discussions genre stuff


From Sam Sykes’s interview of James @ Speculative Horizons:

Sometimes I feel that this whole blood-and-guts approach is merely disguising the fact that some of these books aren’t that inventive. Still, it’s a trend that I don’t think will go away any time soon.

An interesting point. I’ve seen it again and again, talk of gritty fantasy for a dozen novels, but the sooner ‘gritty’ becomes a marketing category, the better. Why? Because it’s becoming clear that casual discussion across the blogosphere is making the mistaken connection that gritty automatically equals good. And I agree with James – sometimes there is a reliance on ‘grit’ to disguise the fact that there’s not much else going on beneath the surface. That we mistake it for a bravery in terms of prose and character and theme – which isn’t to say that such a bravery does not exist in gritty novels, but we’re losing sight of what is the actual brave thing.

Gritty is just an aesthetic. That there is more blood and guts in a novel does not make that novel inherently adult, or even a ‘better’ novel than one without blood and guts. (And I say this as a writer who doesn’t shy away from the grit.)

What does everyone else think?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

34 replies on “Gritty”

It’s all post 9/11

It used to be that the bad guys dressed in black (unless they were stormtroopers) and had diabolical plans. OK, so I’m over-generalising again, but there was a definite shift to the more gritty in the last 10 years.

Post 9/11 the world became more unsure, our villains more hidden and layered, and I think in trying to understand that the general populace wanted their art to reflect that. Gritty has happened in more than just fantasy, it’s culture-wide. I wondered whether something like Obama (seen culturally as a new start) would herald a new wave of utopian art, but it’s still a little early to tell.

I’m not so sure that ‘gritty’ is a new development, you know. There’s a long tradition of ‘low fantasy’ or ‘fantasy-noir’ stretching back through David Gemmell’s Jon Shannow novels to the Thieves World stories to Lankhmar (with many more stops along the way, of course).

Perhaps the current crop of ‘gritty’ writers grew up on a steady diet of consolatory quest fantasy and just felt the need to write something darker and less identikit when they started putting finger-to-keyboard themselves? Maybe they felt the need to differentiate, to demonstrating that they weren’t just acolytes of the previous generation of bestsellers? The readership responded positively and so a trend was born…

It’s just an indication of tone.

It is used to take another path on certain canons, for example: a swordfight is actually a bloody and sickening thing. Scary. Not a clean duel where the nameless victim kneels and passes out. You won’t collect just non lethal bruises.

It mostly indicates the intent of a more realistic and unfiltered approach.

I’ve always thought of ‘gritty’ as describing a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring controversial or disturbing themes. The blood and guts element I take for granted in most of what I read 🙂

I don’t take ‘gritty’ to mean blood and guts per se. I’ve always assumed it included moral shades of grey, unpleasant choices reluctantly made and, well, a certain noir element.

I agree with the point that Sykes makes in the interview that the sense of wonder in Fantasy writing risks coming second-fiddle to, for instance, a “grittily realistic” imitation of certain historical periods. In the end I end up analysing my reasons for reading Fantasy in the first place:

If I got my kicks from intrigue and bloody combat in a fuedal society, I’d read the appropriate historical fiction. If all I was after was “grit”, sex’n’death and snappy dialogue, I’d read some James Elroy – which I do, he’s brilliant. The reason I read Fantasy though is just that – fantasy. This sense of wonder, the weird, the extraordinary: that’s what dictates my reading choices in the genre. All else is very much secondary. It can be idealistic, it can be nihilistic, it can be bloody or bloodless, but none of these things matter a jot if it doesn’t engage my imagination.

You are going to have to do an awful lot more work than that to link gritty fantasy to 11th September.

I take gritty to be a shorthand for greater realism and as such swearing, violence, moral ambiguity, etc are just symptoms of this. Obviously this sort of realism has always been around but it isn’t strange that it is increasingly prevalent since gritty is usually applied to a particular subgenre of fantasy which is still relatively young. Rather than talking about gritty fantasy it might be more useful to talk about what (I guess) is the Third Wave of epic fantasy. (Input from a better historian of the genre would be welcome.)

Here’s an idea that hasn’t actually marinated much in my mind, but I’m throwing it out there:
Fantasy used to be written and read mostly by men (decades ago) and sword & sorcery was a popular part of that.

Then women started reading and writing fantasy and we saw a period of perhaps more romanticized idealistic fantasy.

Perhaps “gritty” is the reaction to that. What we call “gritty” is mostly written by men and it reminds us that conflict and war is not pretty. Real life often is not pretty.

I’m not saying that women don’t write or enjoy “gritty,” but just that we have feminized the genre a bit.

Germaine Greer said of another novel (think it was one by Bret Easton Ellis she was criticising) that: ‘Boredom is not a narrative device’.

For that substitute ‘gritty’ in fantasy. Which frequently mistakes the subversive mannerisms of ‘gritty’ for sub-text and therein lies the growing problem of the growing body of the stuff if it contains not much else.

In fact, the moment it is identified as such in an almost default way and indeed discussed as a movement, maybe it has already become passé.

@martin – There’s only so much space in comments. (I’ve just started a response but it’s at about 1000 words right now and involves Genndy Tartakovsky, Michael Lau and George R R Martin).

But let’s start with this. Major events in the last 100 years have influenced literature (I’m thinking WWI and the atomic bomb particularly) so when we can see how much society has changed in the last 10 years (e.g surveillance society ) is it wrong to think that wouldn’t be reflected in tastes in art?

@Adrian – I think the post-911 idea is a good one and I hope that you post your thoughts on it somewhere (but 1000+ essay is probably not appropriate for comments to this post). I think it’s an important aspect of much of popular fiction these days and it’s a central part of much of the new urban fantasy that is so popular these days.

But ‘gritty’ – it’s a buzz word. The ‘new’ thing. Though if you look closely it’s not all that unique or new. I think it’s mostly a stand-in for ‘grown-up’ and the realization that fantasy isn’t just for kids (again, that’s not new either).

James’ quote covers exactly the problem I had with BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie. It was ‘gritty’, ugly and violent. So much so that it seemed Abercrombie was hoping to hide the fact that the characters weren’t likable, the world held little empathy and there was nothing for me to root for, or care about, through the second half of the novel. The ‘grit’ got in the way of compelling storytelling. Gritty for gritty’s sake is something we, as a genre, have to be careful of.

Funny this also cropped up in a Twitter conversation I was having with Sam Sykes yesterday. Personally I am pre-disposed to the darker spectrum of SF, and I love ‘grit’ and ‘grime’ in my novels. I guess I’ve witnessed a fair bit of grit in real life, after all I’ve worked in prisons and been a police officer. So I can be turned-off if a story fails to reflect that reality, when I think it’s required. The flip-side of this, however, is that if a writer tries too hard to appear ‘edgy’, ‘urban’ or ‘gritty’ I think it shows. I also think it can appear quite juvenile, like a posturing adolescent trying to appear tough and cool. I also agree that the same post-911 paranoia that has produced a massive upturn in post-apocalyptic settings is partly responsible for this. Although I feel this trend has been gathering momentum since the mid 90’s at least.

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Adrian – I’ll be intrigued to see your post; feel free to link it in here. I’m not hugely convinced that can be applied to much of the genre – no more than, for example, it can be applied to baking cakes. Many people read fantasy fiction to escape the real world (the merits of which I won’t comment on here).

Darren – you’re right on the history, especially with the Gemmell comment. This is nothing new – but it’s being thrown about like a new concept. Which makes me inclined to agree with Neth – it is being used as a stand-in for grown-up; but I’m hesitant to encourage that thought, since we get into the mess I’ve described in my post. People begin to associate the grit with being grown-up; often, it ain’t.

Jason – I think that’s it, you know. It’s a fine line between reality and trying too hard.

The whole 9/11 thing – well, what are we talking about here? A cultural paranoia? What about, attacks from the outside? The British media reported the bombings in Ireland throughout the latter half of last century; and undoubtedly that impacted upon public opinion and then the arts. And the American media/government has for a long time had an interesting influence upon public paranoia – just Google Walter Lippmann and his work Public Opinion. So I’ll take some convincing as for that being linked to this thirst for blood in books.

See as an escapist reader and one that has to have an emotional connection to the journey of a character describing something as gritty is going to make me wary rather than think oh good more reality. I’m reading to be outside all of that.

I’ve been told that Abercrombie and Morgan are good at what they do – but I’m not sure that’s enough to cut above the fact that they are going to be more realistic, harsher and bleak – at least that’s what gritty always brings to mind.

I’m probably wrong but am I in a rush to prove myself wrong?

There’s an argument to be made that a parallel exists between the increased grittiness in fantasy novels and the increased grittiness of SF/F movies and tv shows – essentially, the visual pop culture aspect of SF/F. Consider, e.g., the visual differences between Star Trek in the 60s and something like BSG today. In the more recent stuff, people are dirty and greasy; their wounds seep and fester; they shoot weapons that harm and maim rather than cause the victim to evaporate bloodlessly. What I’m trying to suggest is that the turn towards the gritty in fantasy novels may be part of a larger process in the depiction of violence in niche (and, probably, mainstream) media in general.

Well I think we may have to define what we mean by ‘grit’ as well. To me grit does not automatically equate to bloody. Gore can be unrealistic and fantastical, neither is bloody anything new. In horror in the 90’s you had the so-called splatterpunks.
For me it is as much about the approach to violence as the violence itself. Casual violence meted out for arbitrary reasons, lack of remorse etc. These things are perceived as being ‘real’ in our society. I think it reflects a wider media obsession that delights in depicting our culture as increasingly degenerate morally. The suggestion that sits alongside this, that to not see this harsh reality is naive and childish. This also combines with wider cultural pessimism, that has abounded particularly (but not exclusively) since the terror attacks in the US and elsewhere. Paranoia is not new, but with new media and a global reach, it is perhaps more pervasive.
In fantasy writing there can be a certain amount of pressure I think, to prove that what you are writing is adult and serious, especially amongst the male demographic. For some this seriousness will translate through a kind of cultural osmosis into arbitrary, morally ambiguous and visceral violence.
As someone who is primarily interested in horror and dark fantasy (not paranormal romance…) I can certainly see the appropriateness of this in some situations. A problem arises when this is all that is depicted. There is no contrast and no colour. In an effort to be taken seriously the writer produces a story that becomes a lifeless parody of notions of urban bleakness, rather than something that is truly engaging.
The real skill I believe comes form those writers who are able to lift the reader up to the heights and then drop them to the darkest depths, and visit all the valleys and plateaus in-between. This is why in my view ‘Grit’ can be great, but does not in itself equate to good writing, and often masks the opposite.

@Anne @jason – both very good points that I agree with except that I don’t think gritty is limited to just violence. The West Wing is a gritty TV drama. You could also have a gritty romance novel where the ‘gritty’ refers to the intricacy of the relationships rather than domestic violence

@Adrian Thanks, glad you could read my unformatted mess…

I also agree that gritty is not limited to violence. I think it broadest sense to me it means to highlight the details in a way that doesn’t seek to gloss over the ugly & imperfect. A perfect example for me might be a Mike Leigh type “kitchen sink” drama.

Having said that I think within the context of this debate, the kind of grit being assessed is largely the violent kind.

Still it would be interesting to see some of the so-called gritty fantasy writers depict the rise of teenage pregnancy amongst the elven population, and ruminate over why Orcish children need better male role models.

Well Watchmen was by a british author shortly after the Falklands war, so there’s that connection.

I wouldn’t lay gritty solely at the feet of Spetember 11th but if you watch the news, you are usually guaranteed to see reports on wars, disasters, terrorism etc. Gritty could just be a reflection of the times we are in.
But I think the big influence is largely down to their being a handful of very successful “gritty” writers and the market responding by trying to replicate the success. In that eagerneess they have probably let a few books where grit does not equal quality. As long as they sell well you could argue it doesn’t really matter

I know I’m late to the dance and a lot of interesting points have already been made, but as an author who gets the G word volleyed at him–and who may, it must be admitted, use it occasionally himself–I wanted to throw in my two cents. Speaking only for myself and my own writing versus any kind of literary trend, I was interested in more realistic/dark/morally shaky/synonym for gritty fiction long before I started writing, and long before 9/11. Not to say that Adrian F doesn’t make good points but for me the interest was there from early on–and I would argue that for all its camp and hiiiiiiiigh adventure some of Robert E. Howard’s stuff had a bit of grit to it when weighed against Tolkien, and for all its poetry and playfulness and fantastical qualities Clark Ashton Smith likewise featured protagonists and plots that we might mark with the Big G were they to be published today. Darren T’s on to something as to gritty fantasy being a response to the conciliatory stuff, at least for me–I loved and still love Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, and plenty of other authors that could fairly be called conciliatory as a kid…

But as I got older and started paying attention to the news and reading up on history (and Jack Vance) what I was interested in began to shift and the old high fantasy didn’t wash as well anymore. When I really got into telling my own stories, via teenage role playing sessions as well as my clumsy early fiction, my response to an early diet high in black-and-white conceptions of morality and consequence-free violence was to subvert things and inject as much realism as I could. I wanted fantastical worlds but fantastical worlds I could believe in–places where you got sick from eating bad inn food, got frostbite if you were out in the snow too long, acquired lice and blisters as well as glory, and basically existed in a real world…just one markedly different from ours in terms of flora, fauna, history, and sure, magic.

So for me the grit, if that’s what it is, comes from a desire to render worlds and people I can believe in while still incorporating the fantastic. I don’t think we need to set up binaries between fantasy that offers escape from reality and fantasy that engages with it because it does all boil down to personal taste, and I’ve certainly read just as much great escapist literature as I have given up on would-be gritty fantasy that offers nothing new or insightful. It’s also why I set my fantasy in our historical past, which reminds me that I believe I made my point much more coherently in an essay for Amazon’s Omnivoracious a few months ago:

So that’s my pail of word vomit. Thanks for the prompt, Mark, and everyone else for the thoughtful responses–and apologies for my own possibly incoherent thrashings!

Jesse Bullington reads my mind. Hard for one to be entirely unaffected by the prevailing political climate, and maybe that’s increased the audience for things dark grey, but for me gritty fantasy is much more a response to the decidedly un-gritty sub-Tolkienery of the 80s.

Grittiness can be an aesthetic but surely it’s also used to refer to content and approach. For me it’s not so much a question of blood n guts and Legolas vomiting down Gandalf’s robe after an opium binge, so much as a grittiness with regard to character, politics, and narrative form which is the point.

Are people really making a connection between gritty and good? I see lots of people complaining about grittiness, wishing it would go away, being bored of the use of the word itself, even. Sure, some books are gritty and bad, just as some are romantic and bad. Is grittiness an effective disguise for badness? No more so than any other, I’d have thought.

Jesse – thanks for all those thoughts there. And I very much agree with your condensed history of grit and its reactionary values. (And that link – very interesting stuff.)

Joe – ‘Sure, some books are gritty and bad, just as some are romantic and bad. Is grittiness an effective disguise for badness? No more so than any other, I’d have thought.’ – absolutely the case. I think what I’m particularly interested in how debate (especially online) seems to value ‘the grit’ as ‘the good/brave/experimental thing’ in fiction, which is where things fall apart.

Realism is good if that is what we’re after, of course – but if the aesthetic isn’t designed to represent the real world at all, if something is meant to be a fairytale or hyper-real, then one can reasonably expect notions of realism to be invalid. But that’s another argument entirely!

You raise a very valid point about some complaining about the over-the-top/Tarantino-esque grit; and so perhaps the whole thing has gone full circle, and my post loses its steam somewhat…

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