Category Archive for ‘opinion’
People keep asking me whether Half a King is a Young Adult book. Well, yes it is. Kind of. But also an adult fantasy. Kind of. Crossover, you know. Depends a little on who you ask…
Categorisation is always a bit of a strange business. Books are often put into a certain genre, or shelved in a certain part of a bookstore, because of things that are nothing to do with the content of the book – the history of the author, the nature of the publisher, the whim of a bookseller, the font on the spine. Young Adult is a particularly tough category to define as it straddles all kinds of different styles – fantasy, historical, thrillers, romance, tough real world stories. The one thing a young adult book must have is a young adult protagonist, but outside of that, there are no hard rules. They’re often shorter and more focused than adult books, but not always. They’re often less explicit in the areas of sex and violence, but not always. They’re often softer on the swearing, except when they’re not.
And of course all these categories are constantly in flux. The boundaries of what’s permissible in a young adult book are constantly expanding, and books that might once have been considered firmly in the camp of adult fantasy (like Eddings’ Belgariad, for example), are sometimes rebranded YA as the years roll on.
A little background as to how I came to write Half a King. I had a meeting with Nick Lake, young adult publisher at Harper Collins, what feels like a hundred years ago but was maybe four. He liked my adult fantasy and thought I might have a good young adult book in me. At the time I was finishing up the Heroes, I think, and the idea sat with me, in a vague sort of way, for some time until, by chance, as these things do, the seed of the idea for Half a King took root in my brain loam. Having written six big, chunky, complicated, relatively similar, unapologetically adult books I felt the need for something of a change. So I started writing.
Now, I will admit to being no kind of expert on young adult literature. Some people might think it’s rather presumptuous of me to try writing it. Maybe it is. Sorry bout that. But then I have a far from encyclopaedic knowledge of adult fantasy either. I’ve always felt strongly that you don’t write something good by trying to slavishly assess what’s working in the marketplace, still less by trying to read everything in a category so that you somehow eliminate everything done before and leave yourself only with the fresh and original. I think you write something good by drawing on all kinds of diverse influences from fiction, from non-fiction, from film and tv and games and life and combining them in a way that only you can to write the kind of book that you would like to read. Or, perhaps, the kind of book you wanted to read at 14.
My main touchstones in the young adult arena were things I read and loved when I was younger – notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical books (Blood Feud especially) and John Cristopher’s post-apocalyptic Sword of the Spirits. These were books full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices. These were not books that ever simplified, preached, or talked down to their audience. But I also had in mind the powerful voices of some adult viking fiction, like Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships, Robert Low’s The Whale Road and sequels, Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo Saxon Chronicles and others.
I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults. Just young ones. Many of them are extremely sophisticated in their reading. What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults (like me) want to read. I get emails, after all, from 11 year olds who read my adult work. When I was 14 I was reading Dragonlance and David Eddings. I was also reading Dickens and Dostoevsky (I may have been enjoying them less than Dragonlance, but you take my point). People in that 12-18 age range are dealing with serious issues of sex, money, identity, responsibility. The last thing they want to read is simplified, childish, toothless pap. The last thing they want to be is talked down to. Talked to as if they’re children. What adult does?
So my aim was not to soften, or bowdlerise, or pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there. My aim was to write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic. I spent some time with horror writer Adam Neville not long ago, and he explained to me his philosophy of life and death on every page. I modified that just a little to a slap in the face on every page. No wasted space. A driving single thread which is all killer, no filler. My aim was to write something tighter and simpler in its narrative, perhaps, but certainly not simpler in the way it was written or in the themes that it tackles. Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing departments but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, the same moral complexity, the same shocks and challenges, the same visceral action, the same rich vein of dark humour that I fondly imagine my other books have offered. Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.
There’s a degree to which, once it’s finished and released into the wild, it’s not necessarily up to me to say whether Half a King is Young Adult or not. Publishers, booksellers and, of course, readers, will make their own determinations. The fact that I’m already known for adult fantasy certainly plays a role. In the UK there were 6 publishers interested – 1 children’s, 2 general fiction, 2 adult fantasy and a collaboration between an adult fantasy and a young adult list, all of them with slightly different ideas and emphases on how they’d package and market it. There was much talk of Crossover – that sweet spot between children’s and adult fiction where many of our most beloved fantasies sit, but is always difficult to aim at. It was the collaboration that won through in the end, between Harper Voyager (adult fantasy) and Harper Collins’ YA list with what you might call a comprehensive approach aiming at both markets. In the US, where categories are less flexible, Del Rey will be selling the book primarily in fantasy sections, but with wide-ranging attempts to bring in a young adult readership too. There are already ten or so translation deals done and the various international publishers – some of whom already publish the First Law books and some of whom are new to me – will all have slightly differing approaches depending on their own strengths and their own market.
The term YA is sometimes used disparagingly (probably by folks who’ve never really read any) to mean something superficial, fluffy, disposable, lacking in depth and edge. That is not what I had it in mind to write. That is not what I believe I’ve produced. That is not what I think any serious writer of YA fiction produces. From a recent review by the redoubtable Adam Whitehead, at the Wertzone:
“This is still very much a Joe Abercrombie novel, meaning there’s an air of both cynicism and humour to proceedings and there’s a fair amount of violence. There isn’t much swearing and no sex at all, but beyond that the only way you’d know this was a YA novel is because the author said so on his website.”
I would argue there’s a degree to which – other than by the way it’s talked about, marketed, packaged, and sold – I’m not sure you should be able to tell a good young adult novel from a good adult novel. For me they’ll both be tough, honest, truthful. They’ll both have wit, excitement, strong dialogue and vivid characters. They’ll both leave you desperate to turn the next page, and when you’ve turned the last page, they’ll both leave you with something to think about.
I read a chapter from Half a King at the World Fantasy Convention last year, and at the end, as you do, I asked for questions. Someone called out, ‘is that meant to be toned down?’ That got a laugh from the room, and from me as much as anyone.
Because no, it isn’t meant to be toned down.
Why would it be?
Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE. Three cheers, anyone?
Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today. It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001. Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe. Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer… An interesting year this has been. Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.
Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?
A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain. No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women. The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now. Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever. Which is nice. I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail. I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here. It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…
A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end. Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time. I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories. Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…
BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom. Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity. I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth. Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back. Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher. Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…
TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days. Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January. Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me. I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much. Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep. Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way. Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching. The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE. Ah, well. TV was a great deal more promising. Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP. Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start. Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising. Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series. Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock. The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing. The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned. Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more. Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6. I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to. Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights. You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions. Brilliant Stuff. I’m tearing up again! Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man! Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…
GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year. Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative. The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines. For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls. Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it. The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time. In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.
BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to. Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more. It seems more honest in the main. I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics. Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…
CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument. There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer. That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year. I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…
Happy new year, readers!
I set out on a righteous quest to sweep the blogosphere with navel-gazing on the subject of grit, and I kind of succeeded, although it mutated into grimdark along the way. But then mutations are unpredictable and stick according to the prevailing conditions and the mechanism of natural selection. Who am I to argue with evolution? ‘Grimdark’ it seems to be, now. Discussion has rumbled on, and there’s a handy collection of relevant links at Jenny’s Library, including some I hadn’t come across before. But there’s also been a response from author Daniel Abraham, which I consider particularly relevant and incisive since it’s so nice about my book. Beware of spoilers…
“The book that—for me—embodies the purest grimdark response is Abercrombie’s thoroughly brilliant The Heroes, in which the final moments (and spoilers here, so turn away if you don’t want to know) affirm that the violence will not only continue, but that the heroic men and women who are dedicated to it will never escape it except through death. Honestly, until I read The Heroes, I didn’t have much use for the grimdark projects, and now that I have, I feel like I’ve seen this expressed as clearly, powerfully, and beautifully as anyone ever will, and I don’t have to read another one pretty much ever.”
That’s fine. As long as you PAID FOR THAT ONE.
Posted on March 25th, 2013 in opinion, The Inquisition
Back to the Inquisition, and I’m working my way gradually through the many questions would-be Inquisitors have left there. So without further ado, Pierre Colinot wanted to ask:
“why you chose the ultra-cynical angle to write your books. Is it because you think it makes for better stories, is it because it is coherent with your worldview, is it just because you enjoy writing characters in such a merciless world, or another reason altogether?”
Interesting, and somewhat relevant to recent discussions on the value of gritty fantasy. There’s a degree to which many of the things that emerge when you start writing aren’t particularly thought through in advance, they’re not things you choose, exactly, they’re the natural direction the story takes you in. It’s often not until long after the event that you start to wonder why you wrote what you did, sometimes with a smug nod, sometimes with a shamed wince. But when it comes to cynicism I guess the reason comes down to something like – because I’d read a lot of very predictable, repetitive, morally simple and entirely uncynical fantasy and I wanted to write something which would sit on the other side of the scales. I wanted (and I’m not saying I achieved it, how badly I failed is for others to judge) to do with fantasy the sort of thing that Unforgiven does with the western – a modern updating of a form, a comment on a form, but ultimately a great example of the form.
PREPARE FOR MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST LAW, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
For me, that meant including a lot of the classic tropes (or cliches, if you’d rather) and then putting a twist on them, inverting them, subverting them, whatever. Leading people to expect what they’d always had before then giving them something different, in order to make them think about their expectations. Sometimes it was about looking at a more ‘realistic’ version of a trope. Sometimes it was about presenting a pessimistic mirror-image of a trope, or a complicated version of a simple trope. The fact that these were often morally simple, heroic, optimistic tropes led inevitably to morally complex, unheroic, pessimistic inversions.
So I had a boy with a special destiny, but he was an arrogant coward whose special destiny was invented by a puppet master as a means of control. I had a perfect royal couple, but rather than finding love they came to despise each other. I had a world-weary man of violence, but his violence was explosive, directionless and horrifying, as destructive to himself and his friends as to his enemies. I had a wizardly mentor who claimed to be the one man who could save the world from evil, and proved to be that evil. I had a couple of used-up, bitter people who found some comfort in each other but in the end couldn’t get over the damage in their pasts. I had an epoch-ending war for control between right and wrong, except both sides proved to be about as wrong as each other, and the new epoch was very much like the last.
Having written all this, I suppose it would still have been possible to end the series in an entirely uncynical way. Logen and Ferro could have found happiness together. Jezal could have resisted Bayaz and married Ardee and together ushered in a new age of prosperity and equality. Glokta could have been healed by magic and found peace. There could have been a neat tying off of plot threads, minimal examination of the consequences and the aftermath, and the dawn of a wondrous new era THE END.
Fuck that shit.
I felt that it was necessary to see it through. To provide an ending like an avalanche, as it’s been called. An ending that some people were sure to dislike, but that they’d find difficult to ignore. To look at the consequences and the disappointments and the failures.
Occasionally I hear people say that the world is full of light, humour, and love, and books that don’t include those things are just as unrealistic as those which feature nothing but. Well, no book contains every aspect of life, they all emphasise some things over others. But I think it’s fair to say that commercial epic fantasy in the wake of Tolkien, through the 80s and 90s, was generally very much on the simply heroic, trope-filled and predictable side of the scales (with some important exceptions, of course, with gaming stuff written in the Warhammer world and Martin’s Game of Thrones being important influences on me). It seems to me that some books which examine those tropes and present a different take on life are not only unsurprising but deeply necessary.
And, honestly, out of a scale of 100 with everyone dies at 0 and everyone wins at 100, I wouldn’t put the First Law any lower than, what, a 30? It’s dark, yeah, but it’s also pretty mixed. Some people die pointless deaths, but most of the principles live. Some end no better than they started. Many struggle to become better, some have limited success, some fail, some realise they are helpless tools in great events. Some are revealed to be far worse than we hoped, some are revealed to be better. Some try to do good, some fail, are frustrated by the harshness of the world, others succeed in small ways.
You know what, sometimes, that’s life. Wonderful royal couples can turn out to be shiny distractions held up to the public that are hell for those involved (Charles and Diana, anyone?) Wise old leaders who claim to have our best interests at heart are often more interested in their own interests, thank you, and those held up as noble heroes often have a skeleton or two in the cupboard, if not to say an attic full of the bastards.
Of course the world is not nothing but bleakness, darkness, horror but my books, in common with a lot of epic fantasy, cover great upheavals, wars, collapses of society, struggles for power. Those kind of events do come with moral challenges, with disappointments, with failures, with deaths and horrors, with ragged consequences. I wouldn’t want to become predictable for horrifying cynicism any more than for cloying optimism, so I doubt I’ll always be as cynical as I was with the First Law. Despite some people saying that Red Country is the most witheringly cynical of my witheringly cynical oeuvre, I thought it was much the least cynical of my books to date. You write the end the way that feels right, that feels true, that feels honest.
Sometimes it’s worth doing, though.
Posted on March 19th, 2013 in opinion
My post on the value of grit surely did sweep the intertubes, provoking many and varied(ish) responses. Some of the pick:
A lengthy, wide-ranging and frequently interesting discussion ensued at Chronicles Network.
Fellow purveyor of grit both fantastic and science-fictional Richard Morgan is amused and bemused.
Foz Meadows has some great points to make about what some will consider the elephant in the room – the treatment of race and gender in gritty fantasy.
Sophia McDougall runs that ball into the endzone of male rape.
Liz Bourke will make you wince in that endzone.
Marie Brennan says “I don’t have a problem with stories where everything is grim and dark and horrible,” and proceeds to lay out her problems with such stories.
Finally Elizabeth Bear brings things full circle by agreeing that endlessly serving up utterly unleavened blackness and cynicism (and rape) would indeed be childish, but points out that most worthwhile gritty fantasy doesn’t actually appear to do that.
Many good and interesting points to think about, a lot of which I’d agree with. Doubtless gritty fantasy (and I’d include my own) has not always covered itself in glory in its treatment of race and gender. Though I don’t see any reason why grit can’t be a powerful tool to investigate those issues, if wielded with skill, thought and responsibility (not by me, in other words).
My main problem remains with the definitions, and their apparently endless mutability to suit whatever argument is being made. I thought, for instance, I celebrated the value of grit, but Foz Meadows begins by saying I wrote a piece defending grimdark. She then defines grimdark as having a whole set of characteristics I would never dream of defending. There seems to be a tendency toward massive generalisation, and a defining of a large and amorphous (and generally never identified) group of books by the most extreme and egregious examples (though even those often remain unidentified). To fashion an argument that is incontestable, but doesn’t seem to actually apply to much. And all this after I specifically asked people not to make a straw man out of me! You just can’t trust the internet to do what it’s told these days. I’ll move along for now, and give the last word to Bear:
“The least self-reflective of the grimdark seems to me to be a little too busy wallowing in splatter and gratuitousness—violence, betrayal, rapine, raping, pillaging, cannibalism, torture… pick three… or four… as if those things were an end to themselves … That nihilistic view of the world is essentially a juvenile, sociopathic, self-justifying fetish, and most of us eventually grow out of it … But what some critics ignore is that the best of the current wave of gritty fantasy does not buy into this fallacy … Instead, it embraces a balance closer to reality: that the world is arbitrary and unfair, and that sometimes even well-meaning people do awful things: desperate, vicious things. But also, that complete jerks, sociopathic monsters, can and do accomplish good—sometimes purposefully, sometimes not. People are not good or bad, but people. The best gritty fantasy reflects this, considers it, attempts not to spin a morality play but describe a complicated and ambiguous arc of people doing what they feel they have to do.”
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?
Good news! Red Country is out in the UK in three days time!
More good news! It’s an amazon book of the week, and they’ve slash, slash, slashed the price of the hardcover to an it-should-be-criminal £7.64, that’s 55% off, or a saving of a stonking £9.35 on the RRP of £16.99. It’s a fair bit cheaper than the mass market paperback RRP will be when it comes out. £7.64 seems to me a fantastic price for a beautiful brand new hardcover, especially a book of this incontestably extremely high quality. Just look at Simon Appleby’s BookGeeks review of it:
“Bloody, unheroic, compelling – Red Country is all of these things, a real page-turning fantasy. Abercrombie co-opts the best elements of the Western without pastiche or mockery, and delivers a massively enjoyable read, combining action and genuine emotion to great effect.”
You like the sound of that? So do I! It even has coloured end-papers like some kind of collector’s edition, for heaven’s sake, and it’s a full cup of frothy coffee cheaper than Iain M. Banks’ new hardcover on amazon, even with a meaty 50% discount of its own. It’s a good four quid cheaper than Peter F. Hamilton’s. I’m cutting my own throat here. Or at least amazon are cutting theirs, especially since their normal policy is to refund the difference on a drop in price to everyone who’s pre-ordered the book, so I imagine a good few of you will notch up a refund of a couple of her Majesty’s finest British Pounds along with your purchase. We’re paying you to read it! You lucky, lucky consumers!
Slightly less good news. The kindle edition remains at £8.99. Which looks kinda silly. And I can pretty much guarantee there’ll now be a few folks one-starring the book on account of how unfair they feel someone or other’s pricing is, as they have with Banks’ book. Because e-books cost nothing to make, don’t you know. Sigh. On the one hand I think, yeah, the e-book should always be cheaper than the hardcover, and that I’d rather see the e-book a bit cheaper anyway, more round the £7-8 mark on a new book, obviously dropping off over time as the mass-market edition appears to more the £4-5 mark. On the other I can’t help feeling this shit is really tiresome, that the paper and digital versions are different products, and that the model of heavy discounting on hardcovers is always going to produce some brief anomalies. If the hardcover weren’t so scandalously discounted, after all, and remained a bit more than the e-book, would anyone complain? After the week promotion, precisely as happened with Banks’ book, the price will bounce back to a more routine gigantic discount of 35%-40% ish, about a tenner, say, and the kindle edition will once again be a pound cheaper, and I will more than likely be left with a clutch of one-star reviews by folks who haven’t read the book complaining at a nebulous someone’s long-vanished pricing policy, like sea garbage left rotting up the beach after the storm has receded.
Still, what can one do but tiredly express one’s feelings to one’s editor, who can tiredly relay them to their publishing director, who can tiredly relay them to the head of fiction, who can have a monthly tired discussion about it with the board, who can kick it upstairs to guys whose pricing policy is set worldwide in consultation with shareholders and whose decision making processes cannot but move at an utterly glacial pace. Safe to say, the kindle price of Red Country ain’t likely to be coming down this week, whatever you or I may think about it.
I guess a lot of these pricing issues on e-books, deeply frustrating though they are for writers and readers, will gradually sort themselves out. Be nice if they sorted themselves out faster, but such is life. For some time the approach of publishers seems to have been to deliberately make e-books as unattractive as possible in the hope of protecting their hardcover market, and fighting for their lives in an unfamiliar fog as they are, I guess you can somewhat understand their reticence. But as the e-book sector becomes a bigger and bigger slice of the pie that approach just ain’t going to wash. The agency pricing model which ensured publishers could keep the prices of e-books high is collapsing in the US, and Europe surely will follow, allowing much greater flexibility on promotions of e-books, currently quite strictly regulated, and opening the door for discounts on e-books even more massive than those on paper ones (since even if the development costs of an e-book are just as high as a paper book, the unit costs are undoubtedly much lower). On the one hand, yee-ha! Cheap stuff for consumers!
On the other hand, hmmm. You can bet the result will be an extension of the tendency towards heavy discounting of the most successful few titles that has been going on over the last couple of decades, since supermarkets and amazon came to dominate the market. That’s great for the big phenom writers who shift gazillions and are starting to become a standard part of the marketplace. It’s fine for the established front listers who’ll get the big promotions and the big discounts and the big support, like Iain Banks, and Peter Hamilton, and, well, me, it would appear, fingers crossed. It’s not so great for the big majority of writers, though, who don’t necessarily sell enough to warrant the big discount or a place on the supermarket shelves, and whose books are going to get progressively more expensive and less competitive. Even worse, I fear, with margins so squeezed, for new writers, especially those who might be writing something uncommercial, difficult, challenging. I tend to be optimistic with these things. Maybe self-publishing really will become the way for new writers to flourish. No doubt it works for some. I remain a little dubious, though.
Still, in the meantime, Red Country for £7.64! Woooooooooooot!
A little later: Amazon sales ranks are an arcane and secretive business, heavily affected by recency, but they’re still quite an interesting indication of what’s selling right now. This discounting evidently works, and fast, because in the last few hours, Red Country’s Amazon UK sales rank has shot up from somewhere around 300, where it’s been for the past couple of weeks, to 47.
Couple of interesting award-related things happened up at Eastercon over the weekend. The first was that The Heroes is on the shortlist for the David Gemmell Legend Award this year. The cover is also shortlisted in the cover art section – congratulations to Dave Senior and Didier Graffet who already won the award for Best Served Cold and I think have done just as good a job this time.
The second interesting thing was that I watched a panel called, ‘A Clarke for Fantasy’. For those of you unaware the Clarke is a British award for the best sci-fi book of the year. It considers the full range of the genre, from chunky space-opera to hard sf of ideas to literary fiction with a scientific twist and frequently causes interesting arguments over definition or quality of one kind or another. It’s decided by a jury of writers, professionals and critics selected afresh every year. There’s some effort afoot to do something similar for fantasy, and this panel attempted to take a stab at how that might work by assembling a shortlist of six books from the full breadth of fantasy published this year (From The Heroes to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and giving a panel of five an hour in front of an audience to argue out a winner. Judges were given the option to nominate books for exclusion then, if others objected, which they frequently did, to champion ones they thought should remain, a series of tough votes eventually narrowed the field down to four, then two, and finally to a (by no means uncontested) winner. Which was, incidentally, The Heroes, imagine that. The prize money? £0. But it was a fascinating process to watch.
The jurors were highly critical, which is to say they started from the viewpoint that these were a worthwhile shortlist and then were tough in their analysis. There was little gushing. There was at least as much discussion of weaknesses as strengths. Above all there was a wide-ranging and rigorous effort to compare. Which were more ambitious in their goals? Which were more successful in achieving them? Which were original? Which were better in terms of characterisation, prose, evocation of setting? Which were tight and which meandered? At least three books (including The Heroes) were challenged by various jurors on whether they really constituted fantasy. There was no clear consensus, there was sometimes quite impassioned argument on behalf of one book or another which sometimes swayed a juror one way or the other. The Heroes was the favourite of only one judge, and that very narrowly, but was the least favourite of none, and won in the end through relatively broad support and a sequence of 3 against 2 votes.
It was the rigour, analysis, and application of the same standards to all, that put me more than ever in favour of this type of method for judging an award, as opposed to an academy or public vote. Individual juries will always have their wrinkles, and I’m sure there will always be issues that can be taken with any result, but at least they’ve all read the books on the shortlist, considered them, compared them, argued over them, and made an informed group decision as to which one is the best, however they choose to define it.
I’m a big believer in the Gemmell award, I like that there should be something specifically for the heroic/epic, and it’s entirely fitting that it should commemorate David Gemmell, an important and much-loved champion of that form. I think the organisers have done great things at a very difficult task in getting something going, I certainly don’t mean to criticise them. But I’m getting increasingly worried about the voting process, which is purely by internet poll. Or in fact by two – one to establish a shortlist, another to decide the winner.
I feel that with the Gemmell there’s a statement of – ‘here’s an important and popular slice of our genre that isn’t taken particularly seriously, and it deserves to be taken seriously, discussed and examined because it’s not just popular it’s also good’ – a statement with which I would largely agree – but then in the selection process, ‘goodness’ by any definition is entirely ignored in favour of popularity. In fact not even popularity (since if it was based purely on popularity, GRRM, selling 40,000 books a week, would be the clear winner this year, and surprisingly he hasn’t even made the shortlist) but on which book or writer has the most committed fanbase and the degree to which they become mobilised to vote. There is no discussion or examination, necessarily. It seems deeply unlikely most voters will have read much of the extended longlist, or even the whole shortlist. It seems perfectly possible many voters will only have read the book they vote for. There’s the risk it becomes a campaigning contest in which even committed readers of epic fantasy, let alone more general readers, aren’t particularly interested.
I’ve said several times that I liked the original concept for the Gemmell Award – a public vote to produce a shortlist of five – followed by a jury to pick a winner from those five. It seemed to give a good mixture of popular input and critical comparison. I’m now feeling that more than ever. I can see that a jury is a tough thing to organise every year. But for the world fantasy award, for example, a juror might need to read literally hundreds of books. For the Gemmell as originally conceived only 5. Maybe 10 if you wanted to jury a newcomer’s award as well. That doesn’t seem unmanageable. And I think that system would produce an award that was taken more seriously and stimulated a great deal more debate than is currently the case.
And I will, of course, link you to the relevant page when the shortlists go up, so that you can, without consideration or criticism, VOTE FOR ME.
Thanks to Chris Wooding for bringing my attention to an excellent and carefully researched article by Lloyd Shepherd over at The Guardian, written in response to the endless doomsaying about the imminent demise of publishing, which pretty much reflects my own much less carefully researched feelings.
Namely that – despite the big trouble in the area of dedicated Brick and Mortar stores that have left Waterstones as pretty much the only big player in the UK and Barnes and Noble in a similar position in the US – there are still a lot more paper books being sold than you might think. That – despite understandable but in my humble opinion overstated fears of piracy – as e-readers become mainstream the legitimate e-book market continues to rapidly expand. That – despite the fact advances are trending downwards overall and it’s never been easy to make big bucks from writing – there’s still, and probably always will be, a good living to be made from good fiction – or even my fiction – and that edgy fantasy ain’t a bad place to be right at the moment, as it happens.
Business is probably going to get tougher. Margins will get tighter. Certainly in retail I suspect there will be blood and perhaps some serious redistribution in the medium term. But I think paper books will be with us as a significant part of the market for some time to come. And if publishers can learn the lessons of the music industry and see e-books as an opportunity rather than a threat (which many are well on the way to doing), sort out the pricing and the frustrating rights issues, offer products that make use of the unique advantages of e-readers rather than simply emulating the paper versions, and ensure that the majority of readers are willing to pay a fair price for their e-books, the future don’t look so bad to me.
Cheer up. It might never happen…
As a related addendum, I get a lot of emails these days from folks complaining that they want to give me money but can’t, since they live in Australia, or Dubai, or somewhere else that isn’t the UK or US and therefore are blocked from legitimately paying for and downloading an ebook of mine. Which seems insane to them. And kind of is. I feel your pain, believe me. I’d really much rather you were paying for that ebook as well, and I continue to agitate as strongly as possible for my books to be available in every language, format, size, scent and colour imaginable. However, the gears of publishing law grind with excruciating slowness, and ebook rights are still inextricably bound up with paper rights with publishers fiercely guarding territorial borders that should mean nothing to the frontier-less internet. So it may be a while before all this gets sorted to everyone’s satisfaction. I remain confident it will be. Until then, might I suggest you order a hardcover, and get it helicoptered out to you in the jungles of Borneo, or wherever it is you may be?
Posted on April 27th, 2011 in opinion
Occasionally ideas come to me. Diamond-edged insights into the nature of fantasy and the role of my own work within it. Often in response to negative reviews about my work, as it happens…
But not very often. Which is why it becomes necessary for me to link to other people’s. In this case, BC Woods has an interesting essay up about Authority, Moral Absolutism and Heroism in Fantasy, with particular focus on the works of Goodkind, Sanderson, Pratchett, Martin, and some Abercrombie guy:
“The moral problems in Abercrombie’s and Martin’s work are the same as before: What is right? And who decides what is right? Only in these works, no obvious answer presents itself at the end of the narrative and no signs or portents appear to hint one way or another. This leaves us only with human authority … There is a lesson here, but it is not one of trust but of skepticism. These works (I would say indirectly) promote a worldview in which it is necessary to challenge and question those in power … rulership in Abercrombie and Martin’s work, as in our own world, in no way implies a divine mandate. Not only is supreme Authority absent, but all human authority is suspect.”
A fair assessment, I’d say. I guess all literature (if I may be so bold as to place my sword-based rantings under that umbrella) reflects the times in which it’s written. Probably that’s even more true of SF and Fantasy than of books set in our own world and time. Nothing more dated than past visions of the future, after all. For me, that skeptical vision of power is a reaction against the moral simplicity I’d seen in the epic fantasy I’d read as a kid, written in the aftermath of the world wars and during the cold war, in which the goodly wizard has everyone’s best interests at heart and the lost heir to the throne always ushers in a new age of monarchist glory once the big bad has been shuffled off and he’s regained his rightful throne. Few doubts about which is the right side there, or what is the proper order of things. Perhaps it was ever thus, really, but these days motives seem always murkier, right and wrong much harder to pin down. Doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as right and wrong – that would be nihilism, after all, and we know how we all feel about that...