More on Grimdark

[Originally posted on my blog.]


I have other things I should be doing, but Wendy Shaffer made a very good point in the comments to my last post, so I’m back for another round. And at this point I’ve made a tag for the grimdark discussion, because I’ve said enough that you might want to be able to track it all down.

To quote Shaffer:

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 love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn’t before. Let’s take her questions one at a time.

Is “realism” grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit?

As soon as we put it like that, I know my answer: no. Because if the answer were yes, then mimetic fiction would automatically become superior to fantasy of any stripe — and while that may be the attitude pushed by modernism and the literary establishment, it isn’t one I have ever agreed with. We use non-realism all the time to make artistic/moral/thematic/etc points. The same is true of the sorts of “realism” this debate is concerned with. So, moving on.

To what extent does realism actually require focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life?

I myself committed the error of conflating realism with “darker and more unpleasant,” so I want to walk that back. I think that in this context, when we use that word, what we mean is “pragmatism.” Or “practicality.” If your hero can leap on a horse and gallop all day to deliver a message, you’re ignoring the practical reality of what horses can and cannot do. But not all practical matters are necessary dark and unpleasant: it is very pragmatic to bear in mind that a person in a medieval-type-society can’t break their word at every turn, or they will become a social pariah that nobody wants to deal with. Yes, sometimes people turn traitor — but making a consistent pattern of people doing so is both dark and unrealistic.

(Which means this touches on my personal definition of hard fantasy. Social issues aren’t as clear-cut and predictable as natural laws, but there is a logic there, which you may choose to follow or not in your stories. I tend to like the stories that do, and disconnect from the ones that don’t, whether they go in a Pollyanna or dis-Pollyanna direction — hat tip to Elizabeth Bear and John Gardner for the latter term.)

Rachel Manija Brown brought up a corollary issue to this: is “realism” selectively defined by sexist (and other biased) criteria? As she points out, the average woman in medieval society might have been pretty powerless, but then again, so was the average man. Certain kinds of readers will rush to point out the “unrealism” of having a peasant woman become a warrior or whatever when in truth she would have been stuck at home raising kids . . . but they ignore the fact that a peasant man was going to be stuck at home plowing the fields and milking the cows and so on. Men didn’t live unrestricted lives, in those kinds of societies; they lived under different restrictions. We do, as a genre, asymmetrically apply our obedience to those truths, allowing exceptional men more easily than exceptional women.

Under my new definition, the “realistic” thing to do would be to look at what obstacles lie in the way of both men and women, and what conditions would need to be met/what obstacles they would have to overcome in order for the story to happen. And I don’t mean the obstacles we all assume should be there because that’s what we’ve seen in other fantasy novels; I mean the ones that genuinely occurred at similar points in history. Then, once you have those, you think through whether they should apply to your invented society, or whether the changed circumstances mean you should rethink this matter, too. (We call it “hard fantasy” because writing it is haaaaaaaaaaaard.)

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 not themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

Yes — but again, it takes work. Taking rape as the specific example: you have to pay attention to the countervailing factors against that danger, and the strategies used to defend against it. I don’t just mean strategies on the part of the victim, either; societies push back against this kind of thing, too. While it is true that the opportunity provided by chaos means some men will whip it out and try to stick it in anything that can’t run away fast enough, that isn’t true of every man. The offender’s peers may disapprove; authority figures may enact prohibitions, and punish those who break them. Military discipline is not an invention of the modern West.

Also — returning to the point above — you can’t let your assumptions dictate your framing. One of the attitudes provided by rape culture is that men are animals who can’t be expected to control themselves in the face of temptation; well, that simply isn’t true. Not unless you choose to write a society in which men are socialized to behave that way. It therefore isn’t “unrealistic” or even especially heroic to have your male characters resist the temptation to sexually assault women, or never feel that temptation in the first place. (It’s been too long since I read the book for me to form my own opinion, but one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Martin is that the narrative expects us to give Tyrion a good-guy cookie for not raping Sansa when he has the chance.) Another rape-culture assumption is that only women’s bodies are the targets of sexual violence, never men’s, so including such threats against men helps counter the standard narrative. (Even if you don’t go to the point of violence, remember that the taboo against homosexuality is far from universal, and there have been times and places where the pimpin’ lifestyle for a man was to have male lovers/visit male whores as well as female ones.) And then there’s the whole matter of nuance, which so often gets left out of these stories: if you’re going to put the rape of women into your book, then pay attention to the reality of how women actually deal with that, rather than pulling out Stock Trope #3 (She Gets Revenge!).

Above all, give those women a voice. Or the minorities, or the disabled, or whoever. Having one or more female protagonists isn’t proof against misogyny in the story, but it helps; it puts you in a position to counter the misogynistic pattern of women only being objects, never actors. I find Martin less problematic on this matter than some other authors because he has an abundance of women in his story, in a variety of different roles, many of them with point of view. He falls down in places — oh, does he ever — but if he had all that rapeyness and our only important female character was Arya the Tomboy? That would be worse. I have bounced off any number of recent fantasies because I am quite simply tired of stories in which there are virtually no women, and when those stories are also grimdark . . . yeah, I’m outta there.

And then we can bring this back around by saying, if your portrayal of rape is biased, and you’re defending it as realistic, and implying (or outright claiming) that it’s better on account of its realism . . . then you’re compounding the starting problem, and making the misogyny factor much more prominent than it would otherwise have been.

So my take on these multiple conversations would be to toss the “realism = superior” thing out the window, to decouple realism/grittiness/etc from grimdarkness (as per my last post), and then to have a more focused discussion about the specific portrayal of negative issues, and where the line is between depicting those things to critique them and depicting them out of habit, or for the shock value. Which is a situation where you’re mostly going to benefit from analyzing specific texts, before you try to make statements about trends — and that, I will admit, is where I probably have to step out, because I don’t have the data to argue my point. I haven’t read Martin since A Feast for Crows was released, got only halfway through Abercrombie’s first book, and so on with the rest of the key names in this debate. I know I don’t agree with every criticism I’ve seen of Martin (nor every defense), but I also know I should re-familiarize myself with the text before I try to debate it.

I doubt we’ll be able to get the debate to focus on that third question, because this is the internet. The conversation is going on in two dozen places, not all of which are aware of one another, and it’s sliding in new directions with each post. But I do think it helps to bear in mind that the question exists, and isn’t coterminous with the other things we’re talking about.