Welcome to the Desert of the Real

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Sometimes I swear there really is a collective unconscious. I decided in early February that this would be my March post; now, in the last week or so, I’ve come across a groundswell of people discussing the exact same topic: “gritty” fantasy (and gritty fiction in general).

I’m talking about the books where the heroes are just barely a lighter shade of grey than the villains, where death comes for everyone without warning, where people get hurt and don’t recover, and betrayal is the order of the day. George R. R. Martin is, if anything, the lighter end of this trend, with people like Joe Abercrombie being further down the path. We’ve coined a number of adjectives to describe the kind of story they’re writing, like “grimdark” or (if you’re feeling much less charitable) “crapsack,” on account of how the world it takes place in comes across as wall-to-wall misery and filth.

Or — and here we get to my argument — “realistic.”

I don’t have a problem with stories where everything is grim and dark and horrible. I may not want to read them, but I’m not going to run around saying they shouldn’t exist in the first place. What I do have a problem with is the imputation of moral virtue to those stories: the idea that they are inherently better than the “escapist” tales in which the characters don’t all behave like assholes to one another, and that people who like Abercrombie’s novels (or whoever; I’m not here to pick on him specifically) are superior to readers who don’t want their faces rubbed in the gutter. After all, the readers of grit are able to look unflinchingly into the ugly face of reality! The rest of us are hiding.

Foz Meadows points out the next problem in the chain, which is the way the claim of “realism” enshrines certain issues as the natural order of things, which we should not expect to be any other way. If “female characters being raped” = “realistic,” then it follows that “female characters not being raped” = “unrealistic.” Sucks to be us, ladies! Ditto racism, homophobia, and a host of other unpleasantnesses many people are working to change right now. That’s the way the world was Back Then, the defenders of grimdark say, and they’re just being honest about it.

(Strange how narrow a view of Back Then those defenders usually have. I want to see them applaud a grimdark fantasy in which the manly tradition of warriors includes institutionalized age-structured homosexuality, with the older members buggering the trainees. Oh, sorry, did I get realism in their “realism”? My bad.)

This trend came up at Fourth Street Fantasy last year, and I found myself vehemently rejecting the notion that only the ugly parts of the world are real. Men’s respect for women is just as true and meaningful as their disrespect. If the unbreakable trust of an ally is not inevitable, neither is betrayal; the world is made out of both. There really are people of breathtaking virtue and decency, as well as complete scum. You can focus on the latter if you want to, but don’t tell me it’s better — morally or factually — than focusing on the former.

How did we arrive at this state, where we valorize that kind of borderline nihilism? The answer to that is complicated and would take a twenty-seven mile detour through recent global history, but my epiphany at Fourth Street was to blame Thomas Bowdler — or rather, the trend to which he gave his name. He edited Shakespeare to remove passages considered unsuitable for women and children, which is just one facet of a larger movement that separated out childhood as a time of innocence, untouched by violence or sexuality or any hint of moral greyness. And, well, if stuff without those things is For Children, then stuff with them is For Adults (or even, as with Bowdler, just For Men), which by the transitive property of storytelling means that if you’re writing for adults/adult men, you ought to put in violence and sex and moral greyness. Pretty soon those things become intellectually superior, because whatever adult men are reading is of course the most important thing out there, and then it’s even more superior to write stuff that’s all about those things. To do otherwise is childish.

I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with writing about violence (even bloody, horrific violence), sex (even nonconsensual sex, which is to say rape), or moral greyness. All of those things are real. But they are not the whole picture. Reality is not a desert in which we stagger from one tiny oasis to the next, barely sucking down enough muddy, stagnant water to stay alive. If you’re writing about the desert, ask yourself why, and where you’re going in it, and whether you’re following that path because it will take you somewhere useful, or just because everyone else has gone that way. Don’t have a female character get raped just because rape is what happens to women. Don’t exclude people of color from meaningful roles in your story just because that’s what you’re accustomed to seeing. Read some actual history and get a sense of how it worked, rather than basing your assumptions on the last ten fantasy novels you read.

That is the way to be honest, mature — and realistic.