Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.    

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word, familiar, as it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered. 

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. 

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one.   

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it, because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness, then by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality.  

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Comments
  1. Anne Lyle says:

    I want to be the first to cheer loudly at this post :)

    As I mentioned in my comment on Joe’s post, it really irks me that consensual sex is often seen as “icky” in fantasy when rape gets a free pass. It’s a bizarre, puritanical double standard that suggests that the reader perhaps unconsciously believes that women shouldn’t enjoy sex and therefore enjoyable sex cannot comfortably be portrayed.

    I aim to write realistic fantasy in which characters swear and screw and need to use the bathroom and, you know, normal things that the rest of us do, as well as fighting and getting tortured and other “realistic” stuff that’s going to happen if you meddle in Renaissance politics. Whether or not that happens in the context of sexism, homophobia and racism depends entirely on whether I’m writing historical fantasy (where the social milieu is predetermined) or a secondary world where I can change things to be how I want. Of course I then feel under pressure to carefully consider the ramifications of any society I create, but that’s what SF writers traditionally have done – fantasy has become rather lazy in this respect, IMHO.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Oh man, the graphic-rape-but-no-consensual-sex thing bugs the everloving hell out of me. It’s like there’s this unwritten rule that rape can be described because the details are plot relevant, but sex can’t be because it isn’t, and every time, I can’t help thinking: where does this idea come from that the details of sex don’t matter? Has the global abundance of plotless porn so warped us that we’ve forgotten, despite all the evidence of our own lovelives, how the pauses in sex, the way we move, the conversations that happen mid-act, even the choice of position are all uniquely emotionally informative? That it’s not just about the physical descriptions of what goes where or even the overt sexiness that makes it important, but everything else, too? Why do we so often seem to bestow a narratively rich emotional resonance to the language, the placement of hands, the internality and dialogue of sexual assault in literature, but not to consensual sex?

      • Anne Lyle says:

        Exactly! I write on-the-page sex scenes when I want to convey information about the characters’ developing relationship (which may not necessarily be one of “twue wove”, even when consensual), but there are also a few fade-to-black scenes – because sometimes the act itself isn’t relevant to the story and including details would stray into porn/erotica territory. In either case, though, I tend to leave out the Tab A->Slot B aspects, because that’s the least interesting bit to me – a good sex scene is about character, not anatomy.

        • Antmac says:

          I agreed with a lot in your post, and I also think that ALL writers ought to think carefully about their own prejudices when writing, so as to avoid stereotyping and the like.

          Then you trot out a subjective as if it has the force of law across everyones wishes/thoughts.

          “A good sex scene is about character, not anatomy”.

          Who says so?.

          • fozmeadows says:

            Fair point. Let me rephrase:

            Anatomical descriptions of sex are finite, in the sense that, regardless of the variety of possible sex scenarios, you have limited language with which to describe the mechanics of what’s happening, because the base mechanics are themselves limited. That doesn’t mean such scenes can’t be sexy or engaging, but if you were to sit down and read a number of them back to back, they’d likely start to blur together. What differentiates them is context – their place in the wider story, who the characters are, and what the act means for both narrative and participants. So when I say a good sex scene is about character, not anatomy, what I mean is that sex scenes in novels work, not just because they’re arousing, but because we care about the people actually having sex, and whereas the former element can be similarly achieved by writing a smutty oneshot with no character development (fr’instance), the latter means the act is enriched by a second layer of meaning, which – to me – makes them better. That might still be a subjective assessment, but it’s what I was driving at regardless.

            • AntMac says:

              Everything humans do is necessarily finite, even chess, which has potentially an infinity of moves is actually, reduced to human terms, finite. So it is strange to single out sex on that basis. And kind of a strawman at that, because even the worst written sex scene I have ever read has had at least some involvement of characterization.

              The comment as I reacted to it was minatory, clearly implying ” a sex scene can only be good if it involves character, and doesn’t mention anatomy”. A sex scene that ONLY involved character and no anatomy would be satisfying to only one group of people. imho, of course. And there already exists a place for that sort of writing, and the people who like it are well supplied.

              Let us not make over the world entire to any one frame of mind. I think we can agree on the sentence with a tiny tweak.

              “A good sex scene is about character as well as anatomy”.

  2. Sam Kelly says:

    Hm, I didn’t realise I was unrealistic! (Apparently, so are most of my friends. Must let them know.)

  3. Great post. I’d entirely concur, believe it or not. The reason I don’t tackle some of this stuff in my post is that I’m not sure people need to hear the straight white guy pontificating on the subjects of sexism, racism and homophobia. I mean, I might try to tackle them fictionally, but having crapped the non-fictional bed in the past I try to follow a mouth shut ears open policy these days…

    I don’t necessarily see any reason why gritty fantasy can’t handle these things well, though. That it generally doesn’t is obviously a problem that writers of it need to work on, me as much as anyone.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Fair enough! I just thought it was a point worth expanding on. And I completely agree that there’s no innate reason why gritty fantasy can’t break out of the mold, so to speak, and some of it even does; but as you say, the fact that it usually doesn’t is a problem.

    • “…I’m not sure people need to hear the straight white guy pontificating on the subjects of sexism, racism and homophobia.”

      I have to disagree with you, here. It’s only by taking (y)our position as loudly as anyone else, by turning the privileged position against hegemony, that you (we) can take part in the formative work of social change. Ideologues on both sides aside, the reality of what an even less homophobic, less racist, less sexist world will look like is not yet decided.

  4. [...] re-tweeted a link to this, but I think it is worth a blog post as well. Here Foz Meadows takes on the fairly common view that because a book portrays the world the way it is, [...]

  5. Daniel says:

    Could I ask, since you say that “overwhelmingly, that [the re-entrenching of privilege] is what grimdark consists of”, what works of grimdark do NOT fall into the trap which the overwhelming majority trips into? I’d absolutely love to see some.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Off the top of my head, the only ones I can think of are God’s War by Kameron Hurley and, possibly, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, though the latter is much less grimdark than crapsack (meaning, as a distinction, that while things go spectacularly wrong because Life Is A Bitch, there are still moments of beauty and humour to even it out).

      • Vicky Hooper says:

        It’s not really grimdark, but it is definitely gritty – The Red Knight by K.T. Davies is well worth a read. It includes blood and gore, the realities of war, swearing, lies and treachery, even an attempted rape… alongside consensual sex, love, and real friendships and relationships. There are plenty of women in positions of power, as well as some who are not, and the same with the men. I really liked the portrayal of people and society in it because it doesn’t idealise human nature, but it also doesn’t show only the darker side of human nature either. Going to look for God’s War now so I can give that a try too! :-)

      • Lenora Rose says:

        Would Scott Lynch count? I’ve only read the first of his books all the way through, which is admittedly a bit short on females, but I’m told he makes up for it later. And PoC definitely come up, and one of the main characters is fat.

  6. jennygadget says:

    “And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender.”

    So much THIS.

    I think that gritty has uses.

    BUT

    While art can be useful for reflecting reality, it can also be useful for shaping it. I don’t see what is less honest about, for example, stories like Ray Bradbury’s the Toynbee Convector. Life is clearly not that simple, it’s not quite that easy to change the future – but that doesn’t make the story dishonest, because that isn’t the argument it’s making.

    The truth reflected in the story is not found in the details, but in the idea that we strive for the futures we think are possible. When we only see a past that reflects the worst of us, and when all of the futures we see include the same inequalities, it has an impact on what we think is possible. Not just here and now, but with regards to what could have been, what was, what could be, and what will be.

  7. [...] Joe Abercrombie defends gritty fantasy Now this strikes me as an excellent [...]

  8. You know, I never really thought about it that way before, that these forms of novels just reinforce the idea that humanity – even when it’s transplanted to a far away, magical country with completely alien customs – is just *naturally predisposed* to hate women and gay people and people of colour. I think humanity can be pretty bigotted at times, but it’s usually directed at whatever’s the Other.

    Joe Haldeman played on that trope in 1975 with The Forever War. When the hero returns to an Earth in which 99% of the population is now homosexual, *he’s* treated with prejudice as a deviant because he’s still heterosexual – at the same time his own homophobia is examined.

  9. “Oh man, the graphic-rape-but-no-consensual-sex thing bugs the everloving hell out of me.”

    Oh lawks, me too! Can’t tell you how many books I have wallbanged….

    I’ve often wondered why ‘realistic’ has to mean ‘all women are downtrodden abused females’. I mean yeah sure, *some* would be. I’ve written one or two myself, but then I have plenty others (in books under my other name for instance) who haven’t been (even in a misogynistic society, there will be usually be unraped women, unless you’re going balls out….), or who have and have made their peace with it — it’s not their main motivation for the rest of their lives. It seems to me there are a myriad of versions of ‘realistic’, and to cleave too closely to one is deny all the others their stories.

    Anyway, excellent post. I was noodling this around in my head, but hadn’t come to any clear conclusions (Post convention zombie brain, with extra Convention Crud), but now I don’t need to because you said it so very well. *round of applause*

  10. I should probably add here: *slight spoiler alert* that I have two rather damaged individuals in my book, though I don’t outright say what the abuse was. Funny how some people have assumed it’s the woman that was sexually abused….when actually the retribution she’s after is for what happened to him.

  11. When I come up against the idea of modern gritty/grimdark fantasy novels being “just reality” I start to wonder what happened to all the historical grimdark fantasy. The stories which reflected the reality of the times when the Odyssey, and Beowulf, and the Ramayana, the Arthurian stories, and the Canterbury Tales – all those fluffy non-grimdark fantasy epics – were being jotted down, tainted as they were with ideals of brotherhood and heroism, piety and faith (and, uh, cynically bawdy comedy). I mean, if it’s established that the reality of our world’s history is an unrelenting crapsack, then why weren’t the people of those times setting down the grim truth in their fantasies? Why this insistence that there were a lot of well-meaning, somewhat flawed folk mixed in with the unrelenting evil cesspit of humanity? Let alone that in adversity true heroism sometimes emerges?

  12. [...] This post by Foz Meadows on Grittiness and Grimdark covers a lot of ground in discussing the current fashion for grimdark and why it is important to analyze some unexamined assumptions underlying an insistence that it is realistic. [...]

  13. [...] Foz Meadows has a very interesting post, On Grittiness and Grimdark: [...]

  14. Lee says:

    Thank you for so ELOQUENTLY stating the issues I couldn’t quite put to words that I had with the Dresden Files series.

  15. [...] Foz Meadows talks On Grittiness & Grimdark. Her argument in an oversimplified nutshell: Works that claim to be “more realistic” because they are gritty and dark are implicitly putting forward the idea that the other elements of the story are also realistic, when often they’re anything but. Read the full post, she says it better than I could. [...]

  16. [...] Foz Meadows offers her take on the debate and points out that the supposed realism of grimdark fantasy is actually a very selective view of reality and one which all too often relegates women, people of colour and GLBT people to the status of victims or erases their existence altogether. Foz Meadows also makes the same point I made before, namely that the writers of grimdark epic fantasy are overwhelmingly straight white cisgender men. [...]

  17. [...] that it's a selective view of history that artificially privileges certain elements over others. Foz Meadows quotes a film critic about Lincoln: [...]

  18. It occurred to me that the claim that “grimdark” represents something closer to reality really does fall apart due to an absence of male rape as a plot device – of which history serves up several instances where it was and continues to be a tool of control ie institutions like the church/ the military.

    But then of course that would probably make some male readers and authors very uncomfortable.

    I can’t think of any of the major grimdark writers I have read going anywhere near that perfectly realistic historical and gritty fact of life. Brienne of Tarth is repeatedly threatened with rape in a Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime on the other hand gets his hand cut off.

    Apart that is from the Australian writer Rowena Cory Daniells who manages to depict both male rape and consexual sex in her gritty Outcast Chronicles.

  19. Oh and I forget that Margo Lanagan goes pretty gritty in Tender Morsels and The Goosle

  20. writerdotmom says:

    Thank you for saying this so precisely and eloquently. We read ourselves into and through the books we read, but in the kind of fantasy you’re examining, there’s no place for many of us. It seems to me that unrelenting, overpowering darkness and grittiness is just as unrealistic in its own way as singing Disney princesses festooned with small woodland critters.

  21. william wallace says:

    Fantasy plays an important role in human development
    yet there be Govt’s whom through limited perception of
    life the unknowing of life & the ultimate aim of humanity
    thus through false accusations and threats wrongly link
    fantasy & reality/where fantasy falsely accepted by the
    courts as a crime thus such situation where the law as
    it’s interpretation is totally abused. Govt those in place
    to serve justice uphold the law place themselves above
    the law rather than the servants of the people they but
    become their master/thus replace justice with injustice
    the people’s then stripped of all human rights. No trials
    no courts / no jury / no legal representation / one’s but
    simply killed or imprisoned. If one imprisoned then it be
    torture maybe used to get any confession of any crime
    if govt wish use such confessions ( via military courts )
    then a confession under torture acceptable thus giving
    some impression of a just trial via an 24/7 govt media
    ongoing brainwashing propaganda machine / where in
    reality 1% truth is but mixed with 99% fiction. In time
    fiction but becomes reality / truth regarded as fantasy
    fantasy becoming regareded as the ultimate of crimes.

    It being through media brainwashing their is little to
    no brain development / this is causing humanity dire
    problems thus humanity must take the next stage in
    brain development / if not taking steps in furthering
    understanding as experience then it will come to an
    nuclear conflict bringing humanity grave destruction.

    I will write an further comment later as how further
    understanding as experience of life can be achieved
    thus in bringing humanity the peace it ever seeking.

    Such peace does not come firstly by understanding
    but via experience / reason for such in the material
    world in truth there is no reality / however truth be
    the material world a needed gateway to the infinite.

  22. william wallace says:

    The situation such humanity need be humbled & seek such
    help required thus not drift further into that of total illusion.

    Througout the history of humanity there be teachers those
    of learning / be they teachers of illusion as teachers of truth.

    Among all be the “Teacher of Teachers” whom reminds and
    aids one in such practical experience of knowing the creator.

    How is such to be achieved where one in knowing creator ?.
    Such achieved by meditation one turning the senses inward.

    In the present time the “Teacher of Teachers” is Prem Rawat
    Prem has dedicated his life in guiding as aid those in reaching
    the stage of development where meditation is but needed if
    there be further development in understanding / experience.

    On PC search put (words of peace) or put (words of peace
    global) on site an selection of videos in which Prem explains
    the need of meditation / on one turning the senses inward
    thus via very practical experience of the power of creation
    one then granted clarity of understanding unto creation of
    the universe & it’s jewel in the crown that of the human life
    human life where via heart / brain comes understanding as
    experience thus all questions longed answered / answered.

    When one’s senses are running wild in the material realm it
    no easy task / bringing them under control /thus the great
    need of an teacher being an guide as an aid facing the task.

    Prem is the gentlest as most considerate of souls thus it be
    all humanity is blessed / where the creator giving all that be
    required thus the journey be complete in triumph that the
    purpose of creation as of human life then fully understood.

  23. [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  24. [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  25. [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  26. [...] to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  27. [...] Meadows points out the next problem in the chain, which is the way the claim of “realism” enshrines certain issues as the natural order [...]

  28. [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  29. [...] Morgan pretends not to understand any of this so let’s move on to a proper response from Foz [...]

  30. [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  31. rokysensa says:

    [...] been publishing to WordPress.com. Our Readers have seen everything from Cthulhu cookery to to grimdark feminism passing through, and as always, we’ve been more than impressed by the [...]

  32. [...] 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. [...]

  33. [...] Meadows writes about grittiness and grimdark. Very good post. I really recommend taking the time to read all of it. She writes, for instance, [...]

  34. [...] Twitter and blogs I’ve read a number of opinions and discussions that focus on such issues as gritty, grimdark, rape, sexual violence, consensual sex, realism, gender, history, invisibility of women [...]

  35. […] On Grittiness and Grimdark by Foz Meadows […]

  36. […] mí, los que abordan el tema de la representación del género dentro del género como pueda ser éste de Foz Meadows o éste otro de Liz […]

  37. Bookwraiths says:

    Reblogged this on Bookwraiths and commented:
    An article which compliments my grimdark musings. Read both and think about it.

  38. […] (accessed 8 August 2013); F Meadows, ‘On Grittiness and Grimdark’ (2013) available at http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/on-grittiness-grimdark/ (accessed 8 August […]

  39. […] to write about rape in a way that ultimately empowers the survivor, but unfortunately this is not always how rape is used in fiction. See also.) This is not a thing that has always triggered me, but now it does, and […]

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