I attribute such things to effective rather than ineffective writing – they do not indicate some kind of moral failure on your or Bakker’s part, but instead a kind of fearlessness and faith that the reader will follow you into terrain utterly unfamiliar to the consumer of most commercial art and imagery.

  • Aled says:

    I don’t want to write my own lengthy take on it all, just that I agree with most of what’s been said. I’d also add, for case of making the point, the ending of Last Argument of Kings was by no means a happy ending and probably the main reason I read the next three books..Because it made the entire series stand out more than any other fantasy series I’ve read/enjoyed before becoming an Abercrombian.

    Grit is what you make of it.

  • Eric Sean says:

    That was a bit long.

  • Chad says:

    I just want to feel like the stakes are real; the conflict is real. It’s easy to do the right thing, when you have nothing to lose. But if the hero winning is a foregone conclusion, then the book is uninteresting. Also, if a character is always going to succumb to his or her natural instincts, e.g., self-preservation, that becomes predictable and unbelievable too.

    I really like Logen for this reason. Fundamentally, I think he’s good, or trying to be good, but what that means in the world he operates in is hard to answer.

  • Slogra says:

    A great read – if you haven’t already, you should publish this or a similar article in an editorial somewhere. Writing it here is great too, but you’re naturally preaching to the choir.

    Another added note: I think grit is important because it shows HOW things go awry. Classic fantasy often has the Ultimate Evil in its purely evil state. How did it get there? A writer should convincingly demonstrate how the great wizard became an ally to the greatest evil ever known. Just as a quick example, why does the Balrog want to kill and destroy everything in Lord of the Rings? Besides being “evil”, of course. Someone please write the story about how the Balrog fell from grace. I would read that story.

    Grit gives us that bridge from good to fall from grace. Grit shows us how Walter White the high school teacher becomes the murderous meth dealer. And it does it convincingly. Show someone the last episode (when it comes out later this year) of Breaking Bad and it won’t explain why he’s so bad at all. Grit – and the rest of the show’s series – shows us how characters BREAK the barrier of bad.

    And it shows moral ambiguity, as you’ve stated. Character flaws create tension and get rid of the polished “Gandalf the White” persona. Grit shows us how they got those flaws in the first place. Why is Monza Murcatto such an evil bitch? By the end of Best Served Cold, we know exactly why… and we almost, almost sympathize with her.

    Grit is a lot of food for thought. Perhaps if grit were more prevalent in culture, things like Lance Armstrong’s bombshell wouldn’t seem so surprising.

  • Angie says:

    Adam A, I’ve definitely seen a lot of backlash against the “grimdark.” I used to be friends with someone known as “Requires Hate,” although we’ve drifted apart and I don’t tend to agree with much of what she has to say. I warn you, if you google her, be prepared to see her entirely miss the point as she rips apart stuff you like (including Abercrombie’s work, which IMHO she utterly fails to understand).

  • Magen says:

    I’m just glad you don’t let the critics change your style. There are plenty of cliche heroics out there, and I would just as soon study for an exam than read those. It’s the same drivel. They have no life or sustenance because they’ve been written over and over again. The predictable characters with the predictable endings. Meh.

    Keep up the grit. It’s what makes your characters stand out and I feel like it is why the reader can relate so much. I can literally read your books over and over and have yet to get tired of them. Hell I have pages falling out!

    You have a diehard fan here, and I won’t be going anywhere =) Oh and one more thing, sex is always good in a book. Heheee!

  • John Russel Scales says:

    As a reader of many genres & enjoyer of many styles, I’m less interested in labels than in how ‘true’ the work & world strike me. 

    Maybe you’ll write a book & it won’t have the elements that make it ‘grimdark’. Maybe because you have a story to tell & it doesn’t come out in that style. I doubt very much I’d put it down at the end & say ‘great story, great characters – but it just isn’t dark enough, so I don’t like it’. 
    Or maybe your wife will throw you out & then we’ll get a book that takes grim to a whole new level. 

    The natural tendency to categorize, label or define art or artists is almost never helpful. 

    The only danger – if you can even call it that – is over-labeling. I only like one kind of story – good ones. So far, that’s the only kind you write. 

  • Doug says:

    “Clean books deny themselves a chunk of the physical and emotional spectrum. Not to mention the wonderful, versatile and expressive word, ‘fuck’. ” It was worth reading if for this golden nugget alone.

  • Monty says:

    Good rants.

    “Gritty” is good adult fantasy. It isn’t for everyone, and knowing when to use it and when to leave a little mysticism in is a good thing. I think it is the future for targeting an audience (like myself) outgrowing the campy black and white, good and evil tropes of our youth.

    I’ve grown up on fantasy. From reading the Hobbit from an early 1970’s copy with my mom at age 5, I progressed.

    The Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms kind of stuff, I appreciate for what it did; honing my tastes for playing AD&D. But as is said: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child
    : but when I became a man, I put away childish things”

    Hence, good old Dragons of Autumn Twilight was relegated to the storage box in the garage.

    Glenn Cook bridges this gap between grit and high fantasy with the Black Company series. I enjoy it, but something is just…weird…about it.

    I do enjoy some kinds of high fantasy still. I find the works of Guy Gavriel Kay particularly appealing for this; the purity of emotion projected in his writing is great. It makes his characters very endearing. Part of why I find him palatable is that magic and divinity is something rare and mystical, a springtime flower in the middle of a blizzard. It adds to the story, but there is no deus ex machina effect. That is what I have grown to really hate: There’s a plot hole a mile wide, and it’s fixed with FM. (Fkn Magic)

    If you’ve read any of his works, I’d be interested to know what you think. (question posed to any and all)

  • Michela says:

    Well said, Joe!

  • Liam says:

    @Angie: I think that by saying Requires Hate doesn’t “get” the GrimDark genre is to commit the same crime she is. At its heart, this is just a disagreement over taste. I’d rather read about honest heroes, with scars and warts and closets full of skeletons, than sparkly fantasy heroes and heroines who commit-no-evil and always slay the bad guy.

    But I can also accept that not all people want that. Some people just want to see heroes vanquishing bad guys, and there’s nothing inherently “bad” about wanting to see those stories either.

    The only problem is when one side starts saying the other’s taste is somehow “wrong.”

  • Adrian says:

    Hands down my favorite author blog ever.

  • I can’t say I’ve noticed many people complaining that fantasy writing has gotten too gritty. My circle of friends all seem to love that sort of thing.

    I suspect that if the fantasy genre were still stuck in the black and white worlds of some 80s and 90s writers, there would be many more complaints on the internet about it than there are now complaining about too much grit. No matter the level of grittiness of any particular genre, there will always be someone who has a complaint about it, and access to the internet to air their views.

    Excellent blog post though, Joe! It pretty much hits the nail on the head to why I enjoy reading your, and a couple of other authors books so much. It’s interesting to see it laid out so plainly.

  • Matt says:

    *titter* You said ‘shit’.

  • Eric Sean says:

    “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. ”

    I assume you mean until the readers reach A Feast for Crows!

  • R Schock says:

    Great post. In everything there must be balance. All degradation doesn’t work, there needs to be *some* redemption. This good is all the brighter for the grey. You can’t have only light and dark, there must be shadow.

    The people who are complaining about dark fantasy remind me of this quote from the Baz Luhrmann speech/song. “Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were
    noble and children respected their elders.” Their judgment is so colored by the untrustworthy lens of nostalgia.

    Keep writing and we’ll keep reading, cheering and cringing as we enjoy each page.

  • RaW_writing says:

    The analogy I would make is with James Bond (pre Bourne) and James Bond (post Bond). Before Bourne, the Brosnan Bond was still clean cut to a point, suave, daring etc. And basically prevailed agains the odds without too much personal ‘shit’ coming his way. Killing with a quip. Unemotive, unaffected. Then came Bourne. Krav-maga hand-to-hand combat style, up close n personal, the epitome of dirty fighting: non-heroic, violent, kill-or-be-killed (with a biro etc). Gritty. A (literally) tortured ‘hero.’ Going back to the ‘clean’ Bond style after that would not have worked, the genre had moved on. To the credit of all concerned with ‘new Bond’, the Craig era has embraced the grit, the personal trauma of a life of violence, of serving morally grey masters … and we’re all loving new Bond, right? It’s seems so. I liked Brosnan in his time but imagine going back to that now. Is that would we would want with fantasy writing?

  • Brett B says:

    Very interesting piece. I like grit in my novels, whatever genre; it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to your books in the first place. The first gritty fantasy novel I remember reading was Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. At the time, I was very put off by its realism, but on reflection, I realised that that was part of what made it a good book.
    And it’s not just the grit, it’s the way the grit was handled, which both Mr. Holdstock and you do very well.
    I have more thoughts on this, but I’m not able to put them into words right now, and when I am, several days (weeks) will have fled, so I’ll just leave it at this.

  • noway says:

    “5. Modernity.”

    Doesn’t seem to allow for shades of grey and some really gritty authors, including GRRM. You can’t deny that he is striving to maintain some balance and make the historical perhaps sometimes feel similar to the modern rather than just glaringly showing off with his edgy modernity, because it’s so clever and real to do so, you know.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Dunno, George does throw in the odd nuncle but I’d say the general voice he writes in is far more modern than it is cod medieval. But I’m not saying any of these things are necessarily fundamental to good writing or even to gritty writing, they’re things associated with gritty writing that I think are potentially useful. They’re things that grit can give to a book above and beyond splatter for the sake of it.

  • jan says:

    the thing I love about Joe´s responses to reviews is I always want to add, well, absolutely nothing:)

    by the way, I think the absolute comment winner in this thread is by Joe G:
    They will learn however and your books will be there to educate them how to torture correctly.

  • JCDrake says:

    I was actually led to your work by looking for more “gritty” fantasy. I’ve read the heroic stories and they have their place, but people want realism now, even in video games. The old ones weren’t capable of giving violence and realism the way they are now (unless you count jumping on a turtle shell violent). Having fought professionally and being active duty military, I absolutely crave gritty realism in the stories I read. I need to see the same type of frantic, unpredictable, jumble of actions that come from a intense will to survive. I recommend all of your books to every person I can because of the honesty and realism. Keep it up! Oh and I think I may write and self publish a cheesy heroic fantasy where an Elf named Grimdark does nothing but help old ladies cross streets and clean their gutters. That’ll fuck up the term Grimdark on google.

  • Greg Kilowaski says:

    Grit is fine. It shows the underbelly of life and reminds me of the gilded age. Heroic fantasy is the surface, gritty fantasy is the reality underneath. Then again, too much grit you end up with “Baby for breakfest? Flayed or marinated? Baby all day!” Then you want a force of nature to kill everyone who’s morally ambigious. I think it’s better to display all paths in life. So people are monsters masquerading as people, some are naive martyrs, and some are just trying to survive.

  • JMMckeage says:

    I would trace the grit back to Howard. For me it went through Lieber, and Moorcock, and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan comic, becoming firmly established in the “Thieve’s World.”

    That said, I was cruising along thinking that The Blade Itself, was just another talented modernization of LoTR until the last volume. A thoroughly deserved ass-kicking, alas that you will not surprise me like that again.

    Now KJ Parker might be ‘grimdark,’ as long as you have to be realistic, I’ll keep buying.

  • Kirk says:

    It would be interesting to hear someones opinion who is anti – grit, as you put it, on here to give their side. Personally speaking when i first started reading fantasy, as a much younger man, most of the books were crammed with magic and quite frankly were boring. So i stopped reading it till the late and great Mr Gemmell changed that for me. We do however live in the age of the anti – hero and every book, film or tv programme seems to fall over themselves to include at least one of these characters. If this keeps up then that will become cliched and indeed boring. Your characters however are so well sketched out that this does not seem a problem as yet. It is a thin line though one i hope you never cross personally speaking i would say Glokta is your finest creation. He is an anti hero to die for, or should that be torture and kill for. One of the other posters mentioned the recent Bond film, quite frankly it was terrible. James Bond in tears after failing to protect M from the weakest attempt at assassination ive seen on the silver screen. Wouldn’t have happened to Sean. Mr Craig your spy name should be changed to Jane Bond for your girly performance. Oh and as for the line that “we are going back in time” and then heading to Scotland well i nearly walked out of the cinema. Anyone who applauded that film and thought it was classic Bond should be sent to a Gurkish prison.

  • […] Value of Grit Greetings Folks, I ran across this blog post by Joe Abercrombie (I always mentally finish his name with "and Finch"). He tackles the […]

  • Geoff says:

    Can’t add to the discussion on grit; fine in books, not so great in lettuce. However, I did notice an interesting allusion to ‘some shades of grey’. Could some be, say 50, and is this a subtle hint as to the next style of novel you are planning to write?

  • Chris says:

    Joe, I’ve been a fan of yours for awhile, own all your books, and can’t agree with you more.

    I personally am a fan of a sort of balance between the “gritty” and the “clean/wholsome” type of fantasy writing, which I feel your writing actually does a lot more of than you admit. Your books always do have a dark tint to them, but they always seem to have an almost happy-ish ending for the characters (except Red Country which I’m starting literally today, so I dont know how that ends).

    So yeah, I think you strike a very good balance, which is what’s missing from some “gritty” novels, but what draws me to yours (even if you like to pretend nothing good ever happens in your novels).

  • Maggie says:

    When I was given the Blade Itself by a friend, it had been the first time I’d sat down to read a fiction book in at least two years. After shoveling half-heartedly through the mass of drivel known as Teen Literature, then slogging through authors like Tolkien and Brooks, I was completely through with fantasy.

    So, I made it as far as the first time you meet Bayaz, said “Gods, not another Gandalf,” and was ready to walk away. When I tried to explain this to the person recommending the series, though, he just kept laughing at me.

    Now, one of my favorite moments is still Ardee scoffing at tales of Magi and heroes, just because at the time it felt entirely too familiar. More than a little surreal.

  • Maggie says:

    [On a less all-about-me note D:] It amuses me that one of the easiest ways to get that coveted verisimilitude in a story is to add (at least) a little grit. It seems we really can’t accept a world where everything goes right to be anything like reality. The more speedbumps, treachery, enemies, and general confusion can pollute a once simple tale of right and wrong, the more we might recognize it as our own. We start to see ourselves in such a role, start to wonder what we would do, begin to feel the gains and losses with more clarity. The worst “grimdark” failures stem from unimaginative horrors and weak adversaries… Either the problems are too impotent to bother us, or they are too dull to provoke empathy–they read like a whining coworker.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Oh, I’m more than willing to admit that my books are full of heroism, wonderment and ennobling derring-do amongst the darkness, but a lot of other folks find them punishingly cynical, and indeed increasingly so, which surprises me. On a scale between 0 and 100, with the world is destroyed and everyone dies at 0, and edding’s belgariad all the good guys win at 100, I’d put the First Law no lower than 30 isn? But anything on the slightly darker side of the scales seems to provoke wails of horror in some quarters.

    Howard, maybe, but going back a touch further, how about Beowulf, or Greek Myth, or Norse? Full of violence, savagery, treachery, mixed motives, and arse-related humour. One could say we the gritty are merely honouring the true mythic wellspring of our genre…

  • Chris Upton says:

    I’ve mixed feelings about this. On one hand I think “What if they ever read Cormac Mcarthy? And they think Abercrombie is bad?”
    I’ve no wish to relive the days Dragon Lance and The Belgariad, that sort of writing would not be acceptable in general fiction so there’s no reason fantasy fans should tolerate it either. That said, there is a problem of misogyny and misanthropy in ssf and general drama. Just go over to some of the Dredd boards on IMDB. The belief there is that the female villain is unrealistic. Because she is female, and would be raped and tossed off a balcolny in moments. Not considering at all that the character is a cunning and ruthless psychopath who is very capable of making the men at her command a lot of money. Nope. Female + criminal=Rape and murder. As for misanthropy, Deadwood,whilst excellent in many ways had so a depressing message at the general shittyness of humanity that I was forced to give up towards the end of the first series. A young girl getting pistol whipped half to death whilst people tutted and went about their business, doing nothing (which in turn led to her being shot with her brother and fed to pigs) isn’t realism, it’s the sort of nihilism Leo was banging on about in the first place. And don’t get me started about Robert Newcombe.
    There’s a lot of great stuff out there with true grit, Joes work and also the wonderful Winters Bone by Daniel Woodrell but we should be aware that there’s also a huge amount of crap as well.

  • Jens says:

    Maybe it’s my catholic upbringing, but I think your books (especially “The Heroes”) have more morality buried beneath the “grit” than books that don’t stray too far into “moral ambiguity” territory.

    The only problem I have with “gritty Fantasy” is, that it has become a trend and could become just as clicheed as the Fantasy novels of the 80s/90s (which I enjoyed tremendously).
    I don’t necessarily need realism in Fantasy-Novels (have it everyday in real life) and I have no problem with (or rather enjoy) “escapism”, but the best books I’ve read recently were full of grit and realism.

    Sometimes I wish there was an author who revived or modernized the classical Fantasies of my youth, with all those archetypical characters and “good versus evil” themes, the adventureous plots and heroic battles, the descriptions of green valleys and thick forests… elves and dwarves and mighty swords included. But then I read your books and don’t need that anymore, at least for the moment.

  • Mathias (aka noway) says:


    I’d say George in his way writes like a normal fantasy novelist, adapted to the tone of his setting. I find he has a very distinct style with a typical “Fevre Dream” effect as well as trying to evoke a very strong sense of place and character. He is not estranged from a modern reader, and I’d agree that might be something worth following, but I think it’s still something else from the overt “punk” style of, say, Richard Morgan.

  • Mathias says:

    Since you mentioned Norse tales, you’re absolutely right. The Viking sagas are every bit as gritty as one might imagine – only that there’s still a current of heroism and a code of honour and justice running underneath it all… It’s hard to imagine that the authors and original audience didn’t intend or derive some entertainment factor from the audacity and absurdity of it. And I think one of the strengths of modern gritty fantasy is to get behind a mannered, biased or unconcerned facade and actively examine the murky “realism” beneath.
    However I think there’s a risk for it to feel gratuitous and mannered as well – or simply dry.

  • Gary says:

    Well said Joe. I and lot of others lean more towards gritty fantasy nowadays mainly because we don’t like being treated like idiots. I don’t think it’s because people have become more cynical, it’s due to the environment that we all live in today, like you say. Back in the 80’s and before, people thought differently, there was a need for the all singing, dancing, happy go lucky hero that prevailed against a great evil that didn’t do anything worse than fart in the face of freedom. There was the cold war, so there was always a bad guy out there, afterwoulds, the Gulf war and before then WW2. The media plays a big part too, back then things were a lot more black and white I suppose, there was only usually one or two points of view. The internet, social media, news channels etc let people know everything (well, that we know about).

    Religion too has had an effect. Back in the 80’s, 70’s etc a lot of the population went to church, sunday school and so forth. Today, as we have become more culturaly diverse and our attitudes towards life, death, science have changed, we are more aware of the grey area around what is seen as good or evil.

    I would argue that fantasy has not become more gritty as such, just that it more accurately reflects the world we live in. To say that fantasy has become more gritty is to say that the world has become more gritty which isn’t the case, it has always been dark and morally ambiguous. We are just more aware today.

    All the critiques of ‘gritty fantasy’ need to open their eyes and look at the world. If they want shiny, pretty unrealistic books, then they should read Tinkerbell and Mickey Mouse and stop talking out of their backsides.

    I’m glad there are authors like you out there Joe, for I can read something without being patronised and read something I can believe in. For me, honesty is the key 🙂

  • Gru'ud says:

    My only objection to “grit” is the word itself.

    Grit is, as a previous poster said, quite bad in lettuce, or any other food, leading to an overwhelming need to spit.

    It’s a terrain type, the odd slimy sand mixed into shell roads, the measure of abrasiveness on a sheet of sandpaper.

    The word has become almost a pejorative itself, and through almost constant overuse of late is in threat of becoming cliché.

    I’ve seen several uses of the word “grimdark” above. Dunno if I like it, but I like it better than grit.

    Grit implies dirt, something that needs to be cleaned up, wiped off your boots before you trod back inside.

    Like so many things, its use is (and should be) quite welcome in the vast panoply that is SFF, and should be neither condemned nor congratulated.

    It is simply another tool, a differing lens; a scrying stone or prism that allows writers to bend ‘The Light’ through a dark filter.

    But in the wrong hands, it’s just another box; a fence to keep us all in and held safely away from our betters.

    So let’s find a better word, one that lets us sneak up on them unawares, and slit their throats in their sleep.

    Just don’t let the grit on your shoes give you away.

  • Gary says:

    The term ‘grit’ used with fantasy should be changed to ‘enlightenment’.

    I believe point of view is valid part of ‘enlightenment’ in fantasy. With traditional fantasy, the ‘bad guy’ shared the same POV as the good guy in a lot of respects. The hero thought the bad guy was evil and the bad guy also saw himself/herself as evil, practically shouting from the rooftops, “Look at me, I am such an evil shit!”

    Someone that I see as bad or evil will more than likely see themselves as doing what they believe to be right or in extreme cases, ok to do. What I like about ‘enlightenment’ in fantasy is that I as a reader can make up my own mind as to who is right and wrong. It’s like the author is the neutral, giving us the facts and story to make up our own minds. With excessive violence, swearing, sex just for the sake of it, some people do those in excess.

  • johny5w says:

    ” 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 think this sums up my own position perfectly. I read fantasy exclusively all throughout elementary, middle school, and even high school. However, college exposed me to a vast array of literature, and I started to feel that fantasy was too simplistic, shiny, and clean; it was too black and white in a world I had finally discovered for myself to be very grey. And so, for a period of about 8-10 years I did not read any fantasy at all. Then a few years ago I discovered ASOIAF, and I loved it! It was fantasy I felt I could actually read as an adult and not have to lower my standards to accept unrealistic and uncomplicated characters or motives. From there I have discovered some of the other modern gritty fantasy such as The Prince of Nothing series, and your fantastic books! Once again, I love fantasy, and I am excited to be able to enjoy the genre I loved as a child, only now it has matured and grown.

  • dietl says:

    Hm…what about ‘enDARKenment’? 🙂

  • bobbby says:

    “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.”

    And thats where we close Tolkien and pick up JA.

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    I found this passage talking of your work, Joe, incredibly amusing:

    “Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.”

    I don’t understand some people. They seem to moan for the sake of moaning. The fact he actually uses Conan the Barbarian as an example of what he wishes fantasy still was made me laugh too, considering how violent it is.

    The greatest irony of the rant is, every book that is ripped to shreds with small bio’s of darkness and grit, I feel myself interested in finding and reading it.

    Each to their own, eh?

  • Count Spatula says:

    Great post, Joe.

    For me, gritty fantasy books offer the one thing I love above all – dark comedy. And the darker the better!

  • Gru'ud says:

    Having done a bit more reading on the matter, I’m afraid I must invite everyone’s scorn and derision by walking back a bit what may have seemed a ringing endorsement of all things gritty.

    Without going into detail, there are a few things I would not care to read about, and perhaps a bit more that I would never choose to write about; much like there are movies that I would not choose to see.

    Still, to me the important, operative word here is choose. Without quoting Voltaire at length, I would maintain that folks should be free to read and write what they like.

    And singing out wholesale for the elimination of grittiness is just as wrong as shouting for the elimination of all lighter, airier fare.

    Especially in cases were really unpleasant things fit the larger narrative as a whole, and truly have a purpose in the story, all things should be available to the artist’s brush.

    But I’m afraid I must draw the line at wonton depictions of gratuitous sexual violence, especially against children, and especially where its primary intent is to feed simple prurience.

    I have no reason to suspect nor do I imply that our present host presents such things, and even if he has (I’m afraid I must claim ignorance) I’d never dream of coming into another fellow’s house and throw stones.

    As a writer of content that doesn’t quite fit convenient pigeonholes, I’m still trying to grasp exactly where my stuff lies. And while I think it may lie along darker lines, it is certainly not out at the far fringes I’ve been reading about today.

    Put another way, is there such a thing as “grimlight”?

  • Jason says:

    “I’d argue that the extremes of darkness only allow the glimpses of light to twinkle all the more brightly”

    I can’t believe you wasted such a great line on your blog. This should end a novel. A gritty one, at that.

    Incredible post.

  • Gary says:

    “I’d argue that the extremes of darkness only allow the glimpses of light to twinkle all the more brightly”

    I agree, that is such a wonderful line. Sounds like something Bayaz would say.

  • Chris Upton says:

    Gru’ud- Don’t whatever you do read Terry Goodkind if wanton violence against children disgusts you that much. Some pretty horrific scenes there.

  • […] Abercrombie on The Value of Grit: Grit is an inclusion. Not grit is an absence. Nothing to prevent gritty books including the […]

  • […] Selective 'historical accuracy' in fantasy…value-of-grit/ What he said! When I have said "realistic"/"historically accurate" in the […]

  • Lucky says:

    Skeevy. Such a good word.

  • Mab says:

    Fantastic post. JA – you are a master at using all of your gritty tools. I would say though that my concern for ‘grimdark’ isn’t that it is that it is excessively violent and brutal without purpose, it is when it’s excessively dark at the expense of the story. Who is going to die in The Winds of Winter? Who is going to come back? Do I care? Unfortunately not as much as I did before GRRM’s last two novels came out, because frankly I am bored. Death, brutality, blah, blah, blah … what happened to the story? To the struggle of the characters? They are artfully created no doubt, with great plot twists and turns, but I care less and less. Your point about “there’s a degree to which grit loses its power the more of it there is” is spot on.
    A previous poster (apparently with an English degree) suggested that grimdark “will likely take the inverted form of what is an already established trope of the Heroic side”. I hope not. Many readers are already tired of Hero stories with happy-shiny-no-loose-ends conclusions, and I think that we would also become tired of life-is-shit-and-no-one-changes endings as well. As long as grit is a tool to produce complex, conflicted characters and serves the story I say bring it on. In legions. But the books I will re-read and recommend to my friends are the ones that have some sort of resolution at the end, where some of the characters do change. They might still be giant a-holes, but whatever their struggle has been, be it triumph over the bad guy or good guy or over themselves or whatever, needs to happen for me. Preferably with a tension filled, unpredictable climax. Triumph of one complex bad guy over another bad guy at the expense of an entire city is gritty and well done. My favorite character jumping out the window in a reflex of self-preservation? Oh shit. Unpredictable yes, but no resolution, no change, it was like building toward an amazing climax and then your partner finishes before you do and stops there. Hollow. Disappointing. And yes, unfortunately realistic. But, like Ferro and Logen – I will give you another chance for the same reason I gave you the first one. . .

  • Dav says:

    “George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, surely the gold standard of gritty epic fantasy,”

    Erm, no, actually. Sure, George RR Martin’s stuff are excellent pieces of work (though past SoS that becomes a matter of fierce debate) but they are intrinsically flawed in that large aspects of both plot and character at times seemed to be unfaithful, and his focus on the highborn of the story strikes one as catering to ‘Great man history’, a school of thought that is looked upon with derision in certain areas of academia.

    I’ll try and avoid kissing your arse here, Mr. Abercrombie, but I’d say The First Law trilogy is the gold standard. You might see the mistakes in your work, and I would say that The Heroes is superior in many ways, but in terms of the factors you’ve mentioned…you’re better.

    Realism? I was once stupid enough to take an A-Level in Government and Politics, and thereby I spent a lot of time looking at how the executive actually functions. Your portrayal of an old, unfair, corrupt, nepotist, often childish form of government can be seen in modern Cabinets, in Republican Rome, in aliances during the Crusades. It strikes me as far more true to life than GRRM’s elegant councillors making smooth plots, only to be thwarted by a masterful bit of wit. I wouldn’t say the Closed Council is perfect – for one thing, there’s not enough stupidity- but it’s just one example of where you are more realistic and yet more interesting than GRRM’s work.

    If I had time to write a five-thousand word essay on the matter, I would, addressing each of your points of realism in a studious fashion, but I think I’ve given a good keyhole view of why I would say The First Law is a gold standard. What I think you mean is aSoIaF is the icebreaker, the first real, tangible example of grit and realism breaking into a fantasy setting. It’s the handheld musket to your Lee-Enfield, the lorica segmentata to your full plate harness.

    I’m bias. Horribly bias. I’ve been a fan of your’s for nearing on six years now, and I read GRRM’s work long after. But I don’t think this opinion lacks evidence or weight, and I think you do yourself a disservice in seeing yourself, perhaps, as a disciple of the Great White-bearded Man of Gritty History.

    Meh, but fuck knows, mayhaps I’m talking out my arse, aye?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Well, I wouldn’t want to disagree on how great I am, of course. I guess Martin’s series has been so long in the making that to some degree his techniques have been adopted by other writers since he began, and so lost a little of their poke. But I’d say it’s undeniably the gold standard from a commercial point of view, and with the tv series in terms of its impact on the mainstream, and in paving the way for those that have come after. I still think there are scenes in Game of Thrones that hit like a ton of bricks near 20 years on.

    If you’re referring to Red Country there, it slightly surprises me as I felt Temple had perhaps the most clearcut character growth of any that I’ve done. Well, Shivers in Best Served Cold, maybe, but he grew the wrong way….

  • Robert Low says:

    Nice blog and very true. Been there, still doing that and fending off outrage with the observation that – no grit, no pearl.

  • Anne Lyle says:

    Well said – it’s very much about taste, rather than some objective standard of what “belongs” in the genre. I get similar complaints that the characters in my books occasionally have OMG SEXYTIMES (including, esp, the gay ones), as if this is a part of reality that has no place in a fantasy novel. It particularly bugs me that consensual sex is frowned on whilst rape is seen as unremarkable, but that’s a rant for another day…

    As it happens, I’m not keen on a lot of graphic violence in fiction (particularly sexual/sexualised violence towards women) or unrelenting depictions of brutality, which is why I’ve given up on ASOIAF, but I don’t dispute the right of other authors and their readers to enjoy such books. In any case there’s room for all gradations of grit [insert witty sandpaper analogy here] and we all draw the line in a different place – I’m enjoying First Law, for example, and ironically my favourite character is the torturer, Glokta. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the era of squeaky-clean heroes and political naivety.

  • Liam says:

    @Joe and Mab:

    It’s funny, because I read that scene and just thought “…well yeah.” Of *course* Temple was going to jump out that window. Quite frankly I was surprised he did as well as he did in the fight against the Ghosts. Perhaps it’s just because I expect less from your characters, Joe, in the sense that I’m not expecting them to leap fearlessly into death’s jaws every second page (unless they have a death wish, or something).

    It’s really the part I like *best* about the Grimdark genre: it’s real people in a fantasy world. No larger-than-life heroes and villains. No Supermans or McGuyvers. They’re people that I can imagine being real, and I am so much more thoroughly enmeshed in the story because of it.

    Grimdark fails, I feel, when it loses sight of that. When it stops being about verisimilitude and starts being about “how much dark, horrific shit can I heap onto my characters?” It’s not powerful when the protagonist dies just because (s)he was the protagonist. It’s powerful because that person seemed so fucking real, and I had formed such a powerful bond with them, that their death rips a hole right through me.

    Pull that same trick one too many times and they don’t seem real anymore, they’re just sacrificial lambs waiting for their turn to step before the authorial headsman.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Ha. You have said in four words what took me a weighty article to encapsulate. Spot the epic fantasist. Reading your third Oathsworn book at the minute. Wonderfully gritty, but it’s the vivid style and the way it fuses with the insight into the viking mindset that I really enjoy.

    Rape is certainly one thing that can be spectacularly poorly handled in gritty fantasies. Superficial treatment, lack of investigation of the consequences, too often used as a lazy motivator for main characters. One could get very tired of every villain being a perverted rape monster and every female character going under constant threat of rape as the go-to threat or danger. I don’t think I’ve always covered myself in glory in this regard. But on the flip side, as with violence, I think a really powerful treatment of rape is very likely to be gritty. It’s often not, but there’s no reason it can’t be done well. I’ve been watching This is England – not fantasy, of course, far from it – but features what I thought was some really powerful, harrowing, horrifying and extremely gritty investigation of rape and child abuse and its consequences.

  • Michael says:

    £5.98 for a 25kg bag from B&Q.

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    This post hasn’t left my mind for the last two days.

    Ironically I’m currently writing my dissertation and have been all week which is upon the representation of the gunslinger in the Western. Obviously I’ve used my dissertation just as an excuse to watch a shit load of Westerns. However, arguably the greatest Western is Unforgiven, which is viewed as a revisionist view on the genre.

    The reason it is arguably the best is due to the characters being a deep shades of grey rather than the usual clear cut black and white. Hackman’s sheriff could actually be argued as being the good guy, as it is he trying to protect the town from the assassins looking for a quick payday.

    Anyway, my point is, revisions are a good thing but it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for both kinds of fantasy, both gritty and the conventional.

  • Mikko Hyökki says:

    I wonder how R.E.Howard’s Conan can be used as a shining example of non-cynical and not-dark fantasy?

    Maybe they have mixed him up with the later pastiche-Conan who was not the Cimmerian that Howard conjured up with his magic typewriter.

  • Mab says:

    @ Liam: well said.
    @ Joe:
    Actually I really enjoyed what you did with Temple. It’s been a while since I have read it so maybe it wasn’t a window he leaped out of, but the scene that I was referring to was Ninefingers v. Black Dow and company at the end of Last Argument of Kings. I was drawn in by how much of Logen’s struggle had been against himself, so I was frustrated when he didn’t make a decision on his own terms and then his storyline was cut.
    I apologize for the blasphemy that I am about to commit – and I wholeheartedly encourage this comment being moderated out if it offends you or you think other fans will show up at my door with axes in hand. But to illustrate my frustration (albeit badly, as I am no writer), if Logen had defeated Calder & Scale somehow without killing them, and as he is about to kill Dow he looks at the Chair, looks at Dow, and says, “Fuck this” or “You can have it” or some such, drops his knife and THEN leaps out the window…aahhh. Even if he had decided that he was a monster and was never going to change before being thrown out the window or something. I guess as a reader I just prefer a little more resolution as a chaser after a few shots of grit, that’s all.
    Off topic, but thank you for responding to my post. Logen felt incredibly real to me, someone who had internal demons and was struggling to identify and overcome them, had to take a long hard look at himself in the process, but when familiar outside forces pushed at him, he would respond in his old patterns. I realize only now after thinking this through, why I felt so jilted at the time. As someone who has lost loved ones to drugs and alcohol, it burns every time they regress and/or hurt the ones they care about. I guess at that point I was really cheering for Logen to drop the knife and break the cycle, but well, point 4 above. Touché. In general I still prefer more resolution to balance the grit though, otherwise I get pulled out of the story.

  • Nina says:

    Gritty, grey characters to me are much more memorable then shiny ones. And I think at the end of the day it’s those characters that make your books so great Joe.

    I think one genre that could use a bit more grit are the current “superheroes” films. Yes, there was the darker Batman, but Batman himself was not really a gritty character. But other then that the line between good and evil is clearly drawn and that is one of the reasons I find those films kind of boring a lot of times. The only one that has a bit of grit that I can think of is the Hulk in the recent Avengers. He wants to be on the good guys side… but well his gritty side might get out of control.

    You mentioned TV and for me it was the HBO shows that really put grey characters at its forefront. Like McNulty in The Wire or more recently Nucky Thompson. Mad Men as well has those grey areas that make the characters feel real and relatable, not shiny and seemingly from another world.
    Maybe that is why gritty fantasy seems more real – our world is gritty and grey and the moments of good and light are sometimes far and few. And while I want to escape into that other world of a book, film or tv-show, with shinny, good one dimensional characters and storylines they just leave me cold. I guess with the bad reviews you at least know you didn’t leave the readers cold…

  • Chris E. says:

    Great response, Joe. I read the first blog post by Tom Simon and while I do agree with him that “grimdark” and “gritty” has become incredibly pervasive (possibly to the point of extremity), I concur that grit is just another tool, as you put it. I’d also like to point out that medieval life was definitely not a happy. I made a relevant post in response to that article:

    “One point I must contend is the inspirational role of the War of the Roses for GRRM and the pursuit of realism. I think you conflate his source of inspiration for -plot and setting-, and inspiration for the -atmosphere-. The War of the Roses was certainly relatively tame as far as medieval conflicts went, but that does not mean that medieval life was not brutal. Once one’s scope is expanded beyond Western Medieval Europe (a relevant point, since a good chunk of the plot takes place in Eurasia-like Essos) one can come to understand that, in fact, GRRM’s brutality is quite light. If you go to Wikipedia and look at the worst wars and disasters by death toll, seven of the top ten occurred in Central Asia and East Asia. Five of those seven were roughly contemporary to the War of the Roses in the sense that they did not take place in what we might call “early modern” eras (i.e. 17th cen. and prior), and four of those five involved China. I cannot understate the brutality of the Mongol conquests alone. The Mongols (and remember, they influenced GRRM’s Dothraki) were unbelievably bloodthirsty soldiers who regularly butchered whole cities and made use of thousands of slaves as arrow-fodder. The sheer destruction and chaos that defined the fall of the Mongol Empire and the reestablishment of Chinese rule in China makes GRRM’s “brutality” pale in comparison. You can be sure that medievalesque life was terrible, horrible, and short.”

    Make no mistake, once you leave the geographically and temporally small arena of Medieval Western Europe, things start to suck a lot. And even Medieval Western Europe sucked.

  • […] an excellent bit of writing by author Joe Abercrombie, musings on the merit of grit in Fantasy. Here is a link, read it or skim it (I’ll wait). I am shamed to say that the only book of his that I’ve read is Best Served […]

  • Keith Ainslie says:

    A great post for all (and more ) of the reasons already discussed. An artist has more choice with a broader palette.

    Please, I beg, don’t get attached to ‘Grimdark’ people. I first read it as a wry dig at Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 future universe (and similar fiction) and it’s appeal to legions of black t-shirted teenage boys. Far too many Teen/Goth/Emo connotations to be used anywhere near adult conversation.

  • […] particolarmente apprezzato, ha pubblicato sul suo blog personale un lungo intervento intitolato “The Value of Grit”. Nel post, l’autore britannico, che in pratica è il più famoso esponente di quel fantasy che io […]

  • Hillsy says:


    Yeah that was me…

    In terms of Grimdark Everything-is-shit tropes, it will happen I’m sure. There will also be well considered, subtle Grimdark on varying scales. To pinch Joe’s analogy and use it as a cookie cutter – You need the extremes of cliche to be able to identify subtlety (In the same way dark helps accentuate light and so on).

    Another point was that also: this is a process….Heroic fantasy has some wonderfully nuanced works now – the goodies win but don’t leave the battlefield still in pristine white – and these have come because the Shiny-Happy-Hero tropes stopped being exciting, causing Joe Reader to sit back and see the shallowness in what he’d hitherto been enjoying. He then yearns for more. By Contrast I’d argue that Grimdark is progressing through the phase where tropes like the “Good” guy being eaten by a bear because, well, that’s what happens sometimes, will too lose it’s lustre and need nuancing further down the line.

    My main point was that the reason people make comments about the misery and pervasion(?) of Grimdark may be a backlash to the fact Grimdark is, in my opinion, still defining these tropes. It’s still pushing boundaries, whereas Heroic has found it’s cliffedges of interest. And Heoric, because Grimdark appears to be an offshoot rather than the different beast it is, thinks Grimdark is a throwback, albit a dark, uncompromising one.

    THough like I said, just an observation.

    NB: Not sure if the english degree things is a compliment or not – I flunked basic English….E and an F….didn’t even take A-level, let alone a degree…hehe

  • Brent says:

    Hey Joe, I have not read your books yet (uni and all that) but I plan on it because my mother gives in such glowing reviews. I regularly read your blog because of your humorous tone and occasionally post like this. My reply might be a bit long.

    While I agree with you on ‘grit’ being a tool authors use just as any trope I disagree that in it’s current form that it has actually changed the problems I see in genre (well actually it does improve one aspect but I’ll get to that).

    I know many people are going to disagree with me on this but fantasy was been a highly conservative genre not only because of its depiction of life and violence and its long standing issues of depicting gender, race and class. There was been writing then and now who have always been good at depicting these issues but the majority have simply not been. The woman are rarely seen and if they are they will be subservient to men. The ‘evil’ races will usually come from the east or south (and from the north sometimes but except a very white and noble group of people to be holding them back) which is obviously tied into European’s historical conflicts. People of higher class are that way because of some kind magical blood or being gifted by the gods.

    All these things are very problematic in there own ways. With ‘grimdark’ style writing these flaws of the genre are only highlighted even more. One thing I think grimdark does better at is the depiction of class but that’s about it (don’t get me started on the historically truthful non-sense, history is biased, its racist, sexist and classist in nature so if you want to write a ‘historically truthful’ work prepare to be a terrible human being.)

    I believe apart of this problem is publication industry and the cultural dominance of anglophones (why isn’t there more POC writers or women writers or more non-western translations) and part the writers fault. If you want to depict rape do not use it as drama easily forgotten by the victim nor, heaven forbid, use as a characterization tool for either your male hero or villain. If you write about POC or a culture not your own make sure you have some kind of grasp of the basics (even better talk to a person part of it).

    So in conclusion on a whole I agree with you, grittiness is a step in the right direction in actually meeting modern ideals but it doesn’t really fix problems I fine inherent in the genre as a whole. I am not saying writer have to do this, but if you write terrible women who are constantly raped wombots or POC who are clearly shallow faux-‘insert culture you enjoy appropriating’ prepare to be criticized for such and if the entire genre is rip with these problems don’t be surprised when people start criticizing those trends they think are causing it.

    Sorry for the overly-long post, mid-paper break to write about something I actually feel passionate about, and none of it is actually aimed at you as I have not read your stuff. Have a good day!

  • Mab says:

    @ Hillsy: it was more of a dig at myself since your tone is more posh than mine, but please take it as a compliment.

  • Raphael says:

    In the end it comes down to the ability of the individual writer to bring out what he feels his work should be by putting in the right amount of darkness. And the more extreme it gets, the more skill an author needs for that, in both extremes. Pulling off an incredibly shiny heroic fantasy is just as hard (or maybe even harder) than writing a darker fantasy novel that doesn’t turn into an endless procession of torture-porn.

  • dietl says:

    While I agree with you that the genre is full of stereotypical depictions of different cultures, classes and women you can still find many many wonderful writers who do a really good job with this.
    No one said ‘write gritty and your book will be awesome’ but as you said its a step in the right direction even when there might be some black sheep or a horde of black sheep it still changes the way people thought about fantasy before. It has been going on for too long that genre hasn’t been taken serious but more and more ask questions like you. Where are the strong women in fantasy? Where is moral ambiguity just like in real life? Where are the poo-jokes? I suggest for you to look no further than everyones favourite author Joe Abercrombie. I think you will like his work especially in the stand-alones he did a great job!

  • […] specialize in gritty, violent and raw stories, a style he defend with great passion in this great article he posted a few days ago. What are your thoughts on gritty fantasy? Are you annoyed, hate it or […]

  • opa says:

    Did you read that on martins blog?: “Abraham belongs in the first rank of today’s fantastists, I think, right up there with Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, and the like”

    nice seeing you being mentioned there…

  • Jim says:

    Bring on the GRIT! I don’t want to read about fluffy bunnies and magical unicorns, and I don’t want to read a vapid romance disguised as fantasy or urban fantasy. I want full bore realism and tons of moral ambiguity, because that’s just the way the world is.

    Now let me pull on my sandpaper briefs and run a triathlon. Grit, baby, grit(and plenty of chafing).

  • […] Posted on March 3, 2013 by Cora We’re having our annual gritty fantasy debate, because Joe Abercrombie – being one of the prime purveyors of grimdark fantasy today – launches …. Of course, nobody is actually criticizing grimdark fantasy this week, though there is a discussion […]

  • Dav says:

    Tiny little quibble, Chris E., but I’ve done a great deal of reading on this subject.

    “The War of the Roses was certainly relatively tame as far as medieval conflicts went, but that does not mean that medieval life was not brutal.”

    If you were a commoner. If you were a soldier or a noble, the Wars of the Roses was one of the most ruthless conflicts for generations. Executing prisoners, defying sanctuary, utter slaughter, targeted killings during battles. Though the devastation to the countryside was EXTREMELY limited, the damage to the ruling classes took about a hundred and fifty years to repair, both in terms of numbers and in terms of martial capability.

    Otherwise, a great post, I just wanted to clarify that.

  • […] week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for […]

  • Mike Hunt is Wet says:

    Which author put grit on the map?

  • Simon says:

    After reading Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Bright nothing seems dark or excessively violent it’s a book that makes you think twice about turning the page 😉

  • Sean Fear says:

    To me, the best thing about all of your novels is that they’re just extremely funny (even if the humour is pretty black).

    Without the humour, I think I would find them too bleak.

  • […] week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for […]

  • To say grit in fantasy fiction makes it more “realistic” and more “honest” is not an act of describing truth, but to play a game of semantics. More often than not I have seen the people who use this argument condescend to and patronize anyone who disagrees, as Abercrombie has shown himself willing to do at any given opportunity. “Catch up with the 21st century,” they say, “or go back to your childish little pixies and idealistic Arthurian myths.”

    But people are charitable and kind, not only violent and petty. They sacrifice selflessly and hang onto a sense of morality; they do not only succumb to temptation and feed their ambition at any cost.

    Nature itself reflects the mix of the pleasant and the unpleasant. It contains the gazelle and the meadowlark as surely as it contains the black widow and the viperfish. Beauty and death often meet in equal measure, like in the Siberian tiger or the poison arrow frog.

    To call grit a catalyst for realism (and not acknowledge the lighter side of reality) is to dispense of one side of reality as a pipe dream and throw oneself entirely into the waiting talons of the other side. When it comes to portraying life as it actually is, Abercrombie’s idea of gritty fantasy is the opposite and equal of a Thomas Kinkade painting. His canvas is bereft of whatever he doesn’t feel comfortable with.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Oh, since we’re at 99 comments I’ll bite. It’s that or work.

    You’re on my blog, by the way, you don’t have to refer to me in the third person.

    I don’t see that I’ve been particularly patronising, certainly not at any opportunity. Have I not said just above, “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”?

    I actually think a lot of gritty books, mine included, encompass a fair bit of the positive – there’s humour, friendship, love, generosity and nobility to be found. Maybe not simple in their nature or outcomes, but they’re there, glimmers of light amid the darkness, as it were. And you seem to ignore the point that gritty fantasy is about counter-balancing a genre that had become somewhat predictable in its moral purity.

    You may disagree but then so much about books, if not to say virtually everything, as you yourself point out, is subjective. When it comes to honesty and truth you’re absolutely welcome to your own opinion, of course, but I can tell you I get literally hundreds of emails from people who see it my way, so there’s certainly value in this approach for them, if not for you. Live and let live, maybe?

    As for Thomas Kinkade, his reputation for territorial marking by urination is slightly unsettling, but clearly a talented artist. Bit cute and fluffy for my own tastes. Maybe if you hung a Francis Bacon next to one of his you’d get a balanced view of life…?

    100! Woo hoo!

  • dietl says:

    “…as Abercrombie has shown himself willing to do at any given opportunity.”

    I experienced quite the opposite and i think I’m not the only one. Can you show me what was patronizing or condescending in the post? To whom? As for your example, I think you should read the post again:

    “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.”

    “In due course I don’t doubt the pendulum will swing back at least some of the way towards romantic and heroic. “

  • TheFourthHorseman says:

    I think Patterson made a pretty valid comment on literature in general, just not necessarily as a comment on Joe’s books. And yeah, a bit too ad hominem there. Anyway, as an example, probably the main reason I liked reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was that his writing so exquisitely described what it’s like to simply live. I wouldn’t say that that kind of roundedness is missing from Joe’s writing, even if the approach is more towards the gritty sort. And of course a fantasy world is a slightly different beast from a period piece, even if it’s enveloped in a science fiction story.

    Joe: Your second to last paragraph kind of reads like first you’re saying that books are subjective, but then you revert to the role of the popular kid in the school yard saying all his friends told him he’s right. :p

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    4th Horseman,
    Get back to your pixies!

  • TheFourthHorseman says:

    I’ll in fact get back to Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, an activity that will surely please you to no end if your introduction to it is any proof. Alas, pixies are yet to make an appearance.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I hate and fear all other authors, regardless of what my Introduction may say…

  • TheFourthHorseman says:

    The sarcasm may have been too thinly veiled, but I was indeed getting at the fact that the intro starts with “I was deeply upset when I read…” and “My deep hatred for Scott is made worse…”, so perfectly in line with your true feelings.

  • Oh dear. I think I worded my point far too strongly. Mr. Abercrombie, can you accept my apologies for this? I’m being serious, too. I can see your points pretty well, too. Didn’t mean to be so harsh.

    Remind me to not post long comments when I’m tired and in a generally cranky mood.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Ha. No offence. This is the internet. I’d take your advice about tired and cranky myself, but then I’m always tired and cranky…

  • […] novelas de Joe Abercrombie, que se ha pronunciado recientemente sobre la polémica con su habitual elocuencia, han llegado a nosotros de esa manera. Aunque las primeras tres novelas las edito Alianza en su […]

  • Pinkyfloyd says:

    I read the blog and scanned the comments but my 2 pennies worth is as follows.

    If you look back to when this fantasy writing started, and many do credit Tolkien with the birth of the genre with his Lord of the Rings books. It was a time when people were a lot nicer to others than they are now. The Hobbit was written in 1937. Yes there was a war to contend with but everyone was “jolly ho ole chap!” and in general people were friendlier. I remember a time my mother would tell me they could leave the front door open on their house all day. Can you honestly say you could do the same today? Just look outside at the 3 stripe wearing chavs knocking about the street in their gangs smashing shit for fun.

    The world has changed. The people now writing fantasy did not grow up in an era where everyone was “chums” with everyone else. The current fantasy books reflect what we see outside. People are no longer nice. People are no longer respectful. Why write about a time when it was all nicey nicey and even the epic war scenes in books were lacking the realism of what battles are about. Take the classics. LOTR, Shannara, They have the same thing in common. Their epic battle scene feels like you are watching from the air as a bystander. Take Joe’s book The Heroes for comparison. Your on the front line fighting with the characters. You feel like you are part of that army. He even takes the time in the books to put you into a nobodies shoes only to butcher you in those very same shoes and then place you into the killers body boots n all.

    We’ve grown up. No reason fantasy cannot do the same.

    When I look for a book I tend to look at the covers first, even now that I read with an ebook thing I still go into the book shop and look through a cover and then go and buy them in digi format. I chose The Blade Itself purely because of the cover, you had an old faded blood splattered map on the cover. You knew before you opened the page it was going to be a messy one. Not one of your books have disapointed me, even Red Country, which was described in reviews as a western, was a fantastic read and I cant stand westerns. You seem to share the same outlook on life as I do and it shows in your books. Cant thank you enough for painting people as they are. Take The Blade Itself as prime example, 2 of your main characters, Logen and Glokta are not nice people and they never once pretend to be nice people. They are what they are, a barbarian with a bloody violent tendency and a cyincal cripple thats had his view of nice destroyed by his experiences.

    To be honest, there is not enough of your style of fantasy around and finding it is harder and harder. George R Martins books are mentioned above. Full of sex and castle politics. Fine if you like that. I dont. I like grit, I like cynism and I love bad guys being portrayed as lead characters.

    On a side note I have been sending people to this website for months now and every single one have went out to buy your books (should I start charging commission?). I tell them “If you like your fantasy bloody, realistic and very sharp edged then you’ll love Abercrombie.” Thanks to you I have lost a couple of friends but I am sure when they have read the books they’ll return to tell me all about it.

    I’ve rambled enough now. Hopefully I’ve made my point well enough though and dont sound too much like a stalker fan.

  • […] Joe Abercrombie talks about the value of grit: I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of […]

  • […] recent blog post on the utility of grit in fantasy is a good read, and I refer […]

  • Matt says:

    We own a bookstore and I have grown so tired of telling prospective fantasy buyers that “this book is gritty” It has become a term over-applied. Dark, Gritty Novels are a dime a dozen in contemporary fantasy and it is no longer a defining characteristic that set books apart. If it is going to be the state of the genre that is fine, as I have no issue with it, and am a big fan of your books Joe.

    The main issue I have is that when fantasy books start being sold on their “Grit” value it opens to door for some truly terrible trash. I am thinking of Mark Lawrence and Prince of Thorns at the moment, I dont recommend that book to any customer because it abused “grit” it turned something that should make a book feel more intimate, more real into something that felt like a comic book written to get a rise out of adolescent boys.

    The truth is life is “gritty” real shit happens to a lot of people, and putting bad things in your book doesnt make it a bad book, but abusing it for effect is pretty taudry.

  • […] Bear wrote a piece of her own, and you should definitely read it, it is a very good complement to ”the value of grit”. Here it is, enjoy and leave a comment on what you think. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like […]

  • Nr. None says:

    When I read comments insisting that “dark” and “gritty” are necessarily more close to reality than their antonyms, I can’t help but imagine that these are people who could walk through a park and see nothing but dog shit. It says more about the person than the place.

    On a more visceral level, the gritty fantasy I’ve looked into simply didn’t seem very… well, realistic to me. They seemed more like self-flagellation than honesty. “Life can’t be good! I won’t have it!” That or macho posturing – I did on more than one occasion suspect that the author wrote certain passages while grunting and flexing his biceps. But of course, that’s just my experience. It should also be noted that I haven’t read any of the First Law-books.

    As for where the dark, gritty trend is going, I suspect that you (Joe) are correct in that the pendulum is going to swing back at some point – at least if comics are any indication. Comics went through a similar phase, spanning roughly from 1986 to 1996. Starting off as an attempt to tell more nuanced stories, it eventually devolved into a puerile mess as writers began to treat sex and violence as shorthand for realism and depth of character. The buzz words were largely the same that you see in dark fantasy, which probably explains a great deal of my reflexive revulsion for the genre. Whenever something is described as dark and gritty, I picture this:

  • […] list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to […]

  • […] is a lot to be said about the move to this type of fantasy, as Joe Abercrombie explores at length in his post about the value of grit in fantasy. For one thing, it’s less predictable. No more plodding quests to find the Bad Guy in the Land of […]

  • anonymous says:

    I thought I was going to write something witty here. I have being thinking this whole grit grimdark thing and I was going to say something along the lines of the fact I god damn love grit and cussing and stuff that shows how fucked up life is.

    and then it all became horrifyingly, crystal fucking clear. I read how the character of glokta was based on Joe’s bouts with back pain. That can really be a can take all your life. I have worked in hospitals and seen what pain does to people. I really felt intensely empathetic for glokta. and then I realized a powerful truth. I am 42 now. If I could trade what happened to me in my 20s and the legacy of it with what happened to glokta, I would trade. I guess that is why I don’t mind grit. I am not being dramatic, I don’t want sympathy. what is done is done. I survived. I take 5 pills a day for the rest of my life just to manage. unlike glokta, I have not kept a job for more than a year. but like glokta, I married a wonderful woman. I have love in my life, I have kindness from friends and family, I have purpose and meaning now. my life is never easy. but the one thing I don’t see in joe’s novel is redemption and hope. not in a fucking heaven and hell sense but in a day to day 12 step sense. I like the man I see in the mirror. He never screws people over or takes the easy way out. unlike logen, I became a better man. It did involve spirituality. yes it is a bit vague and humanistic of a spirituality but it is mine. I try to be a man of peace and forgivness and love. I have no problem with gritty realism. I have seen too much of it to NOT want it in my fanstasy. But I also want fantasy that whispers that even when things are shit…it ain’t all shit. best served cold did that better I thought with the lead female character never losing her humanity, while shivers sadly did. but in first law series, as I enjoyed the gritty romp…but not a single POV disputed the bayaz/logen/ferro/toromiel/khulul road of either vengeance or despair.

  • […] sources – Joe Abercrombie – The Value of Grit, Saladin Ahmed and fantasy tropes – The Big Idea: Saladin […]

  • […] sources – Joe Abercrombie – The Value of Grit, Saladin Ahmed and fantasy tropes – The Big Idea: Saladin […]

  • […] (accessed 8 August 2013); J Abercrombie, ‘The Value of Grit’ (2013) available at (accessed 8 August 2013); C Buhlert, ‘It’s That Time of the Year Again: Grimdark Fantasy’ […]

  • […] that lazy and ill-defined pejorative Grimdark. I have discussed the term before, as have others more qualified to comment than […]

  • […] think along these lines—bestselling fantasy author Joe Abercrombie noted much the same thing in an essay written in response to a number of critical pieces on grimdark (mine included). But any tool is […]

  • […] along these lines—bestselling fantasy author Joe Abercrombie noted much the same thing in an essay written in response to a number of critical pieces on grimdark (mine included). But any tool is […]

  • […] 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 […]

  • […] decided to take it out. Not only was it closer to grimdark than I usually go, since I’m not Joe Abercrombie, but it didn’t make sense for Naomi to relate this experience from her past when Morgan […]

  • […] fantasy authors of recent vintage have achieved prominence and acclaim faster than Joe Abercrombie. His debut novel from 2006, The Blade Itself, heralded the start of his universe known as The First […]

  • […] fantasy authors of recent vintage have achieved prominence and acclaim faster than Joe Abercrombie. His debut novel from 2006, The Blade Itself, heralded the start of his universe known as The First […]

  • […] que la fantasía heroíca a menudo ha rechazado. El propio Abercrombie trató de explicar su visión del tema en su blog, desde un punto de vista más bien irónico que queda bien reflejado en su elección de alias para […]

  • […] novelas de Joe Abercrombie, que se ha pronunciado recientemente sobre la polémica con su habitual elocuencia, han llegado a nosotros de esa manera. Aunque las primeras tres novelas las edito Alianza en su […]

  • […] For those who want more information about this emerging genre, Abercrombie’s essay “The Value of Grit” explains why he writes dark, violent fantasy and why he thinks grimdark is becoming popular. We […]

  • MK Ultra says:

    I don’t have a problem with grittiness per se, but a lot of the stuff I’ve seen that “wallows” in grittiness tends to be horrifically misogynistic. Like, “and then all the women got RAPED by the evil RAPEORKS and then they got BRTUALLY MURDERED in GRAPHIC DETAIL. MANGRIT SHOTGLASS, the manly, manly antihero stood by and WATCHED, shaking his head in DISDAIN but also he was UNAFFECTED by the display of violence because he was so MANLY.” I love moral ambiguity, I love gross details, swearing, and reality, but I’m not a huge fan of the way authors use brutalized women as a short hand for “realism,” or worse yet, as cheap titilization.

  • Joshua Green says:

    I really like this topic of grit. Great essay, Joe, most if not all of your points are well taken. Of course though there is a but coming. The but is that you are not really talking about what the sensitive nerve is that grit sometimes hits. Maybe that’s not your job but it’s important for those who feel punched in the guts by too much darkness. So . .. for those of you with a sensitive nerve (and I count myself among them), here goes:

    Life sometimes assaults our sense of meaning, purpose, values, and our favorite images of ourselves, etc. This is the point Joe so ably makes. With a lot of justice in my opinion. The mistake one might make here is to suppose that doubling over in moral pain is somehow for the naive or weak minded. That moral pain at harsh realities is based in simplistic self-deception or naivete. In fact, it can suggest part illusion and part goodness. Being shocked or horrified is probably a process good people must go through to be both good and honest/realistic. A good and wise person holds onto both the goodness and the realism; hopefully, he/she does not surrender either. I think that the awareness that good and bad are hard to tell apart sometimes probably comes from goodness. Because real goodness is not so dualistic. That’s what makes it good. I think Joe shows recgonition of this point in his First Law trilogy when the eaters says things like “I don’t like what I have become.” Another eater who fights with Logen recognizes that his doubts about himself come from a good place. Of course, these eaters stop far short of doing more with this awareness, but at least they see that they have become a force for negativity and destruction. I would argue that Logen himself is better than he knows, that he is both a good, caring, thoughtful man and a very traumatized man who inflicts great suffering. I think Logen thinks too little of himself and underestimates his capacity for change; which paradoxically leads him to stay the same. He is also a victim of a world of constant violence and danger; given a more stable world, he’d probably do better.

  • […] decided to take it out. Not only was it closer to grimdark than I usually go, since I’m not Joe Abercrombie, but it didn’t make sense for Naomi to relate this experience from her past when Morgan […]

  • […] read a recent article on the subgenre ‘Grimdark’. Joe Abercrombie wrote a piece called ‘The Value of Grit’ and it details how he sees the current (2013) view of Grimdark and what he agrees and disagrees […]

  • […] called that then. So what is it? Abercrombie, aka Lord Grimdark Himself, has an excellent post on the value of grit, namely it’s not merely ‘to shock or titillate.’ In a short summary, then, […]

  • […] a King’, which I enjoyed overall but felt the ending kinda spoiled it. Abercrombie wrote a blog post about the value of realism in fantasy and suggests that traditional fantasy (by which I think he […]

  • […] Abercrombie wrote a great reply to the kind of poo-pooing Grin and others have posted over the last few years. I won’t go into […]

  • […] que la fantasía heroíca a menudo ha rechazado. El propio Abercrombie trató de explicar su visión del tema en su blog, desde un punto de vista más bien irónico que queda bien reflejado en su elección de alias para […]

  • […] novelas de Joe Abercrombie, que se ha pronunciado recientemente sobre la polémica con su habitual elocuencia, han llegado a nosotros de esa manera. Aunque las primeras tres novelas las edito Alianza en su […]

  • All I can say is – you said it Joe, Rock on! Brilliant piece.

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