Friday, February 6, 2015

PERSPECTIVES II: "The Pornokitsch Theory of Grimdark"

Welcome to Perspectives II, the yin to Blogtable II’s yang!

Perspectives has now adopted the Blogtable format, so here’s how it works: an editoral, opinion piece or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist or creative person is presented by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by three other regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors. Crucially, each respondent will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

The G (Prompter)

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

Charles (Respondent #1)

Charles is a reader, reviewer, and writer of speculative fiction. He's been a contributor to 'nerds of a feather' since 2014.

Jemmy (Respondent #2)


Jemmy is a failed leprechaun trainer and renowned domesticated cat tamer who has been moonlighting as a blogger for ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’ since 2012. Jemmy is in the process of repenting for a sordid history as a tool used by the darker elements of society, one where he was taken advantage of to force open windows and doors.

Tia (Respondent #3)

Tia is a writer and editor with background is in criticism, rhetoric, and culture, and has been a contributor here at 'nerds of a feather, flock together' since 2014. She has published works but doubts you would want to read them.

But enough about us...

EPISODE 2: In which three nerds of a feather react to “the pornokitsch theory of “grimdark” fantasy...

Within a review of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, often cited as a work of “anti-grimdark,” Jared has problematized commonsense understandings of what defines “grimdark” fantasy. In his words:

The Goblin Emperor has been heralded as a "defiantly anti-grimdark" fantasy, the "antithesis" of the movement. But I tend to disagree - that's an oversimplification of both this book and the movement it is being pitted against. Of course, for that, we'll need a working description of grimdark, so... let's make one, shall we?

For this purpose, I think grimdark fantasy has three key components: tone, realism and agency.

Tone is, of course, the bit that makes "grimdark" so noticeable - indeed, the very title is stylistic, taken as it is from the opening lines of Warhammer 40K, the most brutal of game settings. But grimness and darkness are a matter of relativity - and, frankly - of talent. A brutally ultra-violent setting where the protagonist is raped six times before sunrise isn't, by necessity, any grimmer. Contrast, for example, the opening pages of Luke Scull's The Grim Company with those of Mark Lawrence's The Prince of Thorns. In the former, we have an entire city wiped out by dark magics. In the latter, we have a few carefully-crafted words about the rape of two teenage girls. By the numbers, the genocide of tens of thousands should be grimmer and darker. But it is the deft casualness of The Prince of Thorns that makes that book the far more haunting. (Despite the author's own protests, grimness isn't a matter of word count, but of reader impact.) Splatterpunk is numbing. "Good" grimness and darkness is a matter of insight and impact. There's a difference between actual darkness and the exacerbated symptoms thereof.
But to take "grimdark" on tone alone is a mistake - one that, in fairness, many of contemporary grimdark authors are also making. What the best "grimdark" books have going for them is a sense of "realism" - as contrasted with the high fantasy, high magic, high concept books that preceded them. Clothes get dirty. Food tastes bad (and is is prepared by angry peasants). Monarchs are useless. Justice is uneven. And, most importantly, the heroes and heroines are flawed human beings in understandable ways. They're not wrestling with were-bear curses (Eddings) or love triangles with disguised princesses (everyone); they're dealing with creaky bones and empty purses and misunderstandings and a lack of clean clothes and occasionally being wrong about stuff. High fantasy characters aren't permitted to make mistakes - they're being railroaded by destiny. Grimdark protagonists are just as lost as we are.

And that leads us to the last key point - agency. Ultimately, where grimdark differed from its literary predecessors is that it featured characters carving out their own destinies: for better or for worse. High fantasy is the high church of predestination; grimdark is fantasy Protestantism - characters choose between good and evil.

High fantasy - from Tolkien to Brooks to Hobb to Jordan to Rowling to Eddings to Sanderson - features shades of a single plot: everything is predestined, the tension is around how that will be achieved. The great writers make that fascinating with compelling characters or absorbing worlds. But with grimdark, the future is mucky and undefined - evil could very well win.Perhaps that's the most realistic part of the genre. Or perhaps that's the grimmest - there's no longer a cosmic safety net for either the characters or the readers. Anything can happen. Remember the outcry that followed the ending of Abercrombie's The First Law? It was, in a sense, perfect - everyone got exactly what they deserved. Similarly, what George R.R. Martin brought with A Game of Thrones was that sense of surprise. Characters weren't being rewarded as the tradition demanded, instead their decisions - whether Good or Bad - brought them the appropriate, in-world consequences. This is the randomness of real life, coupled with a sort of karmic brilliance: there's a casual link between choices and conclusions.
Is this an appropriate way to describe/explain “grimdark” fantasy? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? What does it add to the discourse and what’s missing? Oh, and if that wasn’t ‘bout that term, “grimdark?” Is it a synonym for “gritty” fantasy, as Jared uses it? Is it, by contrast, a distinctly pejorative term for “gritty,” as some have implied, or does the term denote something specific as (*cough*) someone else has argued?


I have something of an aversion to genres, or perhaps I should say an aversion to the tendency of labeling genres so specifically that one can say "I like near-future-Earthbound-hard-medical science fiction but not far-future-Earthbound-hard-post-apocalyptic-medical science fiction." Because that sort of dogged defining of genre normally isn't just to say "these are the things I like" but rather a way of saying "this is my Team and all other books are the Opposing Team." It's a way of applying tunnel vision to speculative fiction, and I find that incredibly limiting.

Perhaps that's being a little dramatic. But it's what I see with narrow genres or categories within genres, especially with ones like Grimdark. To me, defining Grimdark in terms of tone, realism, and agency both narrows the genre far too much and also cannot stand to its own definition. Most every novel labeled Grimdark would then only be Grimdark in degrees. Maybe they would be 2.5/3 Grim-points, or even 3/3 to someone but then someone else would claim, really, it's only a 2.25/3. So while it's an interesting way of looking at Grimdark as a genre and trying to quantify it objectively, I personally don't find it helpful in knowing what Grimdark is.

So I'd like to posit more of a subjective definition of Grimdark. And to do that I want to look at what I would say Grimdark has arisen in opposition to. The review claimed that Grimdark was concerned with agency, a reaction to the common trope in fantasy of there being a Chosen One who is predetermined to win. But I think that's too narrow. I think that, instead, Grimdark has risen to oppose the idea in fantasy that an individual can make a difference and make the world a better place by hard work and doing "the right thing."

Grimdark seems very concerned with the idea that the "hero" really isn't a hero. Under the guise of "realism" the protagonists can perhaps have small, personal victories, but the worlds they live in are ugly, oppressive, violent, and utterly unchangeable. Grimdark basically calls other fantasy naive and instead claims that in a truly ugly world, "good" is not enough to win. That it is somehow more realistic for "good" to fail and for the only road to justice or revenge or whatever it is that the protagonist is seeking to be accomplished by being better at being violent, deceitful, and ruthless. It refuses to reward doing "the right thing" in favor of rewarding "whatever is required to win." Or, perhaps more troublingly, it claims that "the right thing" is "whatever is required to win."

But even that I find too confining a definition. So where does that leave me? What is Grimdark? To me, it must be about self-identification. If a novel claims to be Grimdark, then it is. If it claims not to be, then it is not. If it makes no claims at all about being or not being Grimdark, then put a big question mark on it and move on. Because the lines being drawn as to what is and what isn't Grimdark seem made in sand. What would make a novel truly Grimdark to me is its insistence that that is what it is. To declare that it wants to be separate and distinct from the rest of fantasy. That urge to separate itself and insist on its own specialness as strictly Grimdark is what defines Grimdark to me. It’s a very subjective definition of the genre, but one that I find more personally useful.


First off, let me state that I totally agree with Charles’ notion that labeling genres is overly limiting and obscures more than it illuminates. The problem with labels is that they destroy inclusivity. They allow people who dislike the term “grimdark” to define out of the genre the very books that grimdark fans see as essential reading. Is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire grimdark? What about Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen? N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology? The answer depends on our pre-existing notions of grimdark as a genre or style of fantasy. Personally, I am open to as wide a definition as possible for the genre. That way, the best works of literature could never be classified out of the genre, and grimdark would never be mistaken as a mere pejorative term for excessively dark, rapey, torturey, malevolent splatterporn (although the terrible term “grimdark” makes it particularly susceptible to such interpretations). And the books that wallow too deeply in betrayal, rape, or violence would simply be dismissed as “bad literature.”

That said, I disagree with what Charles wrote about self-identification. Sure, we can say that grimdark is as grimdark does, but I am not convinced that many authors actually claim to be writing grimdark. More to the point, even the author doesn’t have the final say on whether his/her novel is grimdark. It is the audience, the readership and fanbase, and the discussions that develop within the industry itself that attribute these limiting labels to works of fiction. The readership in particular has decided that grimdark is its own genre, so it is a label we all either have learn to love or learn to live with. Most authors are not writing grimdark, but grimdark lives on nonetheless.

This is why I appreciate Jared’s attempt to define the genre. But although his tripartite division of grimdark into tone, realism, and agency is brilliant, it runs into the problem of unintentionally defining out of the genre many books that grimdark fans love (or assigning only partial grimdarkness, which is simply confusing). In particular, I wonder about his notions of realism and agency.

Let’s take realism, for instance. Putting aside the notion of realism in stories that feature dragons, magic, beasts, gods, demons, and godlings in all their power, many novels in the genre maintain rather static impressions of what realism entails. As Foz Meadows noted in an earlier Blogtable on the subject, grimdark: invariably justified by a commitment to a realism that is, in fact, selective at best and fictional at worst, and highly unimaginative in any case, given that we’re discussing the same genre that happily admits dragons and spaceships. To give just one example: while the average American man has a 1 in 33 chance of being raped, compared to roughly 1 in 4 for American women, the gender gap disappears in warzones, prisons and other violent environments. That is a verifiable reality; and yet for all that grimdark is happy to write in ugly detail about women being raped in war, I’m yet to see such a story apply this fact to its treatment of men.
Further, good, moraled, principled characters are rarely rewarded, which is hardly realism. Perhaps this has more to do with the logic of writing than anything else. Principled characters are boring, or do not help drive the story forward (other than through their deaths). The Ned Starks of the genre no doubt find themselves thrust in the unenviable position of waiting to die. But true realism would note that life is even more capricious. Sociopaths would die off, only to have worse individuals take their place (the Stringer Bells of the world replaced by the sociopathic Marlos). Principled, good characters might also benefit from dumb luck, as can happen in real life. But true realism (in this sense) is boring, and not interesting writing.

Agency, too, is a problematic notion. Where, for instance, can we find agency in the novels of Joe Abercrombie? Whether in his First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold, or Red Country (all notable examples of grimdark), Abercrombie’s protagonists are often characterized by an utter lack of agency. Perhaps the only true agents in his first major trilogy were Bayaz and Khalul (and perhaps Glotke, on a more limited scale)… everyone else could be characterized as mere pawns in their game of power and revenge. No group symbolizes this lack of agency like Abercrombie’s Northmen. Oftentimes, they have dreams of becoming better men, to redeem themselves as individuals and escape their fate as moral pond scum. But one wonders whether Abercrombie’s characters are ever able to redeem themselves. Instead, they are trapped in a cycle of violence, and find it next to impossible even to influence their own fate. Take the example of Logen Ninefingers or Caul Shivers. Both characters try to become better people. But they always appear to teeter on a giant precipice, waiting for the gentle push to fall back into the morass of lies, cowardice, and brutality that define them as individuals. In a sense, they are non-agents in their own lives, predestined to spend their time lives of the morally challenged. They are not even able to choose between good and evil.

So if realism and agency are out, where does the real heart of grimdark lie?

The real heart of grimdark, I believe, lies in Jared’s notion of tone, or what I think of as a moral realpolitik. Grimdark represents the darker turn in fantasy, a darker turn that was presaged by Glen Cook’s masterpiece, The Black Company (see my tribute to his work here). With The Black Company, fantasy began to move beyond the notion of climactic battles between universal notions of Good and Evil. The forces of “good” (the White Rose) were often responsible for unspeakable acts of depravity, whereas those of “evil” (personified by the Lady) often helped preserve law, order, and a variety of beneficial public goods. And the famed Black Company worked for the forces of evil, so readers find themselves rooting against the White Rose! A Song of Ice and Fire also highlights the difficulties in locating a definite moral compass. One would think the readers are rooting for the forces of fire to beat back the evil legions of ice. But the world is not so simple. Fire consumes and destroys, while cold preserves. People make horrible decisions for flawed understandings of the greater good. And “evil” characters oftentimes accomplish good, sometimes purposefully, other times not. Power, it seems, can create both good and evil in equal measure.

One can see similar trends in the epic fantasy of Steven Erikson, Peter Higgins, Scott Lynch, and N.K. Jemisin (to name but a few really good authors, some of whom may be shocked to find their works as classified as grimdark!). Instead of climactic fights between the forces of good and evil, what we really see are battles between two opposing sides for control over the emerging order. This is not realism. Instead, what grimdark is (despite my hatred for the term) is merely a reaction against the universalism of the fantasy of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and others. It sees the world as a series of choices, none of which are truly black or white. There are no true heroes, as Charles argues, and some protagonists will do whatever it takes to win. If they hold to overly firm notions of morality, they may meet the fate of Ned Stark.

In exploring such notions, authors can lay bare the human condition, with all the positives and negatives it entails.

Grimdark is thus best understood in terms of its moral realpolitik--that there is no universal, objective “good” or “evil,” and that interests rather than moral fiber govern decision-making. The best writers in the genre generally use violence (in all its forms) as a means to probe this moral realpolitik, and in doing so offer important explorations of justice, hope, and the depths of the human soul. Re-reading the genre as such offers more of a sense of inclusivity. Instead of dividing fans between those who think that grimdark is rapey or splatterporn and those who believe the genre has literary value, it would bring us together and allow us to discuss--without scorn, without derision, and without division--the books we truly love.


I disagree that genre is too limiting. Sure, when we try to pick genre apart and subdivide it into categories like near-future-Earthbound-hard-medical science fiction then yes, definitions can become so narrow that only a select few will meet the criteria. But I don’t think grimdark falls into that narrow of categorization. Because labeling fantasy as high, low, epic, grimdark, sword and sorcery, etc. isn’t mutually exclusive. When you categorize genre in that way it becomes more like a venn diagram, with much overlap. It can be argued that A Song of Ice and Fire is part epic fantasy, part low fantasy, part historical fantasy, and part grimdark. I’d say all are right and I definitely don’t think any one of those labels is limiting. And really, who, or what, is being limited anyway? The reader? The work? It seems to me that if someone chooses to only read within a narrow subset of genre, then they are self-limiting, and that’s the fault of the reader not the fault of the construct of genre. We shouldn’t tiptoe through theory because people won’t read something that isn’t categorized to their standards. That’s a bigger cultural/societal/human nature problem and not one that can be fixed by eradicating genre classifications.

Right now grimdark is in its adolescence, androgynously clad in platform boots and black nail polish. It’s trying to discover itself and find its place in this world, but is facing much resistance. Some of the claims are founded but others are just petty mockery and bullying by those who don’t understand it. Grimdark’s identity crisis holds the blame for this resistance, because how can we effectively engage in discourse about something if we can’t even agree on what we’re talking about? Essentially, when we discuss grimdark we are really only talking about what it means to each of us, individually.

Charles is absolutely correct when he says, the lines being drawn as to what is and what isn't Grimdark seem made in sand. I was thinking of it more as being like mercury, an amorphous blob if you will, but lines drawn in sand is much more poetic. I also agree with Jemmy though, in that self-identification is too problematic a way to define grimdark, or any type of genre for that matter. As you may recall, J. K. Rowling doesn’t even like that Harry Potter is considered fantasy.

As for Jared’s definition, I agree that tone is central to grimdark, but I don’t think that agency is indicative of grimdark at all. In fact, I find lack of agency quite grimdark in itself. Jemmy has a nice list of characters in classic grimdark who lack agency, but what about those in definitive non-grimdark works that don’t lack agency? I mean, even Harry had the option to walk towards the bright light.

I was going to argue that realism is central (but not exclusive) to grimdark, and I will to some extent, but Jemmy just rocked my world with moral realpolitik. In my review of Brian Ruckley’s The Free, I called the book gritty but not quite grimdark, and I made that distinction based on the fact that no matter how grimdark the book’s tone seemed, I couldn’t consider it as such because the central characters were either inherently good or inherently bad, no in between. I always knew exactly who to root for. The bad guys were evil just because they were evil. There was no compassion drawn for them, and certainly no POV that made us fall in love with them and forgive that they pushed a kid out a window.

The argument that grimdark is uncaring and misogynistic and that shock has lost its value is problematic, in my opinion. In a poorly written book, yes, these things are true. But that’s true of ANY trope in any poorly written book. Critics complain that in grimdark and other related works we are just waiting for characters to die and that it’s all overdone. To that I say, go read The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Because it’s one thing to know your characters can die at any moment, but it’s a whole other thing to know that they could die at any moment for no reason. To me, that is realism in grimdark.

Charles says, under the guise of "realism" the protagonists can perhaps have small, personal victories, but the worlds they live in are ugly, oppressive, violent, and utterly unchangeable. Is that not reality? Yes, perhaps some of us don’t live in as ugly, oppressive, and violent a world as others, but I don’t think anyone can say that the world as a whole is not these things most of the time. We can have small personal victories, we can sometimes even have larger, positive impacts on our immediate surroundings, but often we are helpless to change the greater atrocities of this world. Really, the only thing we can do is act, and hope, and attempt to do the right thing…all why trying not to get our heads chopped off.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).