Gritty vs. Grimdark

[Originally posted on my blog.]


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 Elizabeth Bear, 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.