Monday, February 2, 2015

Quick Addendum to Blogtable #2

Interesting discussions on twitter and the r/fantasy board about our "grimdark"-themed episode of Blogtable. A good proportion of that discussion has been critical, which is absolutely fine with me--after all, the purpose of Blogtable is to stimulate broader discussions, and sometimes provocative arguments are the best conduit for that. However, I do feel compelled to address a few things:

1. What the hell is "grimdark" anyways?

Some may notice how I always (or almost always) put "grimdark" in scare quotes. This is, first and foremost, because there's little agreement on what the term means. The three definitions I've seen used most frequently:
  • "Grimdark" is a synonym for grit and/or gritty, and refers to any work that puts regular people in difficult situations, explores dark side of human nature and/or presents a "shades of gray" moral order to the universe.
  • "Grimdark" is an exclusively pejorative stand-in for grit and/or gritty, and is used to heap scorn and derision upon a style of fantasy the critic in question sees as deeply problematic. 
  • "Grimdark" is a very specific form or manifestation of grit and/or gritty, and is neither synonymous with grit and/or gritty nor pejorative-by-default.
I prefer definition #3, which I elaborated on in an essay for The Book Smugglers last year:
Imported into fantasy from Warhammer 40k game culture, grimdark narrowly refers to a totalizing manifestation of grit. Gritty worlds are rough and tumble places where bad things can easily happen, but there’s always the understanding that, somewhere at least, things aren’t that bad. Grimdark worlds, by contrast, are irreparably violent and unavoidably sinister—so much that they can easily slide into absurdity.

Now I’m as guilty as anyone else of playing fast and loose with these terms, but this is, I think, an important distinction to make: grit is inherently limited and situational; grimdark is totalizing and manifest everywhere.
What I was attempting to do there (and it's up to readers to determine how successful I was), was to make:
  • A qualitative distinction between "gritty," as a broad approach, and "grimdark" as a more narrow one.
  • A quantitative distinction (without a clear boundary) between "gritty" as an approach predicated on the application of certain things, and "grimdark" as an approach predicated on the application of lots of those things and much less of anything else. 
I was not attempting to make:
  • A normative or moral distinction between "good grit" and "bad grimdark."
At the same time, I do think that the more totalizing (or uncompromising) the approach, the less potential for nuance and subtlety. That's a general observation; like a proposed general relationship in statistics, the suggested correlation (admittedly not backed by actual statistics, so bear with me, as this is metaphor only) is assumed to not envelop everything. There will outliers and examples that buck any trend or observed relationship. Sometimes a lot of them.

As it happens, I like a lot of stuff that may be considered "grimdark" according to those parameters: Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, Glen Cook's The Black Company, and others. I think there is nuance and subtlety in all these works, but that's because the writers are all tremendously skilled at what they do.

2. "Why was your panel so damned negative?"

Some people have complained that the panel was overly negative on "grimdark" fantasy. That's their right, just as it's the right of others to say it was spot-on. I will say, however, that I don't think the panelists are by default negative about "grimdark" or gritty fantasy. To cite a small sample, see: Justin Landon's review of Red Country by Joe Abercrombie; Aidan Moher's review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence; and Foz Meadow's review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley.

The question then becomes: what are they actually negative about in their statements? A few themes:
  • Gritty/"grimdark" fantasy is alleged to be past its prime (Landon)
  • Gritty/"grimdark" fantasy is alleged to be a mostly phony label (Moher)
  • Gritty/"grimdark" fantasy is alleged to be generally but not absolutely correlated with other negative things, such as misogyny (Meadows)
I'll also say that one view I saw pop up in the reddit comments, that the three discussants "have it out for grimdark," doesn't seem borne out by the text. Instead, I see three individuals who perceive declining potential in gritty or "grimdark" approaches, but see more potential in new configurations of those approaches, whether toned down or rendered more subtle (Landon, Moher) or when attached to more progressive social dynamics (Meadows).

Whether you choose to agree with these statements, or find them questionable, is another story.

3. Do the opinions of the invited panelists reflect your opinion/this site's institutional opinion?

No, except when they do.

That's a cheeky way of saying that I think they all have a point, and make those points strongly, though I don't 100% agree with any of the three statements. After all, my job here is just to select the discussants--after that, I don't censor or rewrite what they submit to fit my worldview.

As far as I'm concerned, I actually have a pretty basic view of "grimdark" or gritty fantasy, which is to say I like it: a) when I feel like grit is a means to an end, a mechanism for deeper insight; and b) when I feel like the creative work in question actually achieves that goal. I don't care for the superficial variant of that. To use 1990s film a a metaophor, think Fargo (yay!) vs. Natural Born Killers (boo!).

I don't expect any of my panelists to see things that way, however. Or you, dear reader, for that matter.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator