The Value of Grit

Posted on February 25th, 2013 in opinion

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?

135 Comments So Far... (join in)

Display an avatar in the comments by signing up at Gravatar.

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. Hero eating baby. I can see the headlines now.

  7. 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??)

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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”.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. Verisimilitude.

    Good name for a cat.

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. That was a bit long.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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).

  22. 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!

  23. 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. 

  24. “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.

  25. 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)

  26. Well said, Joe!

  27. @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.”

  28. Hands down my favorite author blog ever.

  29. 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.

  30. *titter* You said ‘shit’.

  31. “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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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?

  34. 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.

  35. “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.

  36. noway,
    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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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?

  43. 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).

  44. 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.

  45. [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.

  46. Chris,
    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…

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. Joe,

    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.


  1. The Value of Grit

Add Your Comment: