gritty vs. grimdark

Yeah, I’m still thinking about this topic. Partly because of Cora Buhlert’s recent roundup. The digression onto Deathstalker mostly went over my head, since I haven’t read it, but she brings up a number of good points and also links to several posts I hadn’t seen. (Though I use the term “post” generously. I have to say, when the only response you make to this debate is “meh” followed by links to people who already agree with you, you might as well not bother. All you’re doing is patting yourself on the back in public.)

So I’m thinking about our terminology — “gritty” and “grimdark” and so on. What do we mean by “grit,” anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that’s hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It’s adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, “low fantasy” — the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term “realism”: those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.

But that isn’t the same thing as “grimdark,” is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its “realism” as lighter fare: if you’re writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you’re cherry-picking your grit.

What interests me, though, are the books which I might call gritty, but not grimdark. I mentioned this a while ago, when I read Tamora Pierce’s second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound. The central conflict in that book is counterfeiting, and Pierce is very realistic about what fake coinage can do to a kingdom. She also delves into the nuts and bolts of early police work, including police corruption . . . I’d call that grit. Of course it’s mitigated by the fact that her story is set in Tortall, which began in a decidedly less gritty manner; one of the things I noticed in the Beka Cooper books was how Pierce worked to deconstruct some of her earlier, more romantic notions, like the Court of the Rogue. But still: counterfeiting, a collapse in monetary policy, police corruption of a realistic sort, etc. Those are the kinds of details a lot of books would gloss over.

Or an example closer to home: With Fate Conspire. I was discussing it over e-mail recently, and it occurred to me that I put a lot of unpleasantness into that book. Off the cuff, it includes betrayal, slavery, slavery of children, imprisonment, torture, horrible disease, poverty, racism, terrorism, massive amounts of class privilege and the lack thereof, rape (alluded to), pollution, fecal matter, and an abundance of swearing. All of which is the kind of stuff grimdark fantasy revels in . . . yet I have not seen a single person attach that label to the novel. Nor “gritty,” for that matter, but I would argue that word, at least, should indeed apply. A great deal of that story grinds its way through the hard, unpleasant details of being lower-class in Victorian London. Realistic details, at that.

Of course, the book has a happy ending (albeit one with various price tags attached). Which makes it not grimdark — and also not gritty? Or maybe it’s that I was writing historical fiction, not the secondary-world fantasy that seems to be the locus of the term. Or, y’know, it might be that I’m a woman. One of the posts Buhlert links to is from [personal profile] matociquala, who — unusually for this debate — names some female authors as having produced gritty work, and Buhlert takes that point further. This is a highly gendered debate, not just where the sexual abuse of characters is concerned, and if we don’t acknowledge that, we’re only looking at a fraction of the issue.

I’m sort of wandering at this point, because there’s no tidy conclusion to draw. You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind. I think I’d be interested in reading more gritty-but-not-grimdark fantasy, from either gender. Recommendations welcome.

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0 Responses to “gritty vs. grimdark”

  1. mindstalk

    Cherryh feels and I think gets called ‘gritty’, with space stations that feel like tin cans built on a budget rather than O’Neill’s suburban parks, and multiple books with merchanters and details of their mating customs. Grimdark, I dunno, there’s usually some sort of eucatastrophic ending, but she’s good at claustrophobic and powerless and ignorant feelings for most of the book…

    Babylon-5 was gritty in lots of ways. Bathrooms, pay cuts, labor strikes, advertising, annoying journalists…

    The Japanese economic romance novel series _Spice and Wolf_ is very gritty regarding (imagined) medieval economics and town life and the perils of being an itinerant merchant. Not at all grimdark.

    • Marie Brennan

      B5 was definitely gritty compared to Star Trek. I think BSG tried to take that further, but my impression (based on two seasons and hearing people talk about the rest) is that a) it tended to sweep aside important practical issues the writers didn’t happen to be interested in, and b) it tipped over into grimdarkness, mood-wise.

      I find it hilarious that there is something out there that can be described as an “economic romance novel series.” 😀 Not a combination of words we often see together . . . .

      • mindstalk

        Yeah it is hilarious but it’s totally apt.

        The main characters are a traveling merchant, who gets up into change-of-currency shenanigans, and the totally hot (in human form) wise-wolf-god using him as a ride back home. Recurrent plot elements are (a) making money and (b) the snarky interaction between the two, inching toward actual romance.

        Good series. There’s an anime based on it, but 6 novels + 1 story collection have okay English translations. Also a manga but I haven’t seen that.

        (Crest/Banner of the Stars is another Japanese novel series with two main characters clearly Destined but making glacial progress[1], but not as annoyingly so as Ah My Goddess.)

        [1] As defined by physical intimacy, like ever kissing. The *emotional* bonding becomes pretty blatant.

        • Marie Brennan

          I’m a fan of Rurouni Kenshin, and in that series, it was a big deal when Kenshin touched Kaoru’s hand. <g> So I can cope with glacial romantic progress.

  2. wshaffer

    Fairies and girl-cooties cancel out grit, don’t ya know? 😉

    The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether “realism” is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

    I think that all three of these are valid and interesting questions, but people tend to slide from one to the other in the course of the discussion. A lot of the people defending “grimdark” seem to be arguing as if question #2 is at issue when question #3 is more pertinent.

    Having said that, I can kind of understand the frustration of some authors of “grimdark” who may feel they’re being tarred with a broad brush. Dealing with question #3 really requires a close textual analysis of individual works. I’m reading one of Richard K. Morgan’s novels right now, and my not-quite-fully-formed feeling is that while his handling of gender, sexuality, and race is not flawless, it’s better than much of what I’ve seen in the genre.

    • Marie Brennan

      OH RIGHT FAERIES. No wonder nobody thinks Fate is gritty.

      (It says something about my brain that it didn’t even occur to me that the faeries might be an anti-grit factor in anybody’s eyes.)

      Good breakdown of the interlocking conversations. I may pull that out and make yet another post soon, because that puts a lot of things into perspective.

      • helivoy

        I discussed some of these overlaps a while ago, in the first fisticuff between Abercrombie and Grin: A Plague on Both Your Houses, Reprise. At that time, I was the only non-whiteanglomale to do so. It’s good to hear more diverse voices this time around.

    • rachelmanija

      Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life.

      I’d even pull that one further apart, to: is “realism” selectively defined by sexist (and other biased) criteria?

      For instance, the several posts discussing why depicting the rape of women is called realistic, but the rape of men is equally realistic yet far less often depicted.

      Or why depicting women as powerless victims is defended on the historical grounds that the average woman was a powerless victim. But there is no corresponding push to have the male heroes of fantasy novels be farmers who never get involved in adventures, even though that’s equally historically accurate.

      • Marie Brennan

        I was about to start typing a reply, and then figured out that I should just save it for the next post, because I have too much to say. 🙂

      • mindstalk

        Or it’s realistic that women didn’t have as many opportunities as men, but also realistic that that was often far from watertight — especially in actually medieval Europe — ranging from “women veiled or trapped in the home for life” to “brash woman with male relative support being able to get away with just about anything” and “you know, most women couldn’t afford to just raise kids” in the middle.

        • rachelmanija

          That’s what I was trying to get it: male characters get to be exceptional, on the grounds that historically speaking, some men were exceptional. But female characters are only victims, on the grounds that historically speaking, the average woman was. (Which I don’t even think is correct, but that’s a different argument.)

          That’s even apart from why fantasy writers must follow their (often wrong, or highly selective) ideas about historical realism when it comes to women’s roles, but are free to completely alter the historical record when it comes to religion or, say, the existence of magic.

  3. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, Bear’s post also brings up how predictable and boring it can become. When you know anybody can and will die, you stop investing. When you know people will reliably make terrible decisions, they cease to surprise you. Etc.

  4. hawkwing_lb

    That giant (Comic Sans?) “meh” is very much a “Stay classy, mate,” moment.

    has it right about the different but interlocking questions which are part of the discussion, and the fact that none of the conversations has been sticking with just one of those questions.

    It seems to me that what differentiates “gritty” from “grim” – low fantasy from existentially (and on occasional morally) nihilist fantasy – is both mood/tone and philosophy. The “grimdark” school takes existential and moral nihilism and goes to town. Gritty fantasy, on the other hand, can be nihilist but isn’t a priori so: the potential for eucatastrophe, or modified catastrophe, remains within the text, and human kindness/grace/compassion isn’t treated as foolhardy or pointless.

    • Marie Brennan

      Foolhardy, pointless, or nonexistent. In my original post over on SF Novelists I linked to a mini-biography of Abd el-Kader, who is an example of a gobsmackingly decent war leader. But if you put him in a book, people would probably call him unrealistic, a total Gary Stu. (Maybe not; that term gets thrown around much less than Mary Sue. But an equivalently gobsmacking woman in whatever role? Admired even by her enemies? She’d be called a Mary Sue for sure.)

  5. mindstalk

    Hmm, Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, with piss kings and all: gritty?

    McKinley’s _Outlaws of Sherwood_ where Robin spends half his time worrying about privies.

    • Marie Brennan

      A chunk of the humour in Pratchett comes from applying realistic standards to fantasy tropes. As per my most recent post, that fits what I personally consider to be “gritty,” though tonally it’s not very grim at all.

      And yes, McKinley’s book is strongly driven by the practical considerations of hiding a group of outlaws in a forest for an extended period of time. That’s what makes it stand out from so many other Robin Hood stories.

  6. alecaustin

    It’s interesting, too, that as far as I can tell no one’s pulled Dragon Age into this discussion yet. It’s quite grim – Thedas is not a joyous and happy place, what with the Darkspawn being generated by Broodmothers and so on, as well as the giant splashes of blood in the first game – but there is at least some hope of the supernatural darkness getting beaten back, and improvement, however temporary, being brought about by the player’s actions.

    ‘s point about people eliding grim and gritty into the same thing when they aren’t really is a relevant one, but I think there’s a tendency to equate different degrees of grimness/darkness in fiction with each other, as well as resistance to that on the part of some participants. Prince of Thorns isn’t really the same thing as Lord Foul’s Bane, which isn’t the same as The Blade Itself, which isn’t the same as The Conqueror’s Shadow. There are lots of different shades of darkness, and explicitness, and awfulness of protagonist in play here, and while fine distinctions often get ignored in this sort of conversation, I think it would be useful if people stopped blurring lines that are there for a reason.

    I would argue that there’s probably at least one more axis in play here as well, which is the emotional or tonal range of a work. There are authors, like Bujold, who mix their darkness with light humor and romance (and then far more biting humor and melancholy). There’s also how the darkness is handled (re: explicitness and ideological load – which is something that has been hovering around the edges of this discussion but which I haven’t seen discussed in depth yet).

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d been sticking to books, but yeah — DA definitely exists in that zone. Not just from the violence and so on, but from the fact that Bioware deliberately gives you choices that can’t be split into “right” and “wrong.” Bhelen is a Machiavellian asshole, but he’s also better for Orzammar. Harrowmont is a decent guy, but his political convictions are bad for the city. The games don’t go full-on into moral greyness, but they definitely incorporate it in places.

      Re: blurring lines, I’m not sure it’s so much “blurring lines that are there for a reason” as “having this debate without having established clear lines at the outset.” I mean, there was a comment on one post or another claiming Scott Lynch as a grimdark author — specifically, claiming that anti-grimdark people call him such, and then defending Lynch as not being guilty of the things grimdark is accused of. Whereupon the OP pointed out that, uh, Lynch is writing caper fantasy, not anything remotely like Martin. So while distinctions can indeed be made, I think we have to actually make them first, and I think that’s a stage we’ve skipped over. Probably because we haven’t all read the same books, so everybody is pulling on whatever examples come to hand for them personally.

      I agree wholeheartedly about range. Bear sort of touches on that, when she talks about how predictable and trite it becomes when everything is unrelentingly dark; I’ve always known that serious drama works better for me when it’s leavened with lighter material. Nobody’s going to call Bujold grimdark when she has scenes like the dinner disaster in A Civil Campaign — and even in a book like Mirror Dance, which is so different from ACC as to be practically another genre, there’s humour of a non-bitter, sarcastic, gallows sort, and the characters win victories that they get to enjoy. It isn’t so much whether you put your characters through the wringer or not; it’s what happens to them when they’re not in the wringer.

      • alecaustin

        It’s interesting how people react differently to things. The dinner disaster in ACC is the one part of that book I have to skip. I find it nearly physically unbearable to read due it being such a train-wreck.

        I will also confess that I don’t see as much of a bright line between Scott Lynch and Martin as you do – yes, he’s writing caper fantasy, but it’s caper fantasy that goes to some incredibly dark and distressing places, especially when the Bondsmagi show up. That said, he occupies a realm similar to that of Bujold, where the range of content he covers is much broader, and doesn’t require you to get your laughs from the Tyrion and Arya sections alone.

        I think, ultimately, the issue is that the lines *aren’t* perfectly clear – they never are, which is why arguments over genre boundaries get so vicious – even though I think most of us would agree that there’s a difference between the likes of Prince of Thorns and Donaldson’s The Real Story (rape and horror all the way down!) and Martin’s work, at least in terms of the explicitness and virulence of the violence towards women depicted. Having rape off-screen isn’t the same as having the purported protagonist be a serial rapist, basically. That doesn’t mean that we should cheer about how amazing Martin is re: depicting women, necessarily, but I appreciate the people who are trying to draw distinctions rather than defend everything or lump everything that is even remotely dark together in one basket.

        • mindstalk

          I have no idea what Martin’s intentions are, but I was watching the series with friends and snarking “so, this is an extended advertisement for democracy, right?” and to my surprise they said “yep!” I don’t know if Martin’s goal is “I are very serious author” or “history is ass, people, let me tear down that romanticized medieval fantasy you love”, with the latter possibly implying “Doh! You’re right! I should have had more rape of males but didn’t think of it!”

          • Marie Brennan

            I’ve seen it mentioned that there’s more indication of sexual violence against men in the later books. Still very much in an off-screen, backstory, rarer-and-more-subtle fashion, but it’s possible that Martin is making an effort to correct that imbalance.

          • mindstalk

            In my spoiler diving I haven’t run across sexual violence against males; I have read about lots of mutilation and at least one truly horrific case of body horror, something where anal rape might be one of the least bad things involved.

          • Marie Brennan

            I suspect I know which character the body horror has been inflicted on. (I’ve mostly stayed away from spoilers, but two passing references to extremely bad things happening to a specific person, one of them in the context of sexual violence, leads me to draw a connection.)

            Found the mention I was referring to. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the list, and even if all of those readings are correct, it doesn’t come anywhere near parity. Still, it might mean Martin is aware of the problem.

          • mindstalk

            Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone mentioning Varys’ thing for little boys, when I got a strong “molester” vibe from the books.

          • Marie Brennan

            I got the same vibe, but I’d have to re-read to see if there’s a good basis for it in the text, or just assumptions on my part.

        • Marie Brennan

          I can see having trouble with the dinner scene. I am easily put off by humiliation/embarrassment, so a less successful execution of that scene would have driven me away. As it stood, I was a) laughing too hard and b) marveling too much at how a hundred different loose ends from earlier in the series were being marshaled into the collision.

          Lynch and Martin: I haven’t read past the first Gentlemen Bastards book, so I can’t speak to later developments. There’s definitely grimdarkish bits in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but tonally I didn’t get the same feeling off it — and yeah, that has a lot to do with the range rather than the extremes.

          For my own part, I’m mostly trying to speak to the trend rather than the individual instances. So while I do agree the distinctions matter, it’s also true there has been a general movement of books that do a broad set of nasty things as a pattern (whether or not any given example does all those things, or does them in the same way), and also that there’s been a general valorization of that movement in some quarters. I do think it’s important to discuss both, though it can lead to some frustration when it seems like the wrong titles are getting swept up in the net.

  7. Marie Brennan

    I think nails it below, in mentioning tonal range as a consideration. Also my more recent post goes further into decoupling grittiness from grimdarkness.

  8. Anonymous

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