Friday, February 8, 2013

Grimmy Grimmy Dark Dark

This essay started out as piece on violence in video games, and a direct response to Brad's excellent mediation on the topic in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Then a rather remarkable piece of literary criticism came my way, as it does from time to time, and it was a revelation of sorts. So if you haven't read E. M. Edwards' review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence yet, you really should. It's long, and covers a lot of ground, but it's required reading for anyone who is serious about fantasy fiction. There's a lot of meat in Edwards' review--he touches topics as diverse as racism, misogyny, gaming and much else. All of these are worthy topics all by themselves, but I'm going to focus my thoughts primarily on a single question: what's the purpose of all the violence and cruelty in the art we consume, and specifically in fantasy fiction? When is it acceptable and when is it not?

[Disclaimer: I have not read Prince of Thorns from start to finish. I did read a free preview of the ebook, and decided that it wasn't my cup of tea. But I also don't feel qualified to judge it in its entirety without having read it in its entirety. So keep in mind that when I talk about it or about Edwards' review, it's solely in the context of broad discussion of violence in fantasy fiction. If I'm either unfair to or too forgiving of this specific book, then it's a function of my not having read it from start to finish. If you have read it, and have strong opinions on it, you are welcome to tell me what you think I should know...I'm always up for a respectful exchange of ideas.]


The term "grimdark" comes from the tagline for tabletop game Warhammer 40k, which states: "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war." Grimdark has a specific meaning within the Warhammer 40k universe:

Grimdark consists of two components. One, grim. This is the nature of the people of the world. In 40K, most people are desperate for survival. They’re neutral in the same way a squat city in Mumbai is neutral; they will do whatever it takes to survive another day in a raging shithole. Most of the people in power are either psychotic, sociopathic, megalomaniacal, or greedy beyond sanity. Oftentimes, more than one. The more powerful they are, the more massive their character flaws and the collateral damage of their mistakes....The Good people are antiheroes at best, where the ends almost justify the means, and the villains are horrific beyond belief. Dark is how much the world itself sucks, and here it is very much suck. The universe is a cold and uncaring place that is so hostile to life it is insane that it even exists let alone thrives, and it will grind you into oblivion without ever noticing you were there. If you do manage to get the attention fo the world, it will only crush you much harder, slower, and more painfully.  
Grimdark settings have small heroes who achieve little, vast villains who are often genuinely unstoppable and who always win in the end, and no matter how hard or how well you fight, the uncaring galaxy will never know your name or record your deeds. The greatest good you can accomplish will be undone in days, and often leave things worse than had you tried to do your worst, and when you do your worst, the consequences are cruel beyond belief and very nearly permanent.

But it's also a bit of a running joke too:

Being grimdark can be taken to extremes; depending on your own personal tolerances for grim darkness, there is a point at which it becomes more ridiculous than anything else because everything is unfeasibly terrible all the time. This is an accusation often levelled at Warhammer itself, and leads some to rail against "Grimdark" as a whole, decrying the concept as ridiculous attempts at edginess (typically by teenagers), and using the expression to refer solely to such over-the-top settings in a pejorative manner.

The Grimdark Turn in Fantasy

Over in the small world of fantasy fiction, grimdark is taken very seriously. The grimdark turn is usually traced back to George R. R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels are notable, among other things, for their unflinching portrayal of violence and depravity in a medieval second-world setting. His characters are not "evil" because they are supernatural embodiments of everything that is terrible, but precisely because they are humans with a modicum of power in an essentially violent and cruel social setting. And they are rarely just "evil" either, but rather flawed individuals shaped by circumstances, who are capable of kind deeds as well as evil ones. 

Yet Martin's world looks restrained in comparison with those envisioned by some of his followers. Depending on how you envision the lineage (and indeed if you think GRRM is the progenitor, rather than, say, Glen Cook), one could imagine a pattern of escalation to Steven Erickson and Joe Abercrombie (Level 2), and from there to R. Scott Bakker and Richard Morgan (Level 3), and from there to Mark Lawrence (Level 4)--each, it might seem to an outside observer, outgrimming and outdarking his predecessors.

Fans of the style often cite its cynicism "realism" as a primary selling point. As one blogger writes about Abercrombie:

This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

A second point of praise concerns grimdark's "historical accuracy." Rajan Khanna over at LitReactor on GRRM:

The world is a brutal one, and sadly reflects the brutality of our own history. Soldiers, and others, commit atrocities in the wake of battle. There’s torture, rape and subtler forms of horror. Some passages can be hard to read, to be honest. But these elements are necessary, I think, to establish the world. These are the things that happen during war, even in our modern world, and to omit them would be to present a world in half-measures. And once again, that brutal reality causes us to examine our own thoughts and feelings. Despite much of fantasy being labeled as escapist fiction, Martin’s series isn’t. 
I’m not saying that the books are perfect -- there are issues of race, and gender -- but I believe that what Martin’s attempting to do, and mostly succeeding with, is admirable. His approach not only helps to reset the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do, but what good fiction can do. I’d like to see future epic fantasy writers push those boundaries even further, shake up our expectations even more. I find the prospect exciting.

The Rebellion

There has been plenty of pushback against the grimdark turn in fantasy--not only its violence, but also the racism, sexism, homophobia and other unpalatable things that can get mixed in there. Arthur B's review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains details some of the more egregious problems of this approach:

Unfortunately, the book’s take on homophobia is complicated by the fact that Morgan has chosen to join the grittiness arms race which is plaguing fantasy at the moment. George RR Martin started it when he dropped copies of A Game of Thrones on Amazon and Waterstones, but in the absence of any Grittiness Non-Proliferation Treaty all the fantasy authors are doing it - Joe Abercrombie,Scott Lynch, Steve Erikson, even Bioware have joined the family of gritty-capable fantasy producers. It’s far too easy for any tinpot third-rate fantasy author to create a fantasy novel infused with enriched grittiness (achieved by throwing lots of rape and blood and shit into an otherwise standard fantasy novel), and the United Nations is completely powerless to act. (The worst grittiness of all is Neutron Grittiness, which wounds particular characters or groups in a novel with grit but leaves others standing, as seen in JV Jones’ work.) 
In this case, Morgan seems determined to take the grittiness as far as it can go, to the point where it ends up turning into self-parody. The religion thing is one of those aspects, as is the whole "society is shit and will always be shit and also people are shit, fuck people" angle. The homophobia gets caught up in it. On one end of the spectrum are touching and well-observed scenes between Ringil and his family, in which the awkwardness between him and his parents says everything. At the other end of the day is a bit where Ringil more or less takes a day off sleuthing - remember, he’s supposed to be chasing his kidnapped cousin - in order to mope about the place where his first boyfriend was horribly executed and his father made him watch the whole thing. In between there’s a plethora of horrendous incidents; I think the straw which broke the camel’s back is the bit where Ringil remembers being gang-raped at a boys’ private school, where all the kids take turns gang-raping each other as part of being hazed, which is so over-the-top (and so keen on playing into all the silliest stereotypes about private school hazing) that I just stopped taking it seriously.

These are the kinds of things justified as "realistic" for a second-world medieval setting. Fantasy author (and GRRM protege) Daniel Abraham, though, pours cold water on this notion

So there’s this argument about epic fantasy that keeps coming up, and it makes me uncomfortable every time I see it. Usually it goes something like this: a beloved novel or series set in a world with kings and knight and dragons – that is to say one set in an imaginary medieval Europe – is analyzed and found somehow wanting. Not enough strong women, too many white people, too much sexual violence. As the debate fires up, one of the defenders of book or series makes some variation of the argument that fantasy that has the set dressings of medieval Europe is better if it also has medieval social norms. Or, at a lower diction, “But the Middle Ages really were sexist/racist/filled with sexual violence.” 
The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, quasi-medieval fantasy were dictated by history doesn’t work on any level. First, history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from. Second, there are a wide variety of secondary world faux-medieval fantasies that don’t reach for historical accuracy and which would be served poorly by the attempt. And third, even in the works where the standard is applied, it’s only applied to specific, cherry-picked facets of the fantasy culture and the real world. 
At its heart, the argument that the Middle Ages were “really like that” misunderstands what epic fantasy is by treating it as though it was in conversation with actual history. It isn’t. It’s in conversation with the epic fantasy that came before it. George RR Martin (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend and sometimes-collaborator of mine) has drawn a great deal from the incidents of real history, but he hasn’t written a work of historical fiction. What gives his work its power isn’t historical accuracy, but the subversion of genre expectations and a deeply-felt sorrow that infuses almost every scene. JRR Tolkien drew his inspiration not from medieval history but from medieval romances, and the Lord of the Rings isn’t remembered for what it said about an imaginary 1300s, but what it said about (and to) a real 1950s. And 2010s. The roots of epic fantasy aren’t with King William II. They’re with King Arthur, and so they’re timeless. Historical accuracy isn’t what we come here for.

First and Second Category Grimdark

If "historical accuracy" isn't the ultimate point of grimdark, then that begs the question: what is? As someone who has read a lot of dark fiction and consumed a lot of grim art over the years, I see two distinct purposes of grimdark--and by "purpose" I mean both the author's goal and the degree to which the author achieves that goal. In the first three novels of A Song of Ice and Fire or Sapkowki's Witcher books (or going beyond fantasy, in Iain M. Banks' relentlessly bleak Use of Weapons), violence and cruelty exist primarily to create urgency and conflict for complex characters.

For these first category practitioners, the grim and the dark exist as a means to an end. We are repulsed and terrified by the horrible things within these books, not titillated by them. If we come to understand the origins of a given characters inner grim darkness, then it's presented as tragic. We do not revel in these failings. And even if they are not "historically accurate," per se, we may recognize in them parallels to historical or present day horrors. Ideally, presenting this material in such a way helps us confront these things, or at the least, confront the fact that they do exist and shouldn't be ignored.

In the second category, though, the grim and the dark are the ends in and of themselves. Violence, though it may have some tenuous connection to broader themes or issues, exists primarily to push the envelope and to shock, titillate and excite (usually male) audience. This isn't new and isn't native to fantasy fiction. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a similar grimdark arms race in the world of independent film. There was Henry: A Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is pretty self explanatory; and there was Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!--a film about a woman who falls in love with her violent, psychopathic kidnapper (seriously). Oh, and let's not forget The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which pretty much maxes out all the available grim skill and dark attribute ratings with this lovely narrative:

Under her husband's nose, Georgina carries on an affair with Michael with the help of the restaurant staff. Ultimately Spica learns of the affair, forcing Georgina to hide out at Michael's bookshop. Borst sends food to Georgina through his young employee, a boy soprano who sings while working. Spica tortures the boy before finding the bookstore's location written in a book the boy is carrying. Spica's men storm Michael's bookshop while Georgina is visiting the boy in hospital, and torture him to death by force-feeding him pages from his books. Georgina discovers his body when she returns. Overcome with rage and grief, she begs Borst to cook Michael's body, and he eventually complies. Together with all the people that Spica wronged throughout the film, Georgina confronts her husband at the restaurant and forces him to eat a mouthful of Michael's cooked body. Spica complies, gagging, before Georgina shoots him in the head.

A second, contemporaneous example comes from the literary fiction world: think American Psycho or pretty much anything by Martin Amis during the 1980s. Level 4 practitioner Will Self's 1993 novel My Idea of Fun even begins with the narrator decapitating a tramp and then graphically defiling the headless corpse. As Entertainment Weekly put it:

In the ''hero'' of Fun, Ian Wharton, Will Self combines the tastes of a Jeffrey Dahmer, the exuberance of a Pee-wee Herman, and the wordplay of a brilliantly nasty teenager.

This characterization relates directly to Edwards' review of Prince of Thorns, and specifically to the link he he sees between the novel and a distinctly adolescent gamer culture. As per Edwards:

Indeed, if I was left with a clear sense of what Prince of Thorns is about, it is about Playing the Game. And our point of reference to the game and its players, is the implausibly young and bloodthirsty eponymous Prince. Who is in it to win it. Whatever "it" actually is, remains less clear. Is it the well treaded game of thrones? The game of war? Or just a mashup of fantasy and post-apocolyptic MORGs? You may take your pick. In the end, it hardly matters. Whatever its origins, Prince of Thorns is in effect a prose fantasy role-playing game.

But, Edwards argues, the book isn't so much a metaphor for gaming as informed by a distinctly adolescent and male gamer morality:

My overriding impression of the novel was that it was strongly related at its core to the awfulness we have seen in the genre and gaming communities, such as demonstrated at Bioware, with the harassment of games writer Jennifer Hepler. In other words, that Prince of Thorns is afflicted by either a lack of authorial awareness of its faults or plagued by a certain type of lazy writing that lets institutionalized prejudices and tropes exist within it unchallenged. Tropes which are hostile to women, dismissive of diversity, and prone to stirring up anger among fans at any encroachment, real or imaginary, into their zone of privilege.

Because while the author claims it only has rape in "0.06%" of the book, it is certainly front heavy with it. And a general dismissiveness towards women stalks its pages. Very gamey. Quite a stench. Not like a well hung pheasant, but as in gamers who post rape threats and sexual slurs on forum message boards or leave behind verbal excrement in the comments of female reviewers of genre books. The kind that shout at women for not enjoying playing their games, even if they enjoy writing them and being paid for it. And even if that's some troll's manufactured lie. The kind some of whom I suspect, enjoy playing characters who are stone cold, emotionally crippled killers who look an awful lot like Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath.

As someone who hasn't read the full book, it's difficult for me to assess the validity of material critical of it, and others have suggested that the extreme violence of Prince of Thorns is intellectually justified. As per Aidan Moher:

[Jorg] begins as a reprehensible bandit, torching a village and acting like a villain for little-to-no reason other than that he’s angry, young and enjoys the mayhem. (And to allow Lawrence to establish the essence of his character) But as the novel progresses and Lawrence delves into the past of the young prince through a series of flashbacks, the reasons for his actions and his shattered psyche become more clear and, almost without realizing it, the reader begins to see Jorg not as a sociopath without hope, but a boy damaged by a traumatic childhood experience that once forced him to become the demon he hated so as not to be overcome by the fear, anxiety and anger that fills him. By the end of the novel, Lawrence has taken the little shithead to great depths and his actions are explored thoroughly. Prince of Thorns is a dark novel and often hard to read, but by the end it’s not dark for the sake of shock value, or dark simply to allow Lawrence to explore some sick part of his soul; rather, it’s dark because exploring those lightless depths is central to the core themes of Jorg’s story.

Beyond the Arms Race

Yet even this positive review acknowledges that the grim darkness of the book skirts the limits of what a reader can and will handle. And thus it's important to note that, generally speaking, grimdark movements in art essentially follow a parabolic arc: rising, peaking and then collapsing once it becomes clear that most consumers haven't stayed on board for the whole ride. Or, to put it another way, there's a limit to the appeal of darker! grimmer! faster! harder! And this limit applies to both consumers and producers.

All the usual caveats about generalizing from a single example apply, but check this out. Requires Only That You Hate once called out Joe Abercrombie for a scene in which a lesbian character is threatened with repeated marital rape. In her words:

Now do I believe Joe Abercrombie in real life endorses the rape of lesbians? Well nope, fucking duh. But in his rush to masturbate to his own gritty grim darkness he’s contributing to a narrative where women–and gay women especially–must suffer. If they aren’t angsting they are being raped, blackmailed into marital rape, or being punished in some way because oh my god she doesn’t want cock and we can’t have that, can we? Lesbians must be put in their places most of all for the crime of not wanting sex with men. It’s a damaging narrative. It’s a bloody fucking awful narrative that reinforces a greater trend and which, moreover, is something Abercrombie will never be hurt by. I’ve no idea if he is straight but he’s very certainly a man, which makes this about a thousand times more repulsive and disgusting than the worst M/M rape fetishization can ever hope to be.

An argument broke out at, in which multiple (male) readers rushed to defend Abercrombie and rationalize the scene in question. Abercrombie himself, though, showed up to express his regret at having written the scene the way he did:

Where I think I failed pretty badly is that Terez is really not a good character. She’s one-noted, shrill, icy, bitchy, and just doesn’t come across as a particularly convincing or well-rounded real person. It stretches credibility that she wouldn’t behave more cannily and carefully in this situation. That’s shoddy writing by any standard, but worse yet it plays into a really ugly stereotype of shrill man-hating (possibly quite thick) lesbian, and that badly undermines any attempt to do something interesting with this situation. If Terez is a much more convincing, multi-faceted, less stereotyped character with an authentic voice and a more believable motivation I’m sure many people would still have their problems with this scene but from my point of view at least it would be much improved. The Wire I think is a very good example because the reason it (for me at least) succeeds so well in its depiction of black criminals is that it makes each individual a powerful portrayal with their own voices and motivations. It doesn’t help at all that the female characters in the First Law ain’t that great across the board, really. Ferro is the only female point of view and for various reasons probably outside the scope of this particular thread I think I could have done a whole lot better with her too. I actually think the other (almost) rape in the series, in the second book, is worse, because it’s handled more or less completely disposably and the female character in that case, Cathil, is still more absent of personality than Terez and pretty much exists to elicit certain responses in the men. Which is kind of sexist writing 101, sadly. There’s also a rather ugly pattern, so obvious to me now that I can hardly believe I failed to notice it at the time, of pretty much all the central female characters having been the victims of abuse of one kind or another. I suppose you could say a fair few of the central male characters have been as well but that’s pretty weak sauce as a defence.

So in conclusion I’d say rape shouldn’t be off limits, lesbians shouldn’t be off limits, but shitty, lazy, ham-fisted writing is never a good idea. Especially in dealing with a rightly sensitive issue like rape. You might think the avoiding of shitty writing should be an obvious lesson for a writer. All I can say is, you’d be surprised how difficult it is in practice…  

Abercrombie's response demonstrates, in clear terms, the difference between category one and category two grimdark. Darkness has its place in fantasy fiction, and can infuse a book or series with immediacy and power, but it only works if horror is presented as horrible, and if it serves some greater purpose. Abercrombie mentions The Wire--a television program that features a lot of violence, but in which violence serves to help viewers understand the blight of American urban centers and the agency of those who live in them. We don't enjoy the violence, but we are compelled by it to face certain realities that we might otherwise be able to ignore.

As violence shifts from backdrop to main event, though, the immediacy and power dissolves into something superficial and crass. I can fully accept grim darkness in art when it does something more profound than just say "here is some shit. I've smeared it on the walls for you. Enjoy." But if I can think of no good reason for graphic violence to be included in a text, or can think of the reason but the benefit provided to the story is outweighed by the cost (as Abercrombie concedes is the case in the scene discussed above), then I've been left with shit-smeared walls and little else to speak of. Take torture, for example: do we really need another graphic flaying scene? What do we gain from it? And in a world where torture is real, does it ultimately draw needed attention to the issue or is it just there to scrape the bottom of the cheap thrills barrel?

Or rape. Can we just stop with all the explicit, gratuitous and artistically/intellectually pointless rape scenes in fantasy fiction? Rape happens, and it shouldn't be off-limits for authors, but it shouldn't be treated as a go-to way to wow the readership with your "edginess." As reported in the NYTimes not long ago, as many as 1 in 5 American women report experiencing sexual assault--and those numbers may be even higher in other parts of the world. Explicit, gratuitous and artistically/intellectually pointless rape scenes don't make your book "edgy," they make it triggery.

The effect of this is cumulative, and there's a point beyond which repulsion intersects with fatigue from all the attempts to repulse, the moment when the race to grimmydarksville reveals itself as little more than a peculiarly tedious form of sadism, or a peculiarly sadistic form of tedium. Or both.